Recency Bias and Maurice Jones-Drew

After missing the majority of 2012, fantasy owners may have forgotten how good Maurice Jones-Drew has been.

We have a tendency to form beliefs based on our most recent observations. For instance, I used to love the show How I Met Your Mother. But now? Nope. I still watch it because I need to know who the mother is, but it’s about as enjoyable and funny as Dane Cook. The last few seasons have been lacking, and now I’ve stretched my opinion towards the show under one generic statement:

“This show is terrible.”

Recency Bias: The psychological phenomenon that asks, “What have you done for me lately?” We see it in our fake football world daily. “Player X looked bad in practice” – time to drop him in our rankings! “Player Y caught a deep touchdown in a preseason game” – sign me up!

It doesn’t matter what X or Y had done before those instances occurred. We don’t care. We only care about what they’re doing in the here and now. And clearly, that type of analysis can spell trouble.

Perhaps this is why Maurice Jones-Drew is often times selected at the beginning of Round 3 in 12-team league drafts. Our most recent sample – the 2012 season – saw something unspectacular from him. We saw a mundane Mojo get sidelined from an injury, and his backups (handcuffs) do nothing in his place. That perception is lasting, and it will be until he suits up again.

But it makes me wonder: Should we be blaming Recency Bias for this lack of confidence in one of fantasy football’s premier backs?

Jones-Drew By the Numbers

Maurice Jones-Drew didn’t have the starting running back gig completely locked up in Jacksonville until the 2009 season, three years after his rookie campaign. He started his career by complementing Fred Taylor, slashing defenses with typical 170ish-carry seasons. He wasn’t the lead back, but he was an effective one.

That’s why, when he took over top duties in 2009, nobody was surprised by how good he was. He had always been a touchdown scorer, landing in the end zone via the ground an incredible 34 times over the course of his first three years. But from 2008 to 2009, Jones-Drew went from 197 to 312 totes, an increase that would force most running backs to regress in terms of average yards per carry. Not Jones-Drew. He ran for 1,391 yards during his first season as lead runner, and actually increased his yards per carry average by .3. Sensational.

Since that season, Jones-Drew has been nothing short of a monster (no, that’s not a height joke). In 2010 and 2011, MJD pounded the ball for 1,324 and 1,606 yards respectively, scoring 13 times. Simply put, the Jags stocky runner, up until last season, had never been a dud. Ever.

I wish I could blame volume for Maurice Jones-Drew’s real and fantasy football success. I wish I could say, “Yeah, guys, but he’s being drafted towards the tail-end of the second round because he really hasn’t been that good. The Jaguars just fed him the ball a lot.”

Unfortunately, I can’t. It’s become clear to me that Recency Bias could be in full effect. To see what I mean, take a look at MJD’s efficiency numbers since becoming the lead dude for the Jags, 2012 aside:

Maurice Jones Drew’s Efficiency Numbers Versus 200-plus Attempt Runners

YearRush NEP/AttemptRank
2009.075th of 22
2010.009th of 23
2011-.0110th of 19

The metric analyzed here, as usual, is our net expected points per rush. This tells us how many points a runner was adding towards his team’s total score on a per attempt basis over the course of a season. Among 200-plus attempt runners, Jones-Drew has ranked in the top 10 in each of these three seasons, and finished in the top 50 percent in two of them. It’s not so much that he’s been the best in any of those seasons. It’s more impressive, to me, that he was consistently so efficient during the stretch, especially at a position that fluctuates so much year to year.

If you’re not convinced that he was really, really good, just think about the talent that surrounded MJD in those offenses. After you’re done vomiting, take a look at the team’s passing efficiencies from 2009 through 2011:

YearAdj. Pass NEP/AttemptRank

The Jags were actually decent tossing the rock in 2010, adding .02 points to their score with each throw. But in 2009 and 2011, they ranked in the bottom half of the league in terms of adjusted passing efficiency, something that would make any running back struggle. Unless that runner, of course, is Maurice Jones-Drew.

The 2012 Failure

Many people claim that Mojo was a bust last year, not because of his injury, but because of his performance before his injury occurred. In six games last season, Jones-Drew had 86 carries for 414 yards and just one score. A fantasy football nightmare for a first round choice, sure, but let’s keep in mind that he didn’t get a fair chance to finish the season out. Using a six-game sample really isn’t a polite thing to do.

The fact is, Maurice Jones-Drew was better than you may have thought a year ago. And when you compare him to the guys who tried to take his role post-injury, you begin to see just how valuable he is as a player.

PlayerAttYdsTDsRush NEP/AttRank
Maurice Jones-Drew864141.0029th of 78
Rashad Jennings1012832-.1772nd of 78
Montell Owens422091.0029th of 78
Jalen Parmele.401430-.0752nd of 78

Before I go any further here, let me reiterate something from previous articles. This net expected points data shows player quality (not simple volume), and it plays a large role in predictive fantasy success. A player with a high projected volume and high efficiency equates to a fantastic season. Of the relevant fantasy runners last season, as an example, Adrian Peterson and C.J. Spiller ranked as some of the best in terms of NEP.

Rushing expected points numbers are bound to be lower than passing or receiving ones. The metric gives a value to how well a player contributed – in terms of real football points – towards his team’s output given play-by-play situations. Because runners only get a few yards per carry, it’s harder to contribute a whole lot. That’s why comparing through ranking works best to show how well a player performed.

Lastly, a high NEP value can come from simply being a backup. There’s a surprise factor when a third-down runner actually carries the football, as he typically will have a successful gain. That, and third-down running backs often see softer, run-friendly defenses. That’s why Danny Woodhead had been so efficient throughout his years in New England. That also could explain why Montell Owens had a fairly high ground NEP last season.

Jones-Drew’s rushing efficiency metric in 2012 was equivalent to the one he had in 2010, a season where he rushed for over 1,300 yards. If he were to keep this up, game situations may have allowed him to post similar stat lines as he posted in the past. Therefore, it may not be accurate to assume that, if Jones-Drew continued to play throughout the season, he would have simply performed poorly.

MJD in 2013

I’m giving him a chance. I’ve seen what Maurice Jones-Drew is capable of bringing to the table, and I like it. I like it a lot.

Here's the deal: Some fantasy owners are simply staying away. Although Maurice Jones-Drew's ADP is inching towards the end of Round 2, plenty of pretend pigskin managers are looking elsewhere. This is who I'm talking to here. Many of you are going to point to the pathetic raw numbers produced from Jacksonville running backs last season as reason to stay away, but let me bring you down to Earth for a second. The Jaguars posted low rushing totals in 2012 because they didn’t have their star runner, Maurice Jones-Drew.

Do you think it’s a coincidence that Jacksonville’s highest pass attempt season and lowest rush attempt season over the last 12 years came during a year without their Pro Bowl running back? Do you think they ranked 5th in the NFL last year in pass-to-run ratio because they felt good about their quarterback play? Do you really think Maurice Jones-Drew has no impact on this?

Recency Bias is going to force us to think that Jacksonville can’t run the ball. It’s going to make us believe that Maurice Jones-Drew is no longer capable of top running back play. Don't let that cloud your judgement.

Is there risk involved with MJD? Of course; Jones-Drew missed time last season and hasn’t played a snap since the middle of Season 7 of Dexter. In fact, he's one of three running backs listed in numberFire's "high risk" category. But guys, Maurice Jones-Drew is capable – more than capable – of producing RB1 numbers. If you want high-upside early in your draft, he’s the one to target.