How worried should we be about Maurice Jones-Drew's recent workload?
In this statistics-driven sports world, numbers often have a way of clouding our minds, sometimes tricking us into mistruths.
Veteran fantasy football players have surely become familiar with long-standing statistical studies of the steep drop-off in production that the majority of running backs suffer after their 30th birthdays, or the heightened risk of injury and regression that a 370-carry season causes a running back. Aging patterns and workload effects have become mainstream discussion points in the football world, and an unfortunate byproduct is that many people tend to misunderstand what constitutes being "old" or having endured a "hefty workload."
This, for example, is a dangerous interpretation: Last year's league leader in carries and/or total touches is at increased risk of injury or collapse.
That might have been a fair statement to make in certain seasons throughout history, like in years in which the leading running back ran the football 416 times, or touched it 492 times. Excessive single-season workloads are the ones that should raise red flags. League-leading workloads shouldn't necessarily; what about seasons in which no individual running back was especially abused?
Remember, NFL teams are as adept at analyzing the effects of aging and workloads as fantasy owners, often more so, and as we've become more wary of players who have been run hard in a given year, those players' NFL teams, in turn, have been far less apt to run them hard. Look around the league: More and more squads are using running back committees, multiple starters in a given season or putting more emphasis on goal-line or passing-down backs to give their workhorses rest.
To illustrate these changing times, let's put Jones-Drew's example -- age and recent workload -- into a historical context:
• Jones-Drew's NFL-leading 343 carries and 386 total touches in 2011 were the third-lowest numbers by a league's leader in either category since 1991, and they ranked only the 45th- and 41st-largest totals in either category among all players during that 21-season span.
• Jones-Drew has tallied 954 carries and 1,084 total touches the past three seasons combined, most in the NFL, but there were 47 and 46 instances, respectively, of a player finishing with more during a three-year span since 1991 in either category.
• Jones-Drew also begins the 2012 season still aged a relatively young 27.
Here's another way to illustrate it: Had Jones-Drew's numbers been accrued during the 2003 season, or merely eight years earliers, he'd have actually finished sixth in the NFL in carries and eighth in total touches. If this was 2004, we might not even raise an eyebrow to Jones-Drew's numbers.
Bloated carry/touch statistics in a given year, however, indeed warrant careful examination. Like tread on a tire, running backs wear down in time, but they do so at different rates depending upon their usage in a given year. In order to determine to what degree Jones-Drew's workload might catch up to him, let's examine precedent of other comparable, historical running backs.
All of this is not to ignore the fact that, as of this writing, Jones-Drew is holding out of training camp. With the season opener not taking place until Sept. 9, the contract situation could become an additional concern, but this column is working on the theory that things will be resolved by then.
The 300-touch season
There have been 364 instances of a 300-touch -- carries plus receptions -- season in the history of the NFL that did not conclude with the player's retirement, or did not occur in 2011. (The 2011 season is excluded from this study because, naturally, the 2012 season hasn't happened yet. Retired players are excluded because retirement is a conscious decision on the player's part, rather than the adverse effect of a grueling workload.) The chart below breaks those running backs down by multiples of 20 touches, in order to illustrate the impact of specific workloads on the player the subsequent season.
Jones-Drew's 2011 workload would fit within in the shaded 380-399 touch group.
Key: # = Number of players in the group; FPTS = Average seasonal fantasy point total by these players; FPTS/G = Average fantasy points per game; Games = Average seasonal games played by these players; ScrimYds per G = Scrimmage yards per game.
While the size of the samples is unequal -- there are only 41 instances of a 400-touch season in NFL history (40 listed here because Ricky Williams "retired" after 2003), less than half the number of players in the 300-319 touch group -- the findings remain somewhat telling in Jones-Drew's group. The 36 players who touched the football between 380 and 399 times in history lost less than five percent of their per-game fantasy production the following season, easily the smallest drop-off of any of these groups. Their total fantasy point production, meanwhile, slipped by 21 percent, which was second-least of any group.
Granted, the 380-399 group declined in terms of games played by 18 percent, which was third-most, but understand that three of the 36 players included played their subsequent season in the 1982 strike-shortened, nine-game year. (There were no such players in the three groups with 400 touches or more.) Adjust simply for shortened seasons and the 380-399 group wouldn't have suffered a decline in games played that was especially significant. In fact, adjusting for shortened seasons would give running backs who totaled between 360 and 419 touches an average of 14.3 games played the subsequent year, whereas the running backs who touches the football 420 times or more would average 13.1.
It seems that a workload between 380 and 400 touches is a perfectly reasonable, not-terribly-taxing amount and any decline in statistical performance could just as easily be explained by regression to the mean.
Worked hard by age 27
Another way to evaluate Jones-Drew's future prospects is by comparing his career workload to those of similar players at the time of their 27th birthdays. That is the age at which he'll play the entire 2012 season, having turned 27 on March 23.
Jones-Drew has carried the football 1,484 times and touched it 1,762 times during his six-year NFL career; those rank him 14th and 12th all-time among players as of the date of their 27th birthdays. Twenty-five players in the history of the league have tallied at least 1,250 carries and 1,400 touches by that age, which are good benchmarks for any historical Jones-Drew comparison. Of those 25, let's exclude three from this study: Jones-Drew himself and Adrian Peterson, who also begins the 2012 season at the age of 27, as well as Williams, who, again, "retired" in 2003.
The following chart shows what those 25 players did during the all games they played between their 27th and 28th birthdays (which explains the multiple years for Eddie George and Gerald Riggs, whose birthdays fell within the NFL season):
Key: YPC = Yards per carry; YPT = Yards per touch; Scrim Yds/G = Scrimmage yards per game; Total TD/G = Total touchdowns per game; Year(s) = The season or seasons during which the player was age 27.
As a whole, the group showed only slight decline at the age of 27 from their career production at a younger age, an amount that should be understandable if you recall past age studies I've done. Running backs have historically exhibited peak performance between the ages of 24-26, so it should be expected that they'd drop off by a slight amount, even at 27. It's not until age 30 that the panic button is truly warranted, at least from an aging angle.
Here's another point in Jones-Drew's column: Four of the 10 running backs whose age-27 seasons happened since 2000 managed better numbers in terms of scrimmage yards and total touchdowns per game at the age of 27 than previously in their careers, and another three finished with a higher number in one of the two categories. Whether that's attributable to better training regimens, increased endurance, smarter workload management on teams' part or something else, the "aging curve" appears to be lengthening in the modern era.
The Blaine Gabbert problem
In response to the initial question, workload doesn't appear to be nearly the concern for Jones-Drew as people might fear. The short answer to it, simply, is "No."
Perhaps the better question is: How worried should we be about Maurice Jones-Drew's quarterback?
Blaine Gabbert is coming off a dreadful rookie campaign during which he only three times threw for 200 or more yards and twice threw for two touchdowns, and his 65.4 passer rating placed him among the game's worst all-time. For some historical perspective, consider that, among quarterbacks with at least 14 starts, his passer rating was 31st-worst during the 16-game schedule (since 1978), 13th-worst in the past 25 seasons (since 1987) and seventh-worst since the beginning of the millennium. Gabbert showed minimal signs of improvement during the year, too, spawning a legitimate debate as to whether he even deserves the 2012 starting job over free-agent signee and backup Chad Henne.
In Jones-Drew's defense, however, let's not forget that he just completed his aforementioned age-26, 386-touch season as fantasy football's No. 3 running back despite Gabbert's abysmal passing, despite underlying statistics that identified right guard Will Rackley as one of the game's worst run-blockers, and despite questions that lingered a year ago at this time about his surgically repaired right knee. Jones-Drew faced at least as many obstacles entering 2011 as he does heading into 2012, and he cleared every one with aplomb.
Besides, how much worse can Gabbert be? The Jacksonville Jaguars appear committed to their 2011 first-rounder, but if he's not up to the task, Henne should at least provide a serviceable upgrade, having posted a 75.7 passer in 33 games (31 starts) the past three seasons.
Maybe all of this points to Jones-Drew's 2012 statistical ceiling being no higher than his final 2011 line. To say he is lacking in upside is fair.
But considering the historical perspective, who's to say his basement is anything less than a top-10 capable player?