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Fantasy Football: The Curse of the Curse of 370

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At rotoViz, I published an article detailing why the “breakdown” of high-volume running backs is probably an illusion, or at best, useless for fantasy owners.

For a seven-year stretch during the early stage of the millennium, LaDainian Tomlinson carried the ball at least 313 times and recorded a minimum of 375 touches in every single season. During his reign, LT’s average line looked like this: 338 carries for 1,521 yards, 65 receptions for 482 yards, and 18.4 total touchdowns. Holy shit.

Needless to say, Tomlinson didn’t “break down” in the way that we’re conditioned to believe running backs do after high-volume seasons. Actually, LT’s worst post-375 touch season came in 2008: 292 carries for 1,110 yards, 52 receptions for 426 yards, and 12 total touchdowns. That’s his worst season in eight years, by far. Holy shit.

In my latest book Fantasy Football for Smart People: What the Experts Don’t Want You to Know, I did some research on running backs coming off of seasons with heavy workloads, ultimately concluding that what we’re seeing—stats that do indeed suggest backs “break down” after receiving an abnormal number of touches—is primarily an illusion.

“For a running back to acquire 350 or more carries in a season, a lot of things need to go right. He needs to be healthy; it’s simply a prerequisite for receiving so many touches. Of the 38 running backs who have gotten 350 carries in a season since 1990, the total number of games missed was five combined. Only five missed games out of a possible 608 played!

Second, the running back necessarily must maintain a certain level of efficiency. Without it, he won’t keep acquiring so many touches. If Chris Johnson is averaging 2.0 YPC after eight games this year, for example, you can bet he won’t be getting the ball nearly as much in the second half of the season. Of the top 15 running backs in single-season carries since 1990, only two have averaged less than 4.3 YPC. Nine of those 15 were above 4.5 YPC.

Knowing that the selection of backs with 350-plus carries in a season is naturally skewed toward those that were healthy and effective has profound implications on our conclusions. Naturally the outliers from the previous year, those backs are likely to regress toward the mean, independent of their workload. That is, running backs who have a high YPC are likely to regress in the following season whether they got 350 carries or 100.”

So when we look at a sample of high-volume backs, it comes with a caveat; they’re almost certain to have been healthy and highly efficient. Inspecting the issue with that in mind, all we’re really saying is “running backs coming off of seasons with abnormal health and efficiency will probably see a decline in health and efficiency.” Yes, that is true. And useless.

Check it out at rotoViz.

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