Ask anybody who has ever played fantasy football and they'll tell you that running backs are the kings of the game. This is practically an article of faith, based on decades of statistics and some simple but reliable observations about strategy. It's the reason that most owners will draft two running backs before they address any other position. It's why an excellent wide reciever can often be had for a mediocre RB in trade.
It's also why your fantasy league has been generating some unexpected winners in 2006. Rushing touchdown production among the league's top ground-gainers is down -- way down -- over the first three weeks of the season. Compared to full-year statistics from 2005, per-game rushing touchdown production among the top 12 NFL rushers (the group fantasy players generally refer to as "No. 1 RBs") is down an eye-popping 36 percent this season.
The top 12 rushers of 2005 generated .69 rushing touchdowns per game. In 2006, that group is producing just .44 touchdowns per game. The rate drops only slightly why we look at the top 24 rushers, who are scoring .41 touchdown per game, adjusted for byes.
The downward trend is less pronounced when the comparison is applied across the league's top 24 rushers, but it doesn't go away. Among these likely starters, rushing TD production is down about 21 percent.
I don't have time to do a full analysis this morning, but look at some quick indicators and you'll spot the outline of a larger trend: After three weeks of play, NFL defenses are stuffing the run in ways that could change fantasy strategy.
- Four of the top five NFL rushers this season have yet to score a rushing touchdown.
- Five of the top 12 rushers have a yards-per-carry average below the magic 4.0 threshold. Last year only one of the top 12 held that dubious distinction.
- The No. 12 rusher in the NFL is a quarterback.
- Six of the top 24 are either backups or members of Running Back By Committee systems.
The big question: Why? Has the current arms race between offensive and defensive strategy made running the ball less effective? Has the evolution of offensive line philosophy emphasized pass protection over run production? Is there less talent? Or was 2005 the anomaly?
In the meantime, fantasy football players should be prepared to adjust their roster philosophy. If the era of the dominant Franchise RB is in decline, then the position might become more like WR, where situational matchups and waiver-wire scouting make up a big part of the game.