Game Flow: Which Running Backs Were Used In Which Game Situations
This article is an extension of a piece from two years ago about the concept of game flow, and how it affects running back opportunity.
In the spring of 2014, Rich Hribar wrote two articles about the concept of game flow, and how it affects wide receivers and running backs. In 2013 positive game flow, used to describe when a team is winning, was far likelier to produce rushing than passing. Inversely, negative game flow, used to describe when a team is losing, is far likelier to produce passing than rushing.
Hribar found that, outside of a few exceptions, running back targets were heavily dependent on neutral (when a team is tied) or negative (when a team is losing) game flow, while rushing attempts were heavily dependent on positive game flow.
When we look at last season, we see largely the same thing, although there are a few notable exceptions that stick out.
For the 45 running backs who had at least seventy rushing attempts and twenty targets last year, here’s how their work was split out based on game flow. I also added a few names that are relevant to the conversation, but didn’t quite hit those thresholds:
SITUATION SENSITIVE RUNNING BACK TARGETS
All the running backs with a high number of targets were heavily targeted when their teams were losing.
I wrote about why I was selling Danny Woodhead and Theo Riddick back in April, highlighting how both were beneficiaries of little competition for work, and unlikely to repeat their high number of targets. The notion that San Diego or Detroit could be better also cuts into their potential workload, and is just another reason to avoid chasing the dragon of their unlikely outcomes last season.
Both Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon had their usage far more spread out in all game situations than Riddick and Woodhead. With the draft capital that their respective teams spent on them, it seems unlikely that they will not see more usage in their sophomore seasons.
Two that stick out as surprisingly negative-game-flow-dependent are Charles Sims and Duke Johnson. Should the Buccaneers and Browns improve at all, their usage could become dangerously sparse considering their respective prices. Isaiah Crowell and Doug Martin, therefore, were surprisingly not positive-game-flow-dependent, seeing a fair amount of usage when their teams were trailing.
Another couple things that stick out; first, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien seemed to use Arian Foster in all game situations, but not Alfred Blue and Chris Polk. The other is that Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman didn’t seem to target his running backs unless the team was losing.
SITUATION SENSITIVE RUNNING BACK ATTEMPTS
Adrian Peterson, Chris Ivory, and Jonathan Stewart stick out as particularly reliant on positive game flow compared to other heavily featured running backs. Peterson and Stewart probably won’t have much of a change in their situations, and their awesome teams should continue to provide them ample opportunity.
Ivory, on the other hand, just went to a team that Las Vegas expects to win 7.5 games this year, and had just five rushing touchdowns last season. He also has another running back on the depth chart better than him at everything, named T.J. Yeldon.
It’s interesting that both Matt Jones and Alfred Morris were so dependent on positive game flow. This season will, in all likelihood, be tougher for the Redskins than last year. The previous year’s division winners play the other division winners, and all three of their division rivals had miserable seasons. It’s tough not to envision a role for Chris Thompson that suggests he is woefully underdrafted. Keith Marshall also lurks, with a very intriguing athletic profile, and story of immensely high expectations derailed by injury.
DeMarco Murray was surprisingly used frequently both in the passing and rushing game when the Eagles were in negative scripts, adding more credence to the notion that Chip Kelly could ride Carlos Hyde as a three-down back.
I’ll quote Hribar from his piece two years ago here:
“I could do this all day long, but have fun with the table yourself. Enjoy sorting through the columns of each table on your own to see what else you can find.”