By: Jonathan Margulis (Twitter: @jon_margulis)
Is RBBC Changing Fantasy Football?
I am going to be completely honest with you. I went into doing the research for this article with a strong bias. As with anything else I write, I usually know where I am going with the article before the words hit the paper. As I was doing the research however, my views changed, and I will show you how.
Over the last couple years, a cry has been raised, that the “movement” of NFL teams towards a committee system for their backfields (known as Running Back by Committee or RBBC) is changing the landscape for us fantasy owners. I will be honest, i was one of those believers. I, like many, thought that the dawn of the RBBC age will harken the days, where dominant, “bell cow” running backs like David Johnson, will be overvalued, and where there will be a huge discrepancy between the top RBs and the middle RBs. I also believed that more and more NFL teams are moving towards an RBBC system. So I took a deep dive into running back statistics and fantasy finishes by RBs.
First thing to do was to determine which teams had RBBCs. To do this I identified that there are several factors that indicate an RBBC. The first is how often they see the field. For this we look at offensive snap counts. Second we look at the percentage of offensive snaps the RB was in on. Lastly we look at their fantasy production by looking at where they finished amongst the rest of the RBs. To do this I looked at the RB1 and RB2 for each of the 32 teams in the NFL for the last three years. Here is what I found.
One of the most obvious conclusions that came from my research is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine if a team is using an RBBC approach. Looking at snap counts, I determined that any RB1 that is in on at least 15% more offensive plays than the RB2 is considered a Bell Cow, a running back that will take the ball more often than not on running plays and usually will be in on three downs. These are also usually known as three-down backs. If it was less than 15%, then the backfield was deemed to be in a RBBC. Below are the charts for the past three years examining this exact data.
Chart 1: 2014 RBBC Data
Green for both RB1 and RB2 indicate that the RB1 has a lot of the snap share while the RB2 has a minimal share. However red indicated that the RB1 did not have enough of the snap share while the RB2 had too much. There are three possible explanations for this second occurrence. The simplest is that it’s a RBBC. The second is that the RB1 was injured or missed a significant portion of the season. Lastly was the decline of the RB1 and the takeover of the RB2. This usually happened with an incoming rookie either in their rookie season or in the sophomore season.
Chart 2: 2015 RBBC Data
On thing this research has showed is that there is plenty of turnover when it comes to running backs in the NFL. It is easy to find consistency in a three year window, but even still, we see various teams go from horrible backfield situations, to becoming top running offenses. A prime example of that is Arizona, who in 2014 had a back field of Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor, in a time share. In 2015, they drafted David Johnson. By the end of that season, Johnson had established himself, and, well, in 2016, you know what happened. Johnson exploded, 16 TDs, 1,239 rushing yards, and 879 receiving yards. This shows there is plenty of turnover in the league. New players come in and change their franchises.
This is clear, not only in Arizona, but also in Tennessee, Indianapolis, and Dallas. These are teams that had RBBC backfields, either drafted or traded for bell cow RBs and now reap the benefits of a star in their backfield. However it is also clear that the opposite is true. Teams that lose their lead rusher are teams that default to the RBBC system. A prime example of this is Philadelphia, which after losing LeSean McCoy to Buffalo, has found its highest volume RB to be Darren Sproles, a pass catching back, who is the team’s RB2 at best.
Chart 3: 2016 RBBC Data
What this all leads me to believe is that the committee approach is not the goal. It is the bandaid that the team will use to staunch the bleeding. It is the excuse they use, when they don’t have a premier back, or can’t decide which of their backs to give the more carries to. In the past three years, there has been only one backfield that has been able to sustain an RBBC, in which both RBs have finished inside the top 24 in fantasy. That is Cincinnati. Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard have finished 10th and 18th in 2014, respectively. 14th and 21st in 2015, respectively. And in 2016 Hill finished 19th, while Bernard finished 44th due to injury and playing in only 10 games. On the reverse side, a team with a clear bell cow, has always had their RB1 finish in the top 24. Essentially what this means is that while an RBBC in theory might work as a viable option for coaches (read “dumpster fire”), for fantasy owners this is running back purgatory.
So what does this mean going forward in 2017 and beyond? Well, one thing is clear to me. This notion that the future of the NFL is trending towards RBBC is false. After determining how many committees there have been over the last 5 years we see that the league averages about 10 to 12 RBBC teams per season. That’s hovering around 30-35% of teams. This is not a trend. What has happened is that teams have emerged with new players that are their bell cows, while others have declined and are using the RBBC as a tourniquet as a method to hold off until they too will find their bell cow.
As with everything, there must be an exception to the rule. In the NFL, that exception always seems to land in the northeast with Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. We know that Bill does what Bill wants to do and no one can say or do anything about it. It is widely considered that the New England backfield is a no-go zone in fantasy. A myriad of running backs. We don’t know who will start, and who will be the feature back. Or at least that is what we have been led to believe. In a recent tweet by Dynasty League Football’s (DLF) Tom Kislingbury, he showed that over the last decade, in 7 out of 10 seasons, there has been a clear rushing leader in the New England backfield with close to 200 or more carries on the season.
Follow Tom here: Tom Kislingbury
I chose to end off with this information about New England to illustrate that all is not what it seems. Don’t be fooled just by what your hear from your friends. Look at the data yourself. This year’s backfields will be no more or less filled with running back by committees than any other season. The only difference is which teams this will occur on. You have to be vigilant of backfield situations, and follow them in training camp. Because that will show you which backfields to avoid.