Leonard Fournette and a Running Game that Doesn’t Matter

In April 2017, the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted RB Leonard Fournette 4th overall. It was a debatable and polarizing pick. The Jaguars wanted to create a run-first offense with Fournette being the featured bell cow. In 13 regular season games he accomplished 1,040 rush yards, 80.0 rush yards per game and 9 rush TDs. As a receiver he finished with 36 catches for 302 yards and one touchdown. In the postseason he rushed for another four touchdowns and the media hype is for real. He is a workhorse and always good for an extra yard. It is a lot of fun watching him play. But did the running game really have such a huge impact on the Jaguars offense? Let’s talk efficiency and scoring correlation.

Fournette’s isolated rushing numbers weren’t special

Fournette rushed for 3.9 yards per carry during the regular season. That alone ranked 29th in the league among 47 RBs with atleast 100 carries. Take away the garbage time touchdown against the Steelers and he is at 3.5 YPC. His success rate (successful running plays percentage based on down and distance) was 44% which ranked 26th among those 47 RBs. For comparison, the top number was 58% by New England’s Mike Gillislee. Ezekiel Elliott finished 2nd at 57%. His final DVOA was better as he finished at +2.1% which was good for 17th in the league. That tells us that he is good for a few long breakout runs here and there, but doesn’t gain needed yards consistently. He gets stuffed far too often. To be fair, the Jaguars’ offensive line hasn’t been an elite run-blocking unit last season.

There is still a big myth about the running game in general. Oldschool TV commentators always use the term “establish the run game” which has no statistical evidence of being successful. The correlation between rushing efficiency and scoring is basically non-existent. The correlation between running early in a game and passing success later on is also – non-existent. And between rushing efficiency and successful play-action? Non-existent. There is just no evidence. You need a run game for short down and goal line situations, that’s about it. But that’s also about situational play-calling. The Browns had a top-10 run offense and a top-3 run defense in 2017. They won zero games, because they were awfully inefficient passing the ball and defending the pass. The Cowboys had an identically high rush efficiency in 2017 as they had in 2016 but their offense declined because the passing game declined. I can go on, but I am stopping here. Passing matters. 

The Jaguars were good at passing

According to my efficiency metrics, the Jaguars had the 15th-ranked pass offense while playing the 24th-ranked schedule in terms of defensive pass efficiency. They had the No. 1 pass defense against the 28th-ranked schedule. The combination of the No. 1 pass defense and an average pass offense made them the 5th-best overall team on my ranking. They played the 32nd-ranked schedule overall. In their 12 wins (including playoffs), the Jaguars had 4.3 yards per carry whereas their opponents had 4.2. But they had 7.5 yards per pass whereas their opponents had 5.0. Passing matters. The running game doesn’t.

They were the best team in the AFC playoffs, but if you don’t trust your QB to go for a field goal with 55 seconds and 2 timeouts left, you don’t deserve to play in the Super Bowl. The window was wide-open.

The pass protection was much better than in recent years and OC Nathaniel Hackett created some easy throws for Bortles off play-action against a bottom-10 schedule in terms of defensive pass efficiency. According to Football Outsiders, they had 8.6 play-action yards per play which ranked 6th in the league. In 2017, they also had the advantage of playing four games against the Colts & Texans without their starting QBs, but with terrible offensive lines – they went 4-0 and collected half of their sack total for the season in these four games. The Jags went 6-6 against all other teams. 2017 is going to be a much tougher campaign.

With or without Fournette

“But Leonard Fournette and the running game is the focus point of the Jaguars offense”. That’s true, but how much of an impact did it make? In 3 regular season games without Leonard Fournette, the Jaguars went 3-0, beating the Colts 27-0, the Bengals 23-7 and the Texans 45-7. The RBs rushed for 4.3 yards per carry in those games. You would imagine it was impossible to score points for the Jaguars without Fournette. In the three games, the Jaguars arguably had their best passing performances with Bortles throwing an average of over 9 net yards per pass attempt along with 5 TDs and 0 INTs.  In wins, Fournette had 4.0 YPC, in losses 3.7. His two long TD runs came against the Rams (75 yards) when they lost 17-27 and against the Steelers (90 yards) in garbage time when they were up 23-9 with 1.47 to go in the fourth quarter.

“But Fournette was their whole offense in the post-season”. Not so fast. Against the Bills, Fournette was non-existent. He had 57 rush yards on 2.7 yards per carry. Blake Bortles had 88 rush yards on 8.8 yards per carry. That game was a complete sh*t show and neither team earned a win. Against the Steelers, Fournette was great in the red zone, which seems to be his strongest area. But the Jags also caught a weak Steelers pass defense – Bortles had an easy game for his standards. Pass offense and pass defense started fast. Fournette had a great 18-yard touchdown run when the Jags started at the PIT18 off a turnover. On the other five offensive touchdown drives, Fournette was responsible for 77 of 295 total yards. Let’s not act as if Fournette was their whole offense. We saw a 45-yard pass to Keenan Cole, a 40-yard pass to T.J. Yeldon and a 14-yard touchdown pass to FB Tommy Bohanon. The Steelers didn’t know how to defend the pass and that was the matchup the Jaguars completely exploited.

Starting fast at Foxboro

At New England, Fournette had 2 runs and 10 yards on the first touchdown drive. On the second touchdown drive, he had the first touch when the Jaguars were at the NE 32 yard line. He finished off the drive with some good runs towards the touchdown, but up to that point, the Jaguars offense was all about passing efficiency, catching the slow Patriots defense with play-action passes towards the sidelines and screens. On the third scoring drive right after halftime, Fournette had five runs for a combined 10 yards. The Jags collected 29 yards through the air and scored a FG. On the final scoring drive, Fournette had four carries for 23 yards with two successful runs over 7 and 14 yards. In the fourth quarter, the Jaguars showed terrible run-first play-calling and Fournette was completely stuffed by the Pats. Fournette finished the post-season with 3.5 yards per carry.

Fournette is exciting to watch, but his rushing efficiency has been average throughout the season and the running game didn’t have as big of an impact on the Jaguars’s offense as the general perception assumes. The Jaguars would have gone 10-6 on an easy schedule for their pass offense without him and it’s also safe to assume they wouldn’t have had less success in the post-season. Their pass defense was lights out and they had some blazing fast starts which was enough to win some games. When the pass offense had a rough day and relied on Blake Bortles to make things happen – it didn’t turn out well. That might be the case more often next season. Just imagine, the Jaguars had drafted Deshaun Watson instead of Fournette and focused even more on the passing game.

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