Are the Chiefs and Steelers Better Off Without Their Stud Running Backs?

Jamaal Charles and Le'Veon Bell have been incredibly valuable fantasy assets, but are they actually important to their teams' success?

The running back position has always been a critical one for fantasy players. Especially today, a stud runner who can also catch passes is someone who can dominate your league. 

But they're not nearly as valuable for their respective teams.

The NFL gave us two outstanding examples this past season of just how not valuable the running back position actually is in football: the Chiefs with Jamaal Charles and the Steelers with Le'Veon Bell.

What did we learn?

Is This Real Life?

Charles played for the Chiefs in Weeks 1 through 5 before tearing his ACL and ending his season. Meanwhile, Bell was suspended for Weeks 1 and 2, and then played in Weeks 3 through 8 before suffering an ACL tear of his own. 

In order to see the differences in how the teams played with and without their stud running backs, I looked at play selection and some different Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics. 

You see, on every play, there's an expected point value an NFL team has for the drive based on yard line, down, and distance. What happens on that play can change the expected point value on said drive. What NEP does is aggregate the values gained or lost on every play into a single, net number.

You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

I observed the NEP for each offense with and without their stud running backs and broke each down per play. The results were staggering.

Situation Games Pass Rush Pass/Run NEP/Play Pass NEP/Play Rush NEP/Play
w/Charles 5 194 127 1.53 0.0370 0.0452 0.0300
w/o Charles 11 324 310 1.05 0.1039 0.0995 0.1387
Situation Games Pass Rush Pass/Run NEP/Play Pass NEP/Play Rush NEP/Play
w/Bell 6 194 157 1.24 -0.0002 -0.0504 0.0494
w/o Bell 10 429 231 1.86 0.2076 0.2643 0.0773

Based on NEP, both teams were better without their stud running backs on offense, including on the plays they ran the ball. Both teams also had a higher winning percentage without their bell-cow running backs. 

So What Gives?

Nobody in Kansas City is going to suggest that the combination of Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West is better than Charles. Likewise with DeAngelo Williams and Bell in Pittsburgh. So why were their respective offenses better without them?

In the case of the Chiefs, the schedule probably has a lot to do with it. In the first five games of the year with Charles, Kansas City played four playoff teams and the Bears. They gave up an average of 28.6 points per game on defense. In the 11 games without Charles, they faced just three playoff teams, and gave up an average of 13.1 points per game. They also won 10 of those 11 games. 

Playing against lower-level teams in positive game scripts is almost always better for an offense than playing from behind against good teams, and this pretty well explains what happened with the Chiefs.

The situation in Pittsburgh is somewhat similar. They went 3-3 with Bell, 7-3 without him, but they played a similar percentage of playoff teams without him (40 percent) as they did with Bell (50 percent). 

What affected the team even more was probably their enhanced preference to attack opponents through the air. As you can see above, the Steelers had a pass-to-run ratio of 1.24 with Bell, and 1.86 without him. 

We know that passing is more efficient than running, so while their Rushing NEP per play was slightly better without Bell (again, probably from playing with favorable game scripts), it makes sense that their offense would overall be better while passing the ball more. 


When I started this, I didn't for one second actually believe that either of these teams were better off without their stud runners in a vacuum. 

However, what this analysis probably shows is just how little the running back position matters in professional football. Playing with leads and passing more is inherently going to be better for offenses than pounding away with a running back, even if he's a great player. This makes the contracts of players like Adrian Peterson even more baffling. 

Moreover, if teams approached the game more like they didn't have a stud running back (in other words, passed the ball more) they would not only get the most out of their offense, but probably maximize the ability of that running back as well.