Christine Michael’s Breakout Is Very Real

It's not crazy to dream on Christine Michael's breakout at the start of this season.

When we were kids, we all had big dreams that felt in no way outlandish or crazy. Some of us wanted to be president, others wanted to be firefighters, and still others wanted to be astronauts. I, in fact, still want to be an astronaut, and I don’t think that’s a ludicrous dream at all.

Back then, no one told us we were stupid for thinking we could be whatever we wanted. No one tried to tamp our dreams down and make us face reality when the chunky kid with bad eyesight said he’d be flying a space shuttle by 25 (I have not yet flown a space shuttle). We hadn’t yet become cynical and settled.

The kind of hope we all felt imagining our fantastical dream careers as children is exactly what seeing the rejuvenated career of Seattle Seahawks running back Christine Michael makes me feel now. For those of us loyal members in the C-Mike Truthers Club, his “awakening” has brought on a very visceral joy and excitement that something we begged to be true for years has finally come. But after years of waiting, there is some creeping doubt that Christine Michael is now all of a sudden a locked-and-loaded bell-cow running back in the NFL.

Is it foolish to believe in Christine Michael’s 2016 breakout?

When I Grow Up

As we head into Week 4, Christine Michael is on pace for 240 carries for 1,237 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in the 2016 NFL season. This is quite an achievement for a player who bounced between three different NFL teams last year before finally returning to Seattle for the postseason push.

But how can we be sure that this is the real deal?

Late in 2015, Michael posted some pretty outrageous numbers that seemed to foreshadow this 2016 breakout, both in terms of box score numbers, as well as his analytical production by numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows his three games with more than 15 carries by rushing production, his Rushing NEP production, and the ranks of his opponents’ 2015 schedule-adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP.

Week Opponent Rush ruYD ruYPC Rush NEP Rush NEP/P Rush Success %
15 CLE (28th) 16 84 5.3 2.51 0.16 62.50%
17 ARZ (2nd) 17 102 6.0 2.35 0.14 41.18%
18 MIN (17th) 21 70 3.3 -4.59 -0.22 33.33%

When we look at running back production over the last five years, the average Rushing NEP per play for a season is -0.03, and the average Rushing Success Rate (the percent of play resulting in positive NEP) is 41.19 percent.

Michael bested five-year averages against a terrible run defense and an elite one in the regular season last year, and then seemingly got stonewalled by an average defense in the playoffs. In reality, the showing the Minnesota Vikings put up in the Wild Card Round was much more on par with their 2016 performance -- which ranks them second in the NFL in schedule-adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. That he performed as well as he did on the ground against the second coming of the Purple People Eaters is admirable in and of itself.

All told, Michael’s games as a starter in 2015 tally him up for 0.27 Rushing NEP on 54 carries -- 0.01 Rushing NEP per attempt -- and a 44.44 percent Rushing Success Rate, both a few ticks above league-average.

Now, league-average may not seem that impressive, but considering that Michael had just 73 rushing attempts and a 38.36 percent Rushing Success Rate prior to the last few games of his 2015 season, this is a step forward for him and our sort of “missing link” between his early-career struggles and 2016 production.

We know now where he came from. Is his current production sustainable?

Ad Astra Per Aspera

Michael’s Seahawks coaches have all said the same thing about him this offseason: he finally is putting in the effort and just “gets it” now. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said he had “an awakening,” indicating that he is on the field mentally for the first time. But does his 2016 production indicate that he can “stay woke?”

The table below shows Michael’s production over the first three games of the 2016 season.

Week Opponent Rush ruYD ruYPC Rush NEP Rush NEP/P Rush Success %
1 MIA (19th) 15 66 4.4 0.77 0.05 40.00%
2 LA (24th) 10 60 6.0 2.06 0.21 60.00%
3 SF (9th) 18 96 5.3 3.13 0.17 38.89%

Over his first 43 carries in the 2016 season, Michael earned 5.07 Rushing NEP; his 0.11 Rushing NEP per attempt ranks sixth among the 39 running backs with at least 20 carries this season. Even more stunning is a 13th-best 44.44 percent Rushing Success Rate, an above-average but sustainable level of consistency from attempt to attempt.

What we look at with this is his ability to limit losses of value and consistently contribute in the run game. As stated before, the annual average over the last five years is 41.19 percent -- slightly lower than Michael's.

Michael is producing an impressive amount of value on a per-play average while also consistently adding that production on his plays. If he had a high Rushing NEP per attempt but a low Rushing Success Rate, that would indicate a few enormous break-off runs and a ton of rushes for a loss as well. But that’s not the case.

In addition, I wanted to see if value and success rates stabilized by Week 3 for running backs last year. Can we draw these conclusions this early? I averaged the Rushing NEP per attempt and Rushing Success rates of the 17 running backs who attempted at least 40 rushes from Week 1 to Week 3 in 2015 combined, and then compared them to their end of season rates. There was a negligible decline (by -0.0006) between a player's Week 3 and end-of-season Rushing NEP per attempt and a 2.81 percent decline in Rushing Success Rate.

This means that the per-play value Michael creates has essentially stabilized and shouldn’t depart too far from his current pace if all other factors stay the same, but he could become a little less consistent on his runs.

If Michael continues to see the volume of touches he has, though, that added volume will help to insulate any potential swings of value for him. With nominal starter Thomas Rawls out for a month or so, Michael will get that volume with a remaining schedule that is fairly middling. The Seahawks' schedule is 14th-easiest for fantasy running backs by Fantasy Pros, and they play just six more top-10 run defenses by schedule-adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP.

Michael has a chance to solidify himself as the clear-cut starter for Seattle. If he continues to play like he is, that’s a matter of “when,” not “if.”