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100th Blog Special! Running Back Committees Are *Still* The Way To Go

When Will Tondo and Jake Zimmer asked me to join the House Enterprise nearly four years ago, I never thought what that would look like down the road; I was just excited to write and share my thoughts on football. Fast forward to today, and I've learned more about the sport than I'd ever imagine was possible (and I played it for over 13 years). Between thousands of hours of film study, learning about different defensive schemes and unique coverage styles, breaking down incoming draft prospects, reviewing games week by week, and examining team finances, it's become a monster in it's own right - in a good way.


The way I watch and read about the sport has changed dramatically, allowing me to put out more insightful content and understand the game through a different lens. One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the fact that running back committees (RBCs) are still the more viable option to win Super Bowls. In hindsight, writing about RBCs in a time where running back contracts were hyper-inflated relative to their value was the perfect choice for my first blog.


Today, for my 100th blog, I figured we'd revisit that topic, do some deeper number crunching, and see how that has shaped the league in the four seasons since. We'll take a look at not just the Super Bowl winners and losers, but how all 32 teams have shifted their cap spending on the RB room over the past decade, and everything in between.


 

Introduction


There are going to be tons of numbers and percentages referenced throughout the breakdown, so before we dive into them, here are some constants and guidelines that you can check back to:


  • The main metric we will be focused on is the cap percentage allocated to a teams entire running back room, rather than just their starters

    • Due to the NFL increasing the cap space nearly every season, cap percentage is the most holistic way to compare each team and season, rather than actual dollar amounts


  • We will be looking at all 32 NFL teams and how much they allocated their cap space from 2014-2023 to their RB rooms. These numbers include:

    • Cap percentage for every team for each individual season

      • The Cowboys spent 6.50% of their cap on RBs in 2020

    • Cap percentage average for each individual team over the course of 10 years

      • The Bears spent 3.20% of their cap on RBs on average over 10 seasons

    • Cap percentage average for every team over each individual season

      • The NFL average for RB cap allocation in 2017 was 2.99%

    • Combined cap percentage average for all teams over all 10 seasons

      • Combined cap percentage average was 3.23%


  • With that, this will only be considering active cap space being used, meaning any money going to a player who is no longer on the team, and any money going to a significantly injured player, will not be accounted for

There will be some other numbers and metrics referenced, but the outlined examples above should cover most of our bases.


Year Over Year Running Back Spending vs Cap Space


Collectively, since 2014, NFL teams are proportionately spending .6% less on RB rooms on average. In 2014, the average NFL team was spending 3.84% of their cap on RBs, and in 2023, that number has dropped to 3.24%. This comes out to about $12.21 million over the course of 10 seasons for each NFL team. This doesn't sound like much, but we'll revisit the very real impact this can have at the end of this study.


From year to year, the largest increase in cap spending was between 2016 and 2017, where RB cap allocation spiked by .68% (or a 22.74% increase from the previous season). Contrastingly, the largest decrease in cap spending was between 2017 and 2018 - the following offseason, where RB cap allocation plummeted by .97% (or a 26.43% decrease from the previous season).


Lastly, the biggest discrepancy, for any team during any season, between the most and least cap percentage spent on running backs happened in the same 2015 season, when the Vikings spent a whopping 12.8% of their cap space on RBs, and the Dolphins spent an astonishing 0.09% of their cap space on RBs. The next closest numbers were 10.1% by the Vikings again in 2016, and 0.34% by the Seahawks in 2019.


Team Success vs Running Back Spending


The non-playoff team average RB cap allocation over the past decade comes out to 3.26%. To determine how successful each team was compared to their cap spending, I combined the records of all the teams below that 3.26% threshold, as well as the records of all teams above that same benchmark. What I found was surprising at first, but I'll make some sense of it later on.


Teams that spent less than the 10 year non-playoff average over that same period had a combined record of 1440-1482-12, which comes out to about a .495 winning percentage, compared to those above that were 1157-1055-8, or a .523 winning percentage.


It's worth noting the majority of the league - 18 teams to be exact, had a 10 year spending average below that 3.26% parameter. Even so, the winning percentage difference was not expected, especially for teams being more successful from a win-loss perspective when they spent more of their money on RBs. So what does it mean for teams that make the playoffs versus those that don't?


Photo: Adam Bettcher/GettyImages


Playoff Teams and Running Back Spending


When looking at non-playoff teams versus playoff teams, there is a clear difference in how they spend money on RBs. As stated earlier, non-playoff teams, on average, spent 3.26% of their cap on RBs, whereas playoff teams spent 3.36% of their cap on RBs. This checks out based on the records listed above, but how did that check out for each playoff team in each season?


When checking each individual playoff team, I was a little surprised as it contrasts the above numbers. Nearly two thirds (64.06%) of playoff teams spent less than the 10 year non-playoff average cap allocation of 3.26%!!! But how is this possible? If playoff teams on average are spending more on RBs than their unsuccessful counterparts, how have 82 of the past 128 playoff teams spent less than the 3.26% mark?


The simplest way to explain this is that there were some playoff teams who drove up the average - namely the Panthers in 2014, the aforementioned Vikings in 2015, the Titans in 2021, and the Bengals in 2022, as all four teams spent over 8% of their cap on RBs in those years. Now, while making the postseason is important, the most absolute form of success is winning the Super Bowl. So how did the Super Bowl champs fair versus the rest of the pack, and more specifically, the non-playoff teams?


Super Bowl Winners vs Running Back Spending


Below is a table which lists each of the past 10 Super Bowl winners, what their RB spending was during that season, the difference between that - and the non-playoff average cap allocation of 3.26%, and their overall spending rank in that given season (1st meaning spent the least, 32nd meaning spent the most). Let's see if you notice something:


Year

Team

Cap % Spend

Cap % Diff

Cap % Rank

2014

New England Patriots

2.03%

1.23% less

10th

2015

Denver Broncos

1.41%

1.85% less

10th

2016

New England Patriots

2.86%

0.40% less

19th

2017

Philadelphia Eagles

1.86%

1.40% less

7th

2018

New England Patriots

3.98%

0.72% more

27th

2019

Kansas City Chiefs

3.16%

0.10% less

18th

2020

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

3.02%

0.24% less

14th

2021

Los Angeles Rams

2.37%

0.99% less

12th

2022

Kansas City Chiefs

1.59%

1.67% less

8th

2023

Kansas City Chiefs

2.06%

1.20% less

10th


2018 was the only season in which the Super Bowl winner spent more on their RB room than the league wide non-playoff average. In addition, five out of ten teams (six if you count the Rams at 0.99%) spent at or over a full percentage point less than non-playoff teams. If we take the non-playoff average for each individual year, there is a noticeable pattern.


Year

Team

Cap % Spend

Non-Playoff Cap % Spend

Cap % Diff

2014

New England Patriots

2.03%

4.33%

2.30% less

2015

Denver Broncos

1.41%

2.90%

1.49% less

2016

New England Patriots

2.86%

3.35%

0.49% less

2017

Philadelphia Eagles

1.86%

2.98%

1.12% less

2018

New England Patriots

3.98%

2.56%

1.42% more

2019

Kansas City Chiefs

3.16%

3.30%

0.14% less

2020

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

3.02%

3.61%

0.59% less

2021

Los Angeles Rams

2.37%

3.14%

0.77% less

2022

Kansas City Chiefs

1.59%

2.64%

1.05% less

2023

Kansas City Chiefs

2.06%

3.80%

1.74% less


Once again, 2018 was the only anomaly in this dataset. In both tables, 9 out of 10 Super Bowl winners spent less than the non-playoff average. Additionally, Super Bowl losers were below the 10 year non playoff average and the year-to-year average five out of ten times.


Conclusion


If we determine success as winning the Super Bowl, then the data proves that RBCs are more favorable for success. If we determine success as just making the playoffs, then the data proves that RBCs are less favorable for success. From this level of analysis, it really depends on how you view success.


In terms of actual dollar amount, the NFL cap space totaled a whopping $2.035 billion over the past 10 seasons. Based on that number, the 10 year average for RB cap allocation was about $65.7 million total per season, which comes out to about $2.054 million per team per year on average. Now, this may seem like a small number, but the average big-time second contract lasts anywhere between 4 to 6 years, and having an additional $8 - $12 million to pay one of your top players would be a major advantage.


Let's take the 2014 and 2015 Carolina Panthers for example. Over two seasons, they spent 7.58% of their cap on their RBs. This comes out to just over $20 million over two seasons, and Jonathan Stewart accounted for 75% of that. Let's say we cut Stewart and signed a cheap RB to free up some cap (remember, we have DeAngelo Williams in 2014, and either Bilal Powell or Chris Johnson would cost $2 million at most in 2015), that comes out to about $12 million in cash to spend over the course of two seasons.


Add $5 million over the following two seasons after adjusting for dead cap and cap savings, and another $5 million for subsequent restructures and you got some good money to play with. Here are some players they could've paid going into the 2014 season with that extra $22 million:


Player

Contract

What's Due

DeSean Jackson

4 years / $24 million

$2 million

Golden Tate

5 years / $31 million

$9 million

Emmanuel Sanders

3 years / $15 million

$0

Doug Baldwin

3 years / $13 million

$0


Out of these four receivers, Golden and Emmanuel had career years in 2014, whereas Doug and DeSean had their second-best seasons in 2014. In Doug's case, he was a restricted free agent heading into 2014, meaning any team can sign him, but the Seahawks - his original team, would have the right to match the contract. I'm willing to bet if the Panthers offered even $18 million over 3 years, the Seahawks wouldn't have matched it.


Granted, there's a reality where they may have had to pay some of these receivers a few more million dollars over the life of the contract to get them to Carolina, but this was when Cam Newton was in his prime and the Panthers were a juggernaut in the NFC. I think most receivers would have happily taken a smaller salary to be on one of the best teams in the league.


But even if the Panthers chose not to sign another receiver and still cut down their RB spending in half, that would've been more than enough to pay franchise receiver Steve Smith Sr. They cut him to free up $7 million in cap, which if they went the route of RBC, they would've had more than enough to keep him around - and still have a top receiving threat heading into their two most crucial seasons.


Now this is one example, and the Panthers desperately needed someone other than Greg Olsen to get open in that Super Bowl, but having an extra $10 million on hand to incentivize top players to come to your squad would have made a major difference for multiple franchises across the league.


To really drive this point home - and sorry to stick it to Panthers fans (*cough cough* Cameron), over the past decade, the Panthers have had the 4th highest average salary cap allocation on RBs at a 4.54%, and have a combined record of 70-92-1. In comparison, the Vikings had the most at 5.00%, mainly due to Adrian Peterson's and Dalvin Cook's massive deals. If the Panthers cut back their average spending by a full percentage point, their franchise could look much different.


At the end of the day, most pros want to get paid rather than win a championship, and the fans want to see their team win it all. I, for one, believe winning it all is the true measure of success - and thus, proves my theory; running back committees are the best path to winning a Super Bowl.


Photo: Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

 

Final Notes:


I will admit, there are some limitations to this data. I took the 10 year non-playoff average as our baseline for determining if teams used a RBC or mainly a single bell-cow rusher as their backfield. I wanted the data to be consistent rather than varying from year to year, so I opted to not look at each of the top paid backs in a given year, in order to determine the cap percentage threshold relative to that season.


Among that, some teams had their cap space lowered based on how they used RBs, like Cordarrelle Patterson on the Patriots, for example. Even though he counted against the Patriots cap space as a RB, he only lined up in the backfield on 42 out of 230 offensive snaps, and lined up as a wide receiver on 180 of those snaps (also worth noting this was before the Falcons made CP84 a full time RB). Because of this, I removed his cap allocation out of the RB room, dropping it over a full percentage point.


I may redo this again in the future for my 500th or 1000th blog, but that's a future problem I'll deal with. Next week, we resume the Team Overview series, with a consistent weekly rollout over the next 10 weeks!

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