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Big Game Syndrome - Running Backs
Kevin Ratterree
July 28, 2009
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In this game where the object is to score more points than your opponent, we tend to fall in love with players that produce "big games."  You know, those 40 point outbursts that a running back or receiver has every so often.  The ones that make your weekly opponent physically ill and unable to report to work the next day.  Those are fun.

The problem is that those outbursts aren't really all that predictable and they certainly aren't dependable.  And the problem with the "big game" is that sometimes it skews a player’s numbers a bit in our perception.  It is simple to look at a players stat-line from the previous season and see that he scored 6 touchdowns.  But if 4 of those touchdowns came in one game, is that a player you could have depended on from week to week?

The Huddle has always been a proponent of consistency.  I share in that view.  I strive to build a consistent team on draft day.  With that in mind I decided to take a look back at 2008 and see how the top 30 RBs fared when put up to my consistency test.

I pulled up one of my leagues stats as of week 17 last year, and printed the results.  I decided to mark each player’s highest week, and lowest weekly score of the season.  I did not include weeks where they were not eligible to play, but did count any score of zero where a player is active but sees no action - even in the case of injury.  One player caught my eye immediately.

Matt ForteIn terms of consistency Matt Forte was easily the most impressive running back.  Not only did he lead all running back PPR scoring after week 16, but Forte had the highest "worst game" total of any back on the board.  His worst effort? 13.5 points.  The catch here is that despite Forte's big rookie season, he lacked any really big games.  His highest efforts were relatively modest 28.5 and 27.6 weeks.  Total those together and you have 56.1 of his 296 points.  So I count Forte's big game weeks as 18.9% of his total points.  Forte easily was the lowest percentage in this category of any of the top 30 backs.  Consistency, thy name is Matt Forte.

I did the same calculations on the rest of the top 30 RBs and these were the players whose two best games accounted for the smallest percentage of their overall points:

  1. Matt Forte (18.9%)
  2. Maurice Jones-Drew (21%)
  3. Lanainlian Tomlinson (21.4%)
  4. Chris Johnson (22%)
  5. Clinton Portis (22.1%)
  6. Thomas Jones (22.5%)
  7. Adrian Peterson (22.7%)
  8. Kevin Smith (22.7%)
  9. Frank Gore (22.8%)
  10. Steve Slaton (22.9%)

Consistency and kicking ass.  That's the way to go through life son.  No wonder most of these guys will be first round draft picks this year.

Gore's numbers are actually a bit skewed.  He missed weeks 15 and 16.   But he was pretty damn consistent right up until his owners needed him most.

For the purposes of this little numbers game I declared games under 10 points to be "bad games.  That seems about right to me.  I know anything under that on a regular basis will kill your team so I used 10 points as the cut-off for "bad games."  Here is how the running backs fared in lowest number of bad games.

  1. Matt Forte (0)
  2. Ladainian Tomlinson (1)
  3. Steven Jackson (1)
  4. Frank Gore (2)
  5. Maurice Jones-Drew (3)
  6. Thomas Jones (3)
  7. Adrian Peterson (3)
  8. Brandon Jacobs (3 - but he did miss two games last year) 

Those are all familiar names from the other list except Jackson, who had four fewer chances than most.  Of course the problem with Jackson has not been one of consistency, but consistently showing up in a uniform.  Right?  

Though Jackson avoided "bad" games in all but one of the twelve games he suited up for, his two best games accounted for 34.9%  of his season total.  67 of Jackson's 192 fantasy points came in his two best games.  In 10 of the 12 games he played, is average points per was 12.5 which is 5 points lower than his season average of 17.5.   Jackson's two big games made his season look less dismal than it was. 

Jackson's numbers intrigued me so I took a look back at '07 to see how that similarly disappointing season played out.  Once again in '07 Jackson missed 4 games.  He had 198 fantasy points in 12 games.  His two best games were 27 and 26.7 points which adds up to  27.1%  of his season total.  Not quite as dramatic as his percentage from last year, but probably still would have put him in the "bottom ten."  

Here are the top 30 RBs that rated at the bottom of my big game percentage test from '08.

  1. Mewelde Moore (39.9%)
  2. Reggie Bush (39.5%)
  3. Steven Jackson (34.9%)
  4. Lendale White (33.3%)
  5. Pierre Thomas  (31.3%)
  6. Ronnie Brown (30.5%)
  7. Brian Westbrook (29.9%)
  8. Dominic Rhodes (29.7%)
  9. Michael Turner (27.9%)
  10. Brandon Jacobs (26.7%)

I don't know how much can be gleaned from this group at the bottom.  Mewelde Moore was not a top drafted player last season so the spot starts he gave his owners were much appreciated I'm sure.   Westbrook missed two games.  Bush and Jackson missed 5 and 4 games respectively, so those numbers are skewed.  Of course, if a player misses time with injury every season, that kinds of skews them as a draft pick to begin with so I left them right where they placed without adjusting for fewer opportunities.   And I really don't envision any of those guys going through the coming season without missing some starts again, so they are where they belong in my opinion.

Pierre Thomas suited up for every game but basically wasn't used for 4 of his games in the middle of the season (during the ill-fated "give McAllister his job back" experiment) so his number doesn't offer a realistic view of his season.  The other guys are all in time-share situations so these numbers reflect that, and the fact that finding true consistency at the running back position is getting to be a wild goose chase.

These numbers I am using are arbitrary.  Taking out of the two best games, and declaring anything under 10 points a bad game are just numbers that I think make sense for my purposes.  The average top 30 RB had 26.3% of his season total for points in two games.   So it seems the norm that a running back will get 1/4 of his season total in 1/8 of his games. 

Of course any information you might get from this numbers experiment is all relative.  If you score a lot of fantasy points, huge games obviously don't skew your average as much as those who scoreless.  
Here are a few other factoids I found while compiling this pile of percentages:

* The top seven running backs all had their worst game in the first half of the year.  8 of the top 10 had a first half flop.

* 8 of the top 10 RBs had their best game in the second half of the season.

* The total count was 18 of 30 running backs had their worst game in the first half of the season, and 20 of 30 had their best game in the second half of the year.  This seems to hold in line with one of our widely held truths, that running backs get more important and effective as the season wears on, and the weather turns cold.  Nobody wants to try to grab Brandon Jacobs with a full head of steam in zero degree weather.

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