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2017 The Curse Of 370
By Gary Davenport
What It Is And Why You Need To Know About It In 2017I’m as big a backaholic as anyone. An old-school fantasy football enthusiast who places a lot of importance on assembling a strong stable of running backs on draft day. While it’s become trendier to draft one or even two wide receivers in the first two rounds of fantasy drafts, more often than not I’ll go the traditional route.
RB/RB for the win, baby.Thanks to some huge seasons from running backs in 2016, the position appears to be making a mini-comeback in fantasy football. Of the top 12 players in early Average Draft Position Data at Fantasy Pros, seven are running backs -- including the top-3 players overall.
However, there’s a dark cloud hanging over this first-round festival that threatens to rain on many a parade in 2017. And before you go burning a top-3 pick on the likes of Dallas Cowboys tailback Ezekiel Elliott, bell cow Le’Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers or Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson, there’s an important and foreboding consideration to bear in mind.
Those young rushers just might be cursed.I’m not talking about some ridiculousness like the “Madden Curse,” either. Yes, much has been made of the misfortunes that have befallen players who have appeared on the cover of the immensely popular video game series. And plenty of fans of the New England Patriots are freaking out after it was announced that Tom Brady will grace the cover of Madden 18.
But it really is a stupid “curse.” Coincidences based on superstition with absolutely no basis in fact. Rob Gronkowski didn’t get hurt last year because he was on the cover of Madden 17. The Patriots’ tight end got hurt because he always gets hurt. Were all the injuries that preceded last year a pre-emptive curse?
Running back Peyton Hillis didn’t have a miserable season after appearing on the cover of Madden 12 because of the boogeyman. He had a bad year because he wasn’t an especially good player. His 1,177 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns for the Cleveland Browns in 2010 was a fluke.
Never mind the numerous years that nothing happened to the cover athlete. New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham’s numbers didn’t suffer one bit after he was the cover man for Madden 16. Ditto for cornerback Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks, who was a first-team All Pro the year after his appearance on Madden 15.
I don’t care how many people swear it’s the real deal -- the “Madden Curse” is a fat load of bunk.
The “Curse of 370,” however, is another story altogether.There’s some dissension as to who first coined the term “Curse of 370,” so I’ll just say this -- it wasn’t me. Back in 2004, while examining the rebound potential of Ricky “Sticky Icky” Williams, Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders crunched the numbers for every tailback in NFL history who carried the ball 370 times or more in a season and how they performed the following year.
“These backs basically fall into three categories,” Schatz wrote. “Guys who got injured the next year, guys who were never as good again, and guys who are Eric Dickerson.”
You might want to sit down before we continue. Because things are about to get ugly.
370-Carry Running Backs
|Player||Year||Carries||Yards||Next Year||GM NY||Drop %|
|E. Dickerson||1983||390||1808||2105||0||(+) 16.4|
That’s a train wreck in table form.
There have been 29 seasons in the league’s history where a running back has carried the ball 370 or more times. Of those 29 occasions, all of once has a back met or exceeded his yardage total from the year before -- Eric Dickerson in 1984.
That’s the year he set the NFL’s single-season rushing record at 2,105 yards.
In 15 of those 29 seasons (including Williams’ stunning retirement in 2004), backs who topped 370 totes the year before saw their production drop by at least 40 percent the following season. In fact, the average decline in production among all 29 running backs tops 40 percent.
Twenty of the 29 also missed time the next year.That includes the curse’s most recent victim. Back in 2014, DeMarco Murray carried the ball 392 times for the Dallas Cowboys, pacing the NFL with 1,845 yards on the ground. It was a feat so impressive that the Cowboys made very little effort to re-sign Murray the following season. Because they knew what was coming.
Back in February of 2015, I wrote this about Murray at Bleacher Report.
“As any fantasy football enthusiast will tell you (in hushed whispers), an ancient scroll portends that any running back who carries the ball more than 370 times in a season will be attacked by Imhotep and devoured by flesh-eating scarab beetles.”
They munched Murray but good that fall.After joining the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency, Murray’s production free-fell by over 1,000 yards. Part of that was Chip Kelly’s bizarre usage of Murray -- you don’t ask a north-south runner to run stretch plays all day long. But poor game-planning wasn’t the only problem. Murray clearly wasn’t the same runner in 2015 he was in 2014. He looked tired all season long.
Murray’s faceplant was just the continuation of a relentless tread. Since the turn of the century, seven backs have carried the rock 370 or more times in a season. Only LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers (in 2003) came anywhere close to backing up the previous year’s production. The average decline of those seven seasons was a staggering 835 yards -- and that’s without figuring in William’s retirement-inspired goose egg.
The fact that only seven backs hit the magic number since 2001 would appear to demonstrate that NFL teams are as aware of “The Curse of 370” as fantasy kooks. Teams aren’t as inclined to ride backs into the ground as they used to be, and Murray was the last back to surpass the threshold.
As a matter of fact, in 2016 only one running back in the NFL had even 300 carries -- Elliott, who carried it 322 times for a league-leading 1,631 yards for the Dallas Cowboys.
However, the “Curse of 370” has evolved right along with the game. Like a virus, it has mutated and adapted. As my colleague at Fantasy Sharks John Georgopoulos pointed out last year, it has now wrapped its cold, bony fingers around any tailback who touches the ball more than 370 times in a season.
370-Touch Running Backs 2007-2016
|Player||Year||Touches||Tot. Yards||TYNY||GMNY||Drop Pct.|
Are you nauseous yet? I’m getting a little queasy.
Of the 16 running backs who have met or exceeded 370 total touches (carries and receptions) in a season over the past decade, two (Clinton Portis in 2008 and Ray Rice in 2011) met or exceeded their yardage production from the prior year. Neither did so by a large margin.
When the bar’s set high, it’s that much more difficult to top it.
Three more (Adrian Peterson in 2009, Steven Jackson in 2010 and Jackson again in 2011) saw a minimal drop in output of less than 10 percent. It’s the equivalent of losing a fantasy point or so per game -- it isn’t making anyone do cartwheels, but no one’s breaking furniture over it either.
A full 50 percent of those running backs, however, saw the bottom fall out. Whether it was due to injury or just a statistical backslide, their total yardage gained plummeted by over 35 percent coming off their 370-touch campaigns.
The average decrease in production among these 16 running backs comes in over 30 percent. Over half of them missed time the next year.
It’s been that much worse of late. Since 2011 370 touches hasn’t just been a curse. It’s been the kiss of freaking death. The last five backs to hit that benchmark have all missed time the next year and seen their yardage fall by over 37 percent. The average drop for that miserable quintet of ball-carriers has been a staggering 58.4 percent. Over half their production went POOF!
If David Johnson’s numbers crater like that in 2017, furniture won’t be the only thing his fantasy owners will be breaking. Remote controls, laptops, goldfish -- nothing will be safe.
You may have noticed at this point that Ezekiel Elliott isn’t listed in the table above. That’s because he came up just short of the 370 mark in total touches at 354 during his rookie campaign. But before you take that deep, relieved breath, consider this.
Elliott failed to hit 370 touches only because the Cowboys sat him in a meaningless Week 17 game at Philadelphia. He was on the field for the team two weeks later in the Divisional Round against the Green Bay Packers, though, piling up 123 total yards on 22 touches.
In other words, he went over for all intents and purposes. Never mind that “Zeke” topped 300 total touches in both 2014 and 2015 while at Ohio State. I’m the biggest Elliott fanboy this side of the Olentangy River. I have a black No. 15 Buckeyes jersey hanging in my closet as I type this. But as an Elliott dynasty owner I also have grave concerns about his fantasy value in the long term if the Cowboys keep riding him like they did in 2016.
There’s been no indication to date that the Cowboys have any intention of easing up. Quite the opposite, in fact, as team owner Jerry Jones told ESPN’s Todd Archer he’d like to see Elliott become more involved in the passing game. “He really is problematic for defenses in the passing game, and certainly every time we can get him the ball, I feel good about it,” Jones said.
The Cardinals apparently have similar plans for Johnson in 2017. As Kyle Odegard of the team’s website wrote, head coach Bruce Arians indicated he’d like to increase Johnson’s workload above his NFC-leading 23 touches and change a year ago.
“He’s still too young to over-use,” Arians said. “I want to have 30 touches out of him, if possible, because that’s going to be a lot of offense. When he has his hand on the ball, either as a wide receiver, coming out of the backfield, in the slot, and running, that’s a lot of potential offense for us.”
Johnson, for his part, told Odegard he’s all for it. “I never really got fatigued (last year),” Johnson said. “Those tough defense games against Seattle and the Rams, those games might feel a little sore, but that’s not until the adrenaline comes down. I never really feel too bad.”
Listen, I understand that the Cardinals want to get the ball to their best offensive player (due respect to Larry Fitz, but it’s true). He’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball, and Johnson’s effect on a defense opens things up for Carson Palmer and the Arizona passing game. It’s certainly not unexpected that Johnson wants the ball -- every tailback worth his salt does. Elliott is guaranteed to pantomime “feed me” in every. …single. …game.
But while Johnson may not have been tired in 2016 he pulled up lame in the season finale with a knee sprain. Thankfully it wasn’t serious, but that injury should have served as a reminder that running backs -- even the great ones -- will break down if they’re overused.
Thirty touches a game isn’t overuse. It’s insanity. In the history of the league exactly one tailback has ever averaged 30 touches a game for an entire season. That was Tampa’s James Wilder back in the tangerine halcyon days of 1984. Wilder topped 2,000 total yards that year for the Buccaneers, and rushed for 1,300 yards again the following season.
However, two straight years with over 400 total touches effectively ruined Wilder’s career. He played six more years in the NFL, but he missed time in all six seasons and didn’t rush for even 750 yards in any of them.
Bell was the king of per-game workloads a season ago, averaging 28 touches per contest over his 12 games in Pittsburgh. Had Bell not served a three-game suspension to open the year and sat in Week 17 he’d certainly have topped 370 for the season, and even the 336 touches he had is cause for a measure of worry given both Bell’s injury history and the “Curse of 370’s” little brother…
“The Jinx of 325.”
The esteemed Mr. Georgopoulos, gentleman and scholar that he is, also extended his statistical analysis a year ago to include backs over the past decade who had topped 325 touches in a season. From 2007 through the end of 2015, that happened an even 50 times.
I’ll spare you that whopper of a table, but it’s every bit as depressing as the first two.
Of the 50, nine met or exceeded their fantasy production from the year before. And to be fair, three of those backs (Thomas Jones in 2008, Ryan Grant in 2009 and Ray Rice in 2011) bested their production the prior season by 30 percent or more.
But nine of 50 is still less than 20 percent who improved. Add in the five backs who experienced a negligible decrease of 10 percent or less, and you have 14 of 50 backs who could be reasonably be considered successful fantasy draft picks.
A .280 average in baseball is OK. In fantasy football? Not so much.
Meanwhile, 17 of those 50 running backs (most recently Adrian Peterson) struggled through injury-marred or otherwise similarly miserable seasons that saw their fantasy production fall by over 35 percent.
That’s terminal velocity for your fantasy team.
By the time you factor in Peterson’s season that wasn’t last year, the average change in production for tailbacks in the past decade who notch 325 touches in a season is a drop of over 25 percent.
I think I may be sick.
And that’s not a small sample size, kids.
In 2017 Elliott, Johnson, Bell and DeMarco Murray will all be trying to buck that trend. If you included post-season workloads, Lamar Miller of the Houston Texans makes the list, too. That’s five running backs who could potentially be first-round picks in 12-team fantasy leagues all trying to beat the math.
If history is any indication, at least two (and probably three or four) will fail to match their numbers from 2016.
Now, maybe these young backs will buck the trend. Except for Murray, all are well on the younger side of 28, the historical “age of decline” for the position. And no one is doubting the talent of any of these players -- they’re the best in the world at what they do.
An elite back has long been hailed as the foundation of a successful fantasy team. Bell, Elliott and Johnson will come off the board in the first half of Round 1 -- of that I have no doubt.
But before you pull the trigger on one of those backs, know that you are breaking the seal on the tomb of fantasy football’s King Tut. You’re talking a chance. Thumbing your nose at dark and nefarious forces.
You’re inviting the “Curse of 370” (or its little bro), and if you get eaten by beetles you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.
And if you’re sitting at 1.01, maybe Antonio Brown ain’t such a bad idea after all.
Gary Davenport is a Senior Staff Writer at Fantasy Sharks, an NFL and Fantasy Football Analyst at Bleacher Report, a Contributing Writer at Rotoworld and a Contributing Author and Associate Editor at Football Diehards. A four-time FSWA Award finalist, Gary was the winner of the 2015 FSWA Award for Fantasy Football Print Article of the Year