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Coaching Matters: NFC East Play-Calling Impact On RB

In fantasy football, many of us 'experts' in the field try to take as much data into account before making a conclusion on players. That includes looking at things like game tape, the team's offensive line, or their primary playcaller's historical tendencies to utilize a certain position. After much research, I've developed a broad knowledge of how each team's playcaller historically has utilized their running backs.

Today we will look at the NFC East. This division had a lot of coaching movement this offseason, with the Cowboys, Giants, and Washington Football Team hiring new coaching staffs. The Eagles were the only coaching staff to remain intact, with head coach Doug Pederson maintaining playcalling duties. The New York Giants hired former New England Patriots special teams coordinator Joe Judge to be their new head coach and conducted an inter-divisional search for their new offensive coordinator who is now Jason Garrett, the former Dallas Cowboys head coach.

Washington hired the defensive-minded Ron Rivera to be their new head coach, and he's giving Scott Turner, the son of former coach Norv Turner, an opportunity to call plays for the team. And the Cowboys hired offensive-minded and former Packers coach Mike McCarthy to be their new head coach, but they plan on having Kellen Moore retain playcalling duties after his success last season.

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New York Giants

Primary Playcaller: Jason Garrett

Since 2007, Jason Garrett had been a key member of the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff, but this past offseason the Cowboys decided it was time to cut ties with him. He was not without a job for long as the Cowboys' rival, the New York Giants, jumped in and hired Jason Garrett to be the offensive coordinator of the team. Considering new head coach Joe Judge doesn't have an offensive background in coaching (it's special teams), Garrett is going to be the key guy in how the New York Giants offense is run.

Everyone knows Saquon Barkley is the best weapon on the Giants, so he'll likely be the centerpiece of Jason Garrett's offense. But it's important to get a good idea of how Garrett has historically used his running backs in the past, so we can have a better idea of how he might use them in the future. Here's how Jason Garrett has historically used his running backs in the ground game:

So, as you can see, Jason Garrett features his running backs pretty heavily in the ground game with his running back room averaging 23.63 carries per game and his RB1 getting 15.30 of those. Adjusted for a 16 game season, this means that his average starting running back gets 245 carries per year and the rest of the room gets about 133. But we all know that Saquon Barkley is not your average starting running back, so this workload on the ground should be viewed as a floor for him if he plays a full season.

Another important aspect to pay attention to regarding running backs is how frequently they are utilized in the passing game. Here's a little look at how Jason Garrett has historically used his running backs in the passing game:

Overall, Jason Garrett's track record suggests that Saquon Barkley and the rest of the running back room will either get similar or even a slight decrease of usage in the passing game from former coach Pat Shurmur's offensive system.

Playcaller Net Impact on RB: Neutral - Jason Garrett has been involved with both elite rushing attacks and poor rushing attacks in the past. Overall, it will likely result in a slight increase in rush attempts and a slight decrease in receiving opportunities for the running backs in comparison to last year.

 

Dallas Cowboys

Primary Playcaller: Kellen Moore

The Dallas Cowboys finally decided to move on from head coach Jason Garrett this offseason. While they hired offensive-minded head coach Mike McCarthy, the team has stated that last year's play-caller, Kellen Moore, would retain playcalling duties for the 2020 season. Here's how the Cowboys' offensive coordinator used his running backs in the ground game:

It's hard to have a lot of tangible takeaways from just one season of coaching, but overall this is a good sign that Ezekiel Elliott's usage should be pretty frequent on the ground again in 2020, as long as he's healthy.

Here's how Kellen Moore used his running backs in the passing game:

Playcaller Net Impact on RB: Positive - Kellen Moore gave Ezekiel Elliott 78% of the workload last year, and it's likely he gives Elliott a similar workload in 2020. 387 carries and 91 targets for the RB room is quite a bit, and there were plenty of scoring opportunities as Kellen Moore directed one of the best offenses in the league. While it remains to be seen if he can duplicate the success in his second year as an offensive playcaller, the initial signs are extremely positive.

Secondary Playcaller: Mike McCarthy

Even though it's unlikely that Mike McCarthy calls plays this year given the COVID-19 landscape, it's a good idea to look at his track record just in case he needs to call plays in 2020. Here's a little look at how Cowboys' head coach Mike McCarthy has historically used his running backs on the ground:

For the most part, Mike McCarthy has never been a huge proponent of giving his running backs a huge workload. Setting the pace for a 16-game season, his RB room historically averages around 339 carries with his lead back only averaging about 225 carries. He has had a few great RB seasons in the past here and there with backs like Ricky Williams and Eddie Lacy, but overall, his willingness to ignore the ground game is concerning.

However, besides the ground game, in the modern-day of football, it's very important to consider how a coach uses their running backs in the passing game. Here's a look at how the new head coach, Mike McCarthy, has historically used his RB room in the passing game:

Overall, there is some cause for alarm with McCarthy's use of running backs in the passing game as well. In 19 years of coaching, only in four of those years has his RB room cracked 100 targets. If McCarthy ever takes playcalling duties from Kellen Moore, Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard's running back production would take a hit.

Playcaller Net Impact on RBNegativeIt's good that Mike McCarthy isn't the primary playcaller for the Dallas Cowboys, otherwise we'd likely see Ezekiel Elliott's production dip from high-end RB1 to low-end RB1. While he was a solid head coach hire in general, with regards to utilizing his running backs, McCarthy is a downgrade from Jason Garrett. He utilizes his backs less in both the ground game and the passing game.

 

Washington Football Team

Primary Playcaller: Scott Turner

Scott Turner is one of the least experienced offensive coordinators in the league, with only four games under his belt as an offensive coordinator. So, it's hard to make any reasonable conclusions about how he's gonna use his running backs in Washington. But for fun, here's a little look at how he used Christian McCaffrey last year on the ground for the Carolina Panthers:

It's difficult to come to any conclusions on Scott Turner's tendencies to use his running backs in the ground game after only four games. But in those four contests, he was willing to abandon the run, giving his running backs only 14.75 carries per game. Extrapolated over a full 16-game season, that would lead to a pathetic 236 carries for his entire running back room (208 for his lead back). While this should hopefully improve when he gets a full offseason to prepare his own playbook, this is a trend to keep an eye on, as the Washington Football Team is not going to be much better than the Carolina Panthers were last year.

But, while the ground game suffered during Scott Turner's four games as a playcaller, his running backs received plenty of pass-catching opportunities. Let's take a look at how he utilized Mr. McCaffrey and the rest of the Panthers RB crew through the air last year:

It's easy to throw the ball to your running back when you have Christian McCaffrey back there, but the amount that Turner threw to McCaffrey and the rest of his running back room was ridiculous in those four games, doubling the league average among playcallers. While we shouldn't draw too many conclusions from this sample, it shows that Turner will force-feed the ball to his best playmakers.

Playcaller Net Impact on RB: Inconclusive - Scott Turner's coaching sample size is way too small to make any conclusions, with only four games as an interim playcaller using his father's playbook. If you extrapolated this data, Antonio Gibson might be an interesting player to target, but for now, it's probably smarter to completely ignore this data until Turner gets another season or two under his belt.

 

Philadelphia Eagles

Primary Playcaller: Doug Pederson

Doug Pederson is one of the best offensive football minds in the game right now. He won a Super Bowl with his clever playcalling against the Patriots a few years ago and knows how to get his offense cooking, even when key playmakers are missing. Here's a little look at how he's used one of his skill positions, the running back position, in his career as an offensive coordinator or head coach:

As you can see, Doug Pederson's running back usage has historically been a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, he has given his RB room a fair number of carries. But on the other hand, a little under 50% of those carries went to his RB1. It's hard to know if that's because he's never had an RB1 worthy of receiving a significant workload other than Jamaal Charles in 2013, or if he generally believes in using multiple running backs in the ground game.

But, the ground game is about half of a running back's value. We have to take a good, hard look at a running back's ability in the passing game because opportunity in the passing game boosts the upside of a running back massively. Wonder how Doug Pederson uses his running backs in the passing game? Here's a little look below:

This is where you really get excited about the potential of Doug Pederson's lead back. In five of his seven seasons as an offensive coordinator or head coach, Doug Pederson's running back room has received over 100 targets. For comparison purposes, Pederson's running back room has had more 100+ target seasons in the past seven years than Mike McCarthy's running back room has had in his 19-year career.

If Miles Sanders can receive a bulk of these receiving opportunities again next year, it might not matter that he doesn't receive a workhorse workload (70% of running back room carries) in the ground game.

Playcaller Net Impact on RB: Slight negative in the ground game, positive in the passing game - Doug Pederson has only featured a bell-cow in the ground game once in seven years, which at first look makes it hard to trust him to use his lead back on the ground. But on the flip side, outside of Jamaal Charles, he's also never had a running back worthy of a significant workload on the ground and overall he gives his RB room a fair number of carries each game, so the potential is there if a back proves to be worthy.

In the passing game, Pederson's running backs get a lot of work and it is a net positive for any back. This bodes well for Miles Sanders since he showed his effectiveness as a pass-catcher last year as a rookie. Even in the worst-case scenario, which is Miles Sanders only receiving about half of the ground game workload, his pass-catching ability combined with Doug Pederson's tendency to throw to his backs makes him a decent RB2 at worst.



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