Why You Should Draft Running Backs From Teams With Efficient Passing Offenses

Fantasy football owners fall in love with running back volume, but there's much more to the fantasy running back equation.

It’s easy to fall in love with a player who’s bound to see volume in fantasy football. That, of course, is the first thing you look for when you’re evaluating the outlook of a particular player before a season begins.

But fantasy football’s scoring still, and more than likely always will, skew towards the always seemingly unpredictable touchdown. Mike Alstott made a living in fake football by punching it in on the goal line, making him significant in fantasy nearly every year from 1997 to 2002 despite seeing 200-plus carries just twice. In 2005, Jerome Bettis’ final season in the league, the Steelers’ back saw the end zone nine times, on just a little over 100 carries. He still finished as an RB3 because of his touchdown relevancy.

In 2013, the only running back who finished in the top 10 in standard scoring leagues without at least nine rushing touchdowns was Chris Johnson. And conversely, the only player who finished outside the top 10 at the position with nine or more ground scores was Frank Gore.

Touchdowns matter. A lot.

Historical goal line use, body size, competition, coaching tendencies – each of those things go into formulating a projection for rushing touchdowns by a running back. One aspect that seems to go unnoticed, however, is how effective a particular running back’s passing game is.

The Study

Finding the impact a passing game has on rushing touchdowns was pretty straightforward given the metrics we use at numberFire. Instead of using passing yards, which can be skewed due to game flow, I took a look at our team Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric and compared it to the output said team had in the rushing touchdown department. And I did this for teams competing over the last five years, or 160 squads (32 teams in the league times 5 years) in total.

Using Adjusted Passing NEP is important for two reasons. As I mentioned, it helps us understand which teams were actually good at throwing the football. The Seattle Seahawks, for instance, finished 26th in team passing yards last season, but according to our data, they were the fifth-best passing offense. Big difference, eh?

Secondly, the Adjusted Passing NEP numbers are adjusted (hence the name) for strength of schedule. So not only are we considering down and distance and game situations with Net Expected Points, but we’re also ensuring each of these teams are on an equal playing field given competition.

So that’s it. Adjusted Passing NEP versus team rushing touchdowns. At this point you may not be surprised at what the results show, but they’re certainly worth mentioning.

The Results

I often like to “tier” results in these types of studies, as it seems easier to comprehend than just throwing 160 teams into a massive chart. In this case, I combined all 160 teams and ranked them from best Adjusted Passing NEP to worst, grouping them in tiers of 20. Tier 1 consists of the teams that ranked between 1st and 20th in Adjusted Passing NEP over the last five years, Tier 2 equates to teams ranked 21st through 40th, and so on.

Within each tier, I found the average rushing touchdowns scored by each team, as well as the median number. I also listed the percentage of teams that finished with less than 10 rushing touchdowns in a single season within that tier. The results are below.

Average Rushing TDsMedian Rushing TDsLess Than 10 TDs
Tier 1151610%
Tier 2141420%
Tier 3151610%
Tier 4151515%
Tier 5111240%
Tier 6121225%
Tier 7111055%
Tier 89965%

I wouldn’t be writing this article if the data didn’t matter, so you shouldn’t be shocked to see that favorable passing offenses result in more favorable rushing touchdown opportunities. On the flip side, bottom half passing offenses tend to see a dramatic dip in percentage of teams rushing for double-digit scores. In other words, even though the mean and the median appear close to the higher-end passing offenses, that could be a bit biased because of a handful of teams breaking the mold (*cough* Minnesota and Adrian Peterson *cough*).

For some more info, 56 teams have scored 15 or more rushing touchdowns over the last five years. Among these teams, only nine had negative Adjusted Passing NEP scores. In addition, the average Adjusted Passing NEP score among these teams was 65.28, while the median was 58.49. A score like that would have ranked 10th last season.

In fact, top-10 passing offenses (50 in total) finished with double-digit rushing touchdowns 43 times. Only once did a top-10 passing offense score fewer than eight rushing touchdowns, too (Dallas in 2011).

On the other side of the spectrum, Cleveland ranked 10th from the bottom last year in Adjusted Passing NEP with a -29.92 (roughly -30.00) score. Only five of the 40 teams who have scored that low in Adjusted Passing NEP over the last five seasons have reached the 15 rushing touchdown mark.

Those teams were the Bills in 2013 (third run-heaviest team in the league), the Jets in 2009 (the run-heaviest team in the league), Minnesota in 2011 (one of the best running backs in the history of the game), Minnesota in 2010 (one of the best running backs in the history of the game), and Minnesota in 2013 (one of the best running backs in the history of the game). Thanks for breaking the study, Adrian Peterson.

In essence, if you have a bottom 8 to 10 passing offense, in order to post in the 65th percentile in rushing touchdowns in a season (56/160), you’ll need to be one of the most run-heavy teams in the league, or have a future Hall-of-Fame running back.

Lastly, using that -30.00 Adjusted Passing NEP as a benchmark, teams with a worse score than that posted double-digit rushing touchdowns just 18 times. That’s fewer than 50% of the time, and that data set includes the aforementioned Adrian Peterson.

The Importance in 2014

The 10 worst teams in passing offense last year according to our metrics were the Jaguars, Giants, Texans, Bills, Jets, Buccaneers, Redskins, Ravens, Vikings and Browns. Plenty of those teams addressed the quarterback situation over the off-season – as they should have – but these teams also have early-ish round running backs who may not have as high of ceilings as you originally thought (Toby Gerhart, Rashad Jennings, Arian Foster, Chris Johnson, Doug Martin, Alfred Morris).

Clearly some of these teams can jump out of the bottom 10, and I expect a lot of them to do so. But it's something to keep in mind with those backs.

All of this may sound fairly obvious, and I think it is – teams who can move the ball downfield will have more opportunities to score. And because passing is the best way to do so, teams who can sling the ball around the field will give their running backs more opportunity close to the goal line.

But for whatever reason, obvious notions such as this can be lost in fantasy football. It's not necessary to think of this study or this concept as the end-all to your running back valuation, but instead, if there's a tiebreaker between a few players, using this idea can help break that tie. More information is always an advantage.