One of the biggest complaints you will hear from fantasy owners is that a particular coach is killing his fantasy team with play calling or substitution patterns. Some of that is an overreaction by owners that want to see their player touch the ball every play. However, that does not mean that every complaint is unwarranted. Players need touches in order to make plays and there are certain teams and coaches that put their players in better positions than others.
One trend that is undeniable is that the featured running back is becoming an extinct position in the NFL. The pass interference rules that changed in 2004 make passing the ball the ideal way to move the ball downfield in the NFL. Only three teams ran the ball more than they passed the ball last season (Denver Broncos, Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers). Only the Houston Texans had an established quarterback, Matt Schaub and he was injured in Week 10. Denver had to build a run oriented offense around pass deficient Tim Tebow and the San Francisco 49ers built a conservative run oriented offense around Alex Smith. However, the approach is hard to criticize, as all three teams not only made the playoffs, but also won a playoff game.
Conversely, pass heavy offenses do not guarantee success. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked seventh in pass attempts and had the second highest ratio of pass attempts to run attempts and won exactly four games. Incomplete passes and interceptions do not win games.
I took a look at the play calling from last year for all 32 teams. Here are some insights I think will be helpful for your fantasy football team when it comes to play calling.
1) Avoid Houston Texans QB Matt Schaub as your starting fantasy QB – It is hard to believe that Schaub once threw for 4,770 yards back in 2009, but those days are over in Houston. Houston ran the ball 546 times last year and threw the ball only 467 times. Some of that was the result of Schaub being injured and having to rely on a rookie quarterback, T. J. Yates.
Still, in the nine full games Schaub played before being injured in Week 10, he averaged only 30.8 passing attempts per game. He had only two 300-yard passing games and only one game with more than two touchdown passes. Houston is a run oriented offense, led by RB Arian Foster and RB Ben Tate. Schaub is a serviceable fantasy quarterback, but will probably be in the middle of the pack when it comes to fantasy production. Houston just does not throw the ball enough for him to have the big numbers he had in 2009. Given his injury risk, he is a player to avoid in your fantasy drafts.
2) Do not bet on James Starks having a breakout year with the Green Bay Packers – Starks was an unknown player that made a name for himself in the 2010 NFL Postseason. In four playoff wins, he ran 81 times for 315 yards and scored one rushing touchdown. Last year he was stuck in a running back by committee with RB Ryan Grant. The result was only 133 rushes for 578 yards and one rushing touchdown. He also offered little as a receiver, catching only 29 passes for 216 yards and no touchdowns.
He is being hyped as a potential breakout player with Ryan Grant not being re-signed. The word out of Green Bay is that he is down to seven percent body fat and is running faster than he ever has. While he may be in great shape, I am worried about the play calling. Keep in mind that the Packers ran the ball only 395 times last year or about 40 percent of their offensive plays. QB Aaron Rodgers is so good at throwing the ball and the Packers have an abundance of weapons at wide receiver and tight end; I do not see the Packers changing that ratio much this year. If the Packers only run the ball 25 times a game, that probably means Starks will see the ball only 10 to 15 times per game. Unless he is going to become a vulture at the goal line or average 6.0 yards per carry, it is difficult to see him being much more than a flex player against bad run defenses.
3) The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will return to running the ball – With the exception of the St. Louis Rams; there was arguably no offense that was more ineffective then the Buccaneers last season. Their run to pass ratio was terrible, as they passed the ball 588 times and rushed the ball only 346 times; yet in those 588 passing attempts, they only gained 6.2 yards per attempt. The result was a horrific decline for QB Josh Freeman. He went from 25 passing touchdowns in 474 passing attempts in 2010 to 16 passing touchdowns in 551 attempts in 2011.
The Buccaneers made zero commitment to the running game in 2011. RB LaGarrette Blount saw only 184 rushes, gained 781 yards and scored five touchdowns. The next most rushing attempts on the team by a running back was Earnest Graham, who had just 37 rushing attempts. That prompted a new coaching staff with Greg Schiano with an emphasis on the running game. They signed WR Vincent Jackson, who is a bigger receiver that can run block. They signed G Carl Nicks to help the run blocking on the offensive line and drafted RB Doug Martin in the first round. I fully expect Freeman to lose about 50 to 75 passing attempts this year and for the Buccaneers to focus more on running the ball. That is good news for Martin, who will be in line to lead the Buccaneers in rushing. It also is not bad news for Blount. While he may lose his starting job this year, he could still see a lot of carries in a run oriented offense. He is a sleeper player that could emerge if Martin struggles or suffers an injury.
4) Do not bet on New England Patriots RB Steven Ridley breaking out this season – The last time the Patriots had a running back break 300 carries was 2004 and the Patriots have had only one season since 2006 where a running back broke 200 carries. Furthermore, the Patriots ran the ball only 438 times last year as opposed to 612 passing attempts. New England is a pass heavy offense that utilizes multiple players at each position to take advantage of match up problems for the defense. One week a player can receive 20 touches and the next week he can receive five touches.
Ridley figures to earn the starting job, but that probably means only 150 to 200 rushing attempts, if he stays healthy for all 16 games. Even at 5.0 yards per carry, that means he will see about 700 yards rushing. Unless, the Patriots feed him at the goal line and he can score 10 rushing touchdowns, he is a weak flex play. The Patriots pass the ball too much and do not feature one running back enough for Ridley to be a fantasy monster.
5) Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco needs more pass attempts to be elite – One of the big arguments in fantasy circles and NFL circles is whether Flacco is an elite quarterback. One thing Flacco has lacked in Baltimore is passing attempts. Last year was the first year Flacco was allowed to throw for more than 500 attempts (542); usually he is in the high 400 area. While the Ravens do feature an offense that passes about 56% of the time, they still finished eighth in rushing attempts at 459. On top of that, RB Ray Rice had 76 receptions for 704 yards and three touchdowns. Rice was targeted 104 times out of the backfield in 2011, which means that roughly 18 percent of Flacco’s passing attempts were short passes to Rice. They also had 94 completions to tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pita. Dickson averaged 9.8 yards per catch and Pita averaged 10.1.
The Ravens offense is just too conservative. They run the ball a lot and their passes are in the flats to tight ends and running backs. Flacco has a cannon for an arm, but the Ravens do not let him use it. It may be that they do not trust him to make deep throws or that their defense is good enough not to take unnecessary chances downfield. Regardless, Flacco is a fourth year quarterback and if they have not utilized the deep ball by now, they probably are never going to turn him loose. Flacco is an average QB2 that can put up numbers against weaker defenses. He is never going to be a 4,000-yard passer with 30 touchdown tosses throwing in the flats to running backs and tight ends. He needs receivers to stretch the field other than Torrey Smith and he needs the coaching staff to let him air it out if he is going to have a bigger fantasy impact.