Why Christine Michael's Success Against Cleveland Was Fool's Gold

After Christine Michael's breakout against Cleveland, it still is necessary to remain cautious about him.

The dictionary definition of "enigma" is "a person of puzzling or contradictory character."

For football purposes, an enigma is someone who has the traits to be a quality player in the NFL but who never realizes those traits.  Christine Michael is a good example of someone who is a football enigma.

His profile suggests he is a running back who excels physically, but -- at the college level -- he did not excel on the field.

When looking at that profile, from  Player Profiler, two red flags are his College Dominator Rating (market share) and college yards per carry. His College Dominator Rating is in the 11th percentile, and his 5.4 yards per carry is in the 39th percentile.

While his performance did not blow away the competition in college, plenty of people still believed in the physical prowess of Michael.

Before the year, there was hope that he could replace Marshawn Lynch, but that hope ended when Michael was traded to Dallas. Since then, Thomas Rawls appeared to seal his fate as the Lynch successor.

Even with his move to Dallas, there were reasons not to be  sold on Michael, who was sitting behind Darren McFadden. This proved true when Dallas cut him, and Washington subsequently signed him to their practice squad -- only to cut him as well.

However, Seattle scooped him back up -- due to a season-ending injury to Rawls -- just in time for their game against Cleveland. Michael broke out against Cleveland to the tune of 16 carries for 84 yards, but is this actually sustainable?

Easy Matchup

Michael's success against Cleveland went further than traditional statistics, as he had a fine game based on our  Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics. He produced a 2.51 Rushing NEP on 0.16 Rushing NEP per play with a 62.5% Rushing Success Rate. By all intents and purposes, Michael had a good game on Sunday.

So why -- with his arrow pointing up -- is it worth remaining cautious on Michael?

Cleveland has the worst run defense in terms of Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP. In past matchups, Cleveland allowed success on the ground to backs such as Justin Forsett, Javorius Allen, and Dexter McCluster.

Among 60 running backs with at least 55 carries, Forsett ranks 25th in Rushing NEP per play and 13th in Rushing Success Rate, Allen ranks 58th in Rushing NEP per play and 32nd in Rushing Success Rate, and McCluster ranks 55th in Rushing NEP per play and 58th in Rushing Success Rate.

By NEP, none of these backs have had a good season, but they still enjoyed success against Cleveland.

Running Back Rush NEP/P vs. Others Success Rate vs. Others Rush NEP/P vs. CLE Success Rate vs. CLE
Justin Forsett -0.06 40.77% 0.23 66.67%
Christine Michael -0.15 33.33% 0.16 62.50%
Javorius Allen -0.25 36.47% 0.08 45%
Dexter McCluster -0.27 24.44% 0.41 60%

While Forsett has had the best year among these backs when disregarding their games against Cleveland, none of these backs have played well this season.

Albeit on just 15 carries, Michael owned a Rushing NEP per play of -0.15 and a Success Rate of just 33.33 percent before playing Cleveland.

The warning signs for regression for Michael after his breakout against Cleveland are strong.

Back to Normal

While Cleveland and St. Louis have allowed similar outputs to running backs in ESPN standard scoring leagues, it is not because St. Louis is weak against the run. According to our metrics, they are the 9th best team against the run -- Cleveland is 32nd.

While St. Louis has not been perfect against the run, some of the performers to have good games against them include Adrian Peterson, David Johnson, and Doug Martin. More simply put, if you are going to succeed as a running back against St. Louis then you either need to be a very good runner or have a role in the passing game.

Although Michael was fine on the ground against Cleveland, he did not see a single target. Instead Bryce Brown and Fred Jackson were the two running backs who saw a combined four targets against Cleveland.

The Seattle passing offense is on fire recently, but it is mainly Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin, and Tyler Lockett who are having the most success. With minimal running back involvement in the pass game, a Michael regression should occur as early as Sunday.

Even if Michael runs well to end the season, his long term outlook is less promising, and as Rawls will almost certainly be in Seattle for the duration of his contract. If you get a new opportunity to sell Michael high, then you need to take it.