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Sans Starter -- How committee backfields are hurting fantasy owners
By Joe Levit
October 2, 2003
 

Stud Running Back theory in fantasy football dictates you select halfbacks with your first few picks in a draft. It can be an effective strategy since finding talent at the running back position proves difficult later in a draft relative to other positions. Scarcity at the running back position is a problem for all fantasy owners. One of the reasons why is that nearly one third of the teams in the NFL currently employ a running back by committee (RBBC) approach to rushing the ball. This method means that a team uses multiple running backs with different skill sets to attack a defense, instead of relying on one back to carry the ball. Whether the pro teams choose this tactic as a strategy or because no one back is talented enough is irrelevant to fantasy owners. What is relevant is that this system makes it harder to find viable fantasy running backs for fantasy squads.

Ten teams in the NFL are splitting significant carries among multiple backs. For a point of reference, I have chosen an arbitrary cutoff of 50 carries through the first three or four games (depending upon whether the team has had its bye week yet) to determine which teams use a sole stud runner and which use a committee of runners. Teams that have a back with 50+ rushing attempts at this point have a lone back, the others are committees. Exceptions to this rule are teams affected by injury. For example, the Broncos and Rams run lone-back offenses, but their starters (Clinton Portis and Marshall Faulk, respectively) do not have 50+ carries. Another exception is Chicago. The Bears have seen Kordell Stewart leave the pocket on 24 occasions, which has cut into Anthony Thomas’s carries. Cutting against the grain is Minnesota. The Vikings are moving into a committee situation despite 69 rushes by Moe Williams.

All of this means that fantasy owners are having to scramble to find talent at the running back position. Consider that because 10 of 32 NFL teams are using RBBC, in an average 12-team fantasy league where every owner must start two running backs each week, there are only 22 primary backs to be had. Two owners at a minimum will be forced to find a committee back to start each week. And, the actual number of owners who must find a committee back is probably higher because some owners choose a third back before selecting from another position. This does not bode well for consistent fantasy production from the running back slots from every owner. Even some of the owners who do have two primary backs starting on their roster will be featuring the likes of Emmitt Smith or Curtis Martin, two older backs that are shells of their former fantasy selves right now.

While there are a couple of committee backs who can hold their own statistically this season – Amos Zereoue and Garrison Hearst come to mind – the condition is generally one that splits statistics enough that counting on a particular back in a particular week is a very iffy chance. It’s time to quickly go through the NFL’s committee backfields and figure out where the fantasy value lies within them.

Pittsburgh Steelers [Amos Zereoue and Jerome Bettis]
If he can stay healthy, look for Zereoue to hoist more than Bettis the rest of the season. The Steelers will continue to spell Amos with Jerome because it helps keep them both fresh.

New England Patriots [Kevin Faulk and Antowain Smith]
Right now, the repetitions for these two players are about as even as could be. Smith actually has one more carry than Faulk, but with fewer yards. Neither has scored yet this season, and the offense is in a state of constant flux. Clouding the issue could be another third running back. Fresh off his four-game suspension is former Chief Mike Cloud. If he shows signs of success, this backfield will be more than crowded.

Oakland Raiders [Charlie Garner, Tyrone Wheatley and Justin Fargas]
Nagging ailments has slowed Charlie Garner, leading to carries by Wheatley and Fargas. If Garner does not get better soon, you will see an increased workload for the other two. Fargas is the future at tailback, and in the NFL, the future at a position becomes the present in a bone-crunching moment.

Washington Redskins [Trung Canidate, Ladell Betts]
Canidate has fewer carries than Betts so far this year, but has more yards because he rushes for more per attempt. This is a very split backfield. You can’t count on either player to score points for you from week to week. To add to the headache, Rock Cartwright is vulturing some rushing touchdowns.

San Francisco 49ers [Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow]
Too many people thought this season was going to be Barlow’s big breakout. It hasn’t happened, and the 49ers are once again platooning their two backs. Kevan can’t stay healthy, which is why he never takes over the majority of the carries. They both have a touchdown so far this season. They are ok bye-week fill-ins, but nothing more in this circumstance.

Detroit Lions [Shawn Bryson and Olandis Gary]
Bryson and Gary are each seeing time until James Stewart returns. But, this could be a committee backfield all year for two reasons. One, Mariucci likes to employ a running game with role players, and two, the team needs to find out what rookie Artose Pinner can do once he is healthy. Detroit is not going to help you from the RB position this season.

Atlanta Falcons [T.J. Duckett and Warrick Dunn]
This duo is a committee right now, but will begin to feature Duckett as the season wears on because he is now healthy and playing with more intensity. He has ten fewer carries than Dunn, but 32 more yards, and has scored twice. Dunn has only scored once for Atlanta. Expect Duckett to relegate Dunn to third-down duty by year’s end.

Philadelphia Eagles [Correll Buckhalter, Brian Westbrook and Duce Staley]
Brian broke off a long run last week, but you got the impression it was a fluke. Nobody knows who is going to run the ball well from week to week for this team. It isn’t a good idea to count on any of them for a fantasy contribution.

Minnesota Vikings [Moe Williams and Onterrio Smith]
Williams is third in the NFC with 326 yards rushing, but he is watching Smith begin to siphon off some of the carries. This is a classic case of experience versus talented young exuberance. Williams is still an ok fantasy start, but for how long? Remember too that Michael Bennett is closing in on his return to the field. How that will impact the running game is anybody’s guess, but it looks like a committee to me.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers [Michael Pittman and Mike Alstott]
The two Mikes have split the duties this year in the backfield. Look for the early trend to continue, with Alstott scoring (2 touchdowns in 2003 so far) and Pittman gaining yards. Like other RBBC situations, it is hit or miss with these guys, which can spell disaster for your fantasy squad.

Though some committee backfields offer viable fantasy starters, in the majority of cases it is better to look for production elsewhere, either by identifying committees that may soon break up (Atlanta) or by taking a flyer on sleeper backs at this point in the season.

Joe Levit, based in Boston, writes for www.cnnsi.com and www.thehuddle.com. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a devoted Detroit Lions fan. He can be contacted at lavishjetpoet@aol.com.