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Justin Forsett and Winning Football

On Smaller Running Backs

I can't think of a single reason a running back would benefit from being tall. The talents and skills associated with a running back, acceleration, change of direction, elusiveness, vision, ability to break tackles, are all either neutral, favoring neither the tall nor the short, or favor the short. Specifically, a shorter back is likely to have a shorter stride and therefore accelerate faster. A shorter back is harder to see and typically has a lower center of gravity. A shorter back has a lower center of gravity and a shorter stride and is likely able to cut quicker, exploit smaller holes and get back up to speed quicker. And history bears this out: Many of the greatest backs to ever play have been short: Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Warrick Dunn and Brian Westbrook, to name a few of the obvious. That assumes 5'10" as an imaginary line of demarcation. That's arbitrary, but it seems to accord to popular perception. 5'10" is as short as a back can be before he's "short".

Running back has mostly defied the overall trend in the NFL of players getting bigger - or at least taller. All-time greats like Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen and Franco Harris are taller than and relatively more massive than contemporary rushers. Last year's top five rushers according to DYAR, Chris Johnson, Ryan Grant, Ray Rice, Jamaal Charles and Pierre Thomas, included one player over six feet, three at what seems to be the current prototype, 5'11", and Ray Rice, who's 5'8". 2008 was ruled by 5'9" DeAngelo Williams. The lone big back among the top five rushers of 2008, Brandon Jacobs, suffered a sizable year-to-year decline, hopefully dispelling the notion that size alone makes a player more durable. Actually, among the top five, Derrick Ward, Clinton Portis and Jacobs all declined quite a bit from 2008 to 2009. Ward and Portis are both "prototypical". Jacobs is tall and massive. And each was good in 2008 and bad in 2009.

Jacobs is among the only contemporary backs that can or could do what backs of yore did: run over defenders. It seems like all that contact might have caused Jacobs to lose a step. DVOA and DYAR are such crude measures of individual performance, something like judging a pitcher by ERA, it's hard to say from a single metric whether Jacobs was worse or his team was worse. However, if nothing else, DYAR and DVOA confirm that a team can succeed with a shorter back. It's not even uncommon.

Seattle succeeded when Justin Forsett ran the ball. Which is a wonder, given the overall quality of Seattle's offense. In fact, by a general measure of effectiveness, Seattle's top two backs, Forsett and Julius Jones, outgained Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower 157 DYAR to 81 and outgained Frank Gore and Glen Coffee 157 DYAR to 34. Forsett was the more "valuable" of the two, accounting for 122 of Seattle's rushing DYAR. There's a perception that Forsett was valuable because he was used as a change of pace back, but that doesn't really hold up to scrutiny. The four games he carried the ball 10 or more times account for 397 of his 619 total yards, and Force averaged 6.3 yards per attempt in those contests. The opposing defenses ranked 14, 32, 5 and 26 in rush defense.

So, Force isn't tall, but that doesn't matter. Force is a little light, but because he's short, he's not that slight. His BMI, 29.5, compares closely to Edgerrin James, 29.7, Curtis Martin, 29.3, and Fred Taylor, 30.1. James, Martin and Taylor are all contemporary players that have amassed over 10,000 rushing yards. If Force has a problem, it's that he has a bruising style and big or small, contact takes its toll. So you probably don't want to give Forsett more than 200-250 carries a season, depending on usage and health.

The Seahawks Backfield

A good Seattle team will likely split about 350-550 runs between its backs. The 2008 Broncos, Jeremy Bates only season calling plays for an NFL team, only ran 387 times in 1,019 total plays, and 57 were by quarterback Jay Cutler. That team lacked for running back talent and often played from behind. Bates offense at Southern California ran 438 times in 817 total plays. Matt Barkley accounted for 45 attempts. The Trojans finished 9-4 with several blowout wins. So, like most offensive coordinators, Bates attempts a balanced attack with perhaps a slight leaning towards passing the ball. A good Seattle team, one that finishes near or above .500, will likely spread out about 350-550 carries. Of those, some will be very low leverage - killing the clock and meager comeback attempts in blowout losses.

A few people jumped out of their skin when I wrote "Forsett, Julius Jones and Leon Washington is a good stable of backs," but I struggle to see the controversy. Broadly, Seattle can split its carries:

Role Player Carries
Feature Back Justin Forsett 175-225
Spell/Mop up Julius Jones 125-175
Change of Pace Leon Washington 50-100
Mop up/Injury Replacement Quinton Ganther 0-50

350 to 550 carries. No one overloaded. No liabilities among pass blockers or receivers. Two high value rushers and receivers. Two generalists. A good overall stable of backs.

Seattle could add some carries to Forsett, add some carries to Quinton Ganther, especially in mop up and short yardage, subtract some carries from Washington or Jones, and achieve the same basic formula. Forsett is a top 20 rusher, a skilled receiver and a developing blocker. He would start and get high leverage carries. Jones is a mediocre rusher, a good receiver and an excellent pass blocker. He would get about a quarter of the high leverage carries and most or all of the low leverage carries. Washington, who sounds like he'll be ready for the season, is the change of pace back. There's no specific protocol for using Washington.

There's nothing radical about my proposed split. Most teams that run a committee backfield split their carries something like the above. It's pretty close to how New Orleans used Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush, and those three are a good skills/talent proxy for Forsett, Jones and Washington. Thomas, Bell and Bush is not an otherworldly stable of backs. It's good, complementary and paired with a sensational passing game, provided the core of the most valuable rushing attack by DVOA in 2009.

Winning Football

From a roster construction standpoint, a football team wins by getting excess value out of its investments. Every team has a finite amount of money, a finite amount of draft picks and a finite number of roster positions. Winning teams don't exceed value at every position. A team like the Colts has so much excess value at quarterback that other positions can be weak and the team can still win. The goal of building a roster is not to have a superstar at every position. That's pretty much impossible. The goal is to have enough excess value to be better than your opponent. Besides quarterback, there's no one position that value must derive from. Even quarterback, as in the extreme case of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, can be overcome with sufficient value at other positions.

Seattle hasn't invested much into its running back position and yet has amassed quality talent. That's winning football. Throwing resources at the run game because of a dogmatic belief in names or stars or the importance of establishing the run is losing football. As soon as resources outstrip production, a team suffers, no matter how good an individual player is. Mike Ditka, Ricky Williams and the Saints exhibit this concept in action. Or, if you'd rather, Herschel Walker and the Vikings or Clinton Portis and the Redskins. Every player performed ably for their new team, but every team suffered a losing season after spending too much on the player.

Right now, Seattle has invested a fifth-round pick, a seventh-round pick and a four-year, $11.8 million contract to acquire the core of its rushing attack. Those players, played properly, should be at least league average, and given the career performances of Forsett and Washington, can and should be better than that. On a team that has holes, some major, some minor, the running game is comparatively strong.

Realistically, Seattle has an outside shot of making the playoffs. If they do, they could do whatever, but a Super Bowl win is an extreme long shot. A team should never go all in on one season, and a team constructed like Seattle shouldn't even flirt with the idea. A team should, with respect to their future, start the best team possible.

Rumors are swirling that Seattle is interested in Marshawn Lynch. Last time I watched Lynch, he was a pretty good back, but there's no position that declines farther faster than running back. Lynch was a first-round pick not too long ago. He has a lengthy legal history and lost his starting spot to a Fred Jackson last season. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Lynch is on a path out of the league. Maybe Seattle could attain him for cheap, and if they could, and I mean very cheap, that would be good. If talent trumps investment, a team wins. But there's no need for Lynch. There's no need to add a big back or big name to this roster. It hasn't invested great resources into its running back position and yet it can expect a good or better rushing attack. The Seattle Seahawks, outside playoff contenders and long shots for the Super Bowl, have talent to run with at running back, no pressing need to upgrade that talent, and no reason to squeeze out marginal production on a team that's not likely to compete.