It’s a common misconception that us quantitative types don’t care about running backs. While analysts have often pointed out that production from the position is more easily replaceable than it is from other players, ball-carriers still play an important role in the modern game by forcing defenses to respect the run. And a big way that plays out is in how an RB is deployed by his team.
After one week of play, we know what usage to expect from some running back corps across the league. But how a number of teams use their rushers remains murky. To cut through the noise and identify each team’s true lead running back, we thought we’d use some math to learn where some of the more confounding backfields stand heading into Week 2.
To that end, we’ll be using a metric created by Joe Sydlowski and Tan Ho I call opportunity-based expected points (OEP). Now you may be thinking: “What the heck is OEP, and why should I care?” OEP quantifies the expected point value of each opportunity a running back receives on a play, independent of the play’s outcome. In the NFL, much of a running back’s value derives from the types of opportunities he’s given. For instance, a carry from the 3-yard line is much more valuable than one from the 45 because the red zone carry has a much higher chance to score. Other factors can affect how many yards we expect a back to gain on a play, including how much time is left in the game, how close the offense is to a first down or if the defense expects a pass.
In other words, OEP helps us look at which running backs are getting the primo opportunities. And according to OEP, few situations are less clear than the one in Jacksonville. Lead back James Robinson was responsible for 12 of the Jags’ 22 points on Sunday, catching a 3-yard touchdown from quarterback Trevor Lawrence and scoring from 11 yards out on a fourth-quarter run to put the Jaguars up by 8 with just under 12 minutes to play. (Being the Jaguars, they would lose anyway, giving up 14 straight points in the fourth quarter after amassing an 85.5 percent win probability.)
Looking just at the box score, you would be forgiven for thinking that Robinson is the clear No. 1 in Jacksonville. After all, he carried 11 times for 66 yards to go along with those two touchdowns. But while JRob might ultimately end up the Jags’ bell-cow back, on Sunday he was nearly matched by second-year back Travis Etienne in OEP — despite Etienne getting seven fewer carries.
Against the Commanders, Etienne’s opportunities were worth 11 expected points despite only getting four carries and four targets, largely because three targets occurred in the red zone. In the first quarter, with the Jags offense on the Washington 15-yard line, quarterback Trevor Lawrence targeted Etienne in the end zone — but overthrew his former college teammate for an incompletion. Later, when Jacksonville was on the 3-yard line, Etienne dropped a sure touchdown on a swing pass to the right flat. His two other targets came when the offense was on the Commanders’ 14 and the 32 — opportunities that each carried a comparatively high expected value. Meanwhile, just three of Robinson’s 13 opportunities were in the red zone (but he scored on two of them!). Ultimately, one extra opportunity inside of scoring range was all it took for Etienne to almost entirely make up for five fewer looks.
The Detroit Lions are another team with an uncertain backfield pecking order. Detroit fans have been clamoring for D’Andre Swift to get more carries, and it’s easy to see why after Swift had 144 yards — including a 50-yard gallop on the Lions’ opening drive — and a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
But Swift didn’t get the ball in many high-value situations in Week 1. Instead, that honor went to Jamaal Williams.
Williams had four fewer carries than Swift and got two targets to Swift’s three, but five of Williams’s carries occurred in the all-important red zone. And when you think about it, running for only 28 yards does make some sense in that context. After all, it’s hard to gain lots of yards when two of your 11 rushing attempts occur on the 1-yard line.
Swift looks like a back with the juice in his legs to lead the league in rushing and earn a spot among the league’s elite. But he’ll need to stay healthy and get more red zone opportunities to work his way into the MVP discussion. Unfortunately for Swift, head coach Dan Campbell decides who gets those high-value touches — and so far, Campbell has given Williams more quality chances.
There is one team, however, that does seem to have a clear preference in handing out the high-value touches among its running backs — even if it’s not the preference we might have expected. Denver Broncos RB Javonte Williams doubled the OEP of Melvin Gordon during the team’s upset loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night.
Gordon bested Williams in rushing attempts overall, 12 to seven, but only two of Gordon’s carries came in the red zone (Gordon fumbled away one of the attempts). Meanwhile, Williams dominated in the passing game, earning 12 targets and catching 11 of them, including the play that set up Denver’s disastrous 64-yard field goal attempt to end the game.
Some analysts (ahem) thought Gordon was a good bet to capture the high-value touches in the Denver offense, but through Week 1 that prediction has sailed wide like a 60-yard boot from Brandon McManus. The OEP numbers have spoken, and Javonte stans — of which there are many — should breathe easy.
And if you’re curious, here is the OEP for every running back from Week 1, in searchable form:
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