The NFL's Most Likely Running Back Committees in 2016

The New England Patriots have a running back for every job. Are they the most split-up backfield in the NFL?

There are a lot of scary acronyms out there.

The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic was a huge boogeyman in the media in the mid-2000’s. No one likes to deal with the IRS (Internal Revenue Service). And, as Jack Black once said, “I’m fairly certain that YOLO (You Only Live Once) is ‘carpe diem’ for idiots.”

But no acronym is more daunting to fantasy football players than the dreaded RBBC (Running Back-By-Committee), which has dashed the value of one of our favorite NFL positions against the rocks.

RBBC operates based on the theory that multiple running backs divvying up the backfield responsibilities will allow the running game to be more efficient and the players to stay healthier. This makes perfect sense for NFL teams and their players, and -- from a practical standpoint -- I love this plan. For my fantasy teams, though, it’s become a lot harder to predict who will earn the most touches -- and likely, the most points -- in many backfields these days. This effect makes it crucial for us to be aware of which teams prefer to rotate backs or split roles.

So, which teams in 2016 are most likely to use the RBBC?

Opportunity Share

We’re going to look at the RBBC in a future article, and examine whether or not it actually is beneficial for NFL teams but, for now, we're concerned solely with which teams use it and how we as fantasy players can guard against this dispersal of value.

First and foremost, we need to see the allocation of opportunities (rushes plus targets) are laid out between their primary running back and others. If a running back is given a lesser percentage -- or Market Share -- of his team’s opportunities, we know that the team has used a committee approach to the position, and we should be wary. By organizing each team’s running backs by opportunities each of the past three seasons, and then grouping them as RB1, RB2, and RB3+, we can see just how much preference the “primary” running back gets.

Our first exploration of this must be, then, a look at team’s allocation of their opportunities. If a team broadly gives a lesser portion of their rushes and targets to their “lead back”, then this is a good way to see which teams we can start pinning down as running back committees.

The table below shows each team with an Opportunity Share (percentage of total opportunities) below 50 percent for the primary running back over the last three seasons.

Team RB1 Opp. Share
NE 36.76%
CLE 41.70%
NYG 44.03%
NO 44.30%
SD 44.60%
TB 45.98%
HOU 48.35%
BUF 48.37%
CIN 48.78%
DET 49.22%

It’s little surprise that the New England Patriots come in at the low end of the Opportunity Share metric for their lead backs. They historically have loved to use a variety of players for a variety of roles in their backfield, and this is borne out by the data. In 2013, Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount split the lion’s share of rushes nearly evenly, but Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden combined for almost six times the total targets those two received. Even this past year, Blount, Bolden, Dion Lewis, and James White each had more than 75 opportunities.

The Cleveland Browns are also clear committee material, considering their 207-to-179 opportunity split for Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson last year. This is much more of an evenly-split backfield, though, than a full-bore committee.

The New York Giants at one point had a four-man running back committee in 2015, featuring Rashad Jennings, Vereen, Andre Williams, and Orleans Darkwa, so it’s no small wonder they make this list with the third-lowest RB1 Opportunity Share.

Breaking Down the Committees

As all good questions do, this inquiry into the nature of NFL running back committees has led us not to an easy answer, but more good questions. Instead of the easy task of partitioning off a few RBBC teams, we can look at a few different categories for teams that the data tells us have used committees. I show these categories in ascending order from most concerning to least for fantasy purposes.

The first of these is the classic, full-blown committee approach. The Patriots’ breakdown can be found below. Keep in mind, we're looking at how the team has shared backfield touches over the last three seasons.

NE Rush Share Target Share Opp. Share
RB1 40.24% 26.43% 36.76%
RB2 27.13% 16.35% 24.42%
RB3+ 32.63% 57.22% 38.82%

The Patriots fall into this category, having allotted rushes and targets by role in no specific fashion, and having little clear division between RB1, RB2, and RB3+ opportunity count. The New Orleans Saints can also be placed into this category historically, due to their splitting chances between Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, and Mark Ingram in 2013 with little rhyme or reason. 

Our second category is the pure “timeshare” approach, in which the Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, and Giants can be placed. I show the Bengals’ role breakdown in the table below.

CIN Rush Share Target Share Opp. Share
RB1 51.38% 38.85% 48.78%
RB2 45.20% 42.36% 44.61%
RB3+ 3.42% 18.79% 6.61%

This shows us a fairly even split of workload between the top two roles in terms of Opportunity Share, and nearly no delineation between one of them as the primary rusher and the other the main pass-catcher. Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill each led the Bengals' backfield at various points in 2015, and neither ended up dominating the chances. This could also be called the “hot hand” approach, since the roles are similar in composition and the team will likely go with whoever is doing the best during the flow of the game.

Our third category is the “role player” approach, which encompasses the Browns, San Diego Chargers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Cleveland’s backfield breakdown is featured in the table below.

CLE Rush Share Target Share Opp. Share
RB1 48.96% 16.08% 41.70%
RB2 29.83% 57.34% 35.91%
RB3+ 21.21% 26.57% 22.39%

Here, we see clearly-defined duties for the top two roles, with RB1 (in this case, Crowell) being the primary rusher and RB2 (Duke Johnson) being the primary receiver out of the backfield. The Chargers have this with Melvin Gordon and Danny Woodhead, respectively. The Buccaneers have Doug Martin and Charles Sims, though Martin’s versatility almost makes this a “timeshare” backfield.

The final profile is that of the “injured star”, and the Houston Texans are the classic example of this. Their breakdown can be found in the table below.

HOU Rush Share Target Share Opp. Share
RB1 50.49% 39.87% 48.35%
RB2 31.55% 26.05% 30.41%
RB3+ 17.96% 34.08% 21.24%

Arian Foster
towed the line when he could, which is why the RB1 role here still has a greater than 50 percent Rush Share and a large Target Share. We can also see the low RB3+ Shares in conjunction with this, which helps to rule out other classifications for this backfield. The Saints can also plead this somewhat, due to Ingram’s injury last year and general worry about the tread on his tires.

Moving Forward

It helps us to know who the most split backfields were in the preceding years, so that we can make our decisions about where value is, even in an RBBC. Even more so, though, if we consider how these teams split opportunities (as most do in some capacity these days), we can become even better at acing our fantasy football competitors. The full committee of the Patriots is clearly the most detrimental to the fantasy player, due to the fluidity of roles, but even in a timeshare or role player backfield, we at least can see where the chances will end up along the way.