The Michael Vick Effect: New York Jets Running Backs
April 6, 2014 | Phil Alexander
When Michael Vick signed with the New York Jets, my first move was to pat myself on the back for making an aggressive Eric Decker projection the week before. Unfortunately, my second move was to do some light statistical research.
For his career, Vick is the owner of a 56.2% completion percentage, which actually makes it fair to wonder just how much of an upgrade the Jets (and their receivers) are getting over incumbent starter Geno Smith. As a rookie, Geno completed passes at a rate (55.8%) that is right in line with Vick’s career mark. For context, Smith ranked ahead of only the ghastly Case Keenum and decrepit Brandon Weeden among qualifying quarterbacks last season.
As you might expect, Vick’s inability to consistently hit his receivers has not equated to much fantasy success for his pass catchers over the years. In Vick’s five full seasons as a starter in Atlanta, not one of his receivers eclipsed 900 receiving yards in a year. Only DeSean Jackson has cracked the 1,000 yard receiving plateau on a Michael Vick led team – and that happened during Vick’s completely bonkers, unrepeatable 2010 season.
Without dipping more than a big toe into the analytic wading pool, it’s pretty plain I need to dial back my initial Decker projection a bit. Vick’s quarterbacking simply does not support reliable fantasy wide receivers. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the impact of the Vick signing for all Jets skill position players. As I turned over a few more stones, it became apparent that Michael Vick may yet prove useful in bolstering the performance of New York’s running backs.
We’ve seen it happen plenty of times in recent years. A team turns their offense over to a quarterback with wheels, and all of a sudden their running backs start seeing bigger lanes to exploit. During the 2011 season, Broncos RB Willis McGahee ran for 4.51 YPA in games started by Kyle Orton as opposed to 4.97 YPA in games started by Tim Tebow – a solid 10% increase. Just last season, Raiders running backs ran for 4.73 YPA in games started by Terrelle Pryor vs. 4.32 YPA in the games he sat out – an increase in per rush efficiency of about 9.5%.
As impressive as that may be, it turns out Tebow and Pryor can’t hold a candle to Vick when it comes to boosting running back output. The chart below details the performance of Vick’s starting running backs since 2002 in the games started by Vick vs. the games he missed due to injury (or in the case of last season, getting benched for Nick Foles).
If staring at tables bores you completely to death, here are the relevant takeaways:
* Starting running backs saw an 18.3% increase in yards per game with Vick behind center.
* Their yards per rushing attempt increased by 15.07%.
* And most importantly, their rushing fantasy points per game increased by a staggering 32.95%.
Those are some pretty telling results, and with Vick’s propensity for pulling up lame, the sample size is large enough for us to put some faith in.
What Does it Mean for 2014?
I would love to tell you it means we should be targeting Jets running backs next season, but I can’t do that in good conscience. It’s not like we can simply add 33% to Chris Ivory’s 2013 fantasy points and call it a day (for goofs, if we were to do that Ivory would have finished as the RB24 instead of the RB37 last year).
Ivory made the most of his opportunities with the Jets last season, running for 4.6 YPA on a career high 182 attempts. In the four games he was given 15 plus carries, he produced averages of 105.5 rushing YPG, 6.20 YPA, and .75 TDs. You could argue Ivory proved himself every bit as effective as many of us thought he’d be coming into the season, but nagging injuries, blowout losses, and the sometimes hot hand of Bilal Powell conspired to sabotage his workload.
While Ivory did plenty last season to carve out a significant role for 2014, we can assume it won’t be the role of 20 carry bell cow. The chances of Ivory sniffing the field on third downs are virtually non-existent. He knows how to do only one thing on the football field – take the hand off and run as hard as he can into opposing defenders.
To his credit, Ivory has proven quite good at doing that one thing (according to Pro Football Focus, his 3.01 yards after contact per attempt led the entire NFL last season), but Jets OC Marty Mornhinweg’s offense requires a back with more than just a single dimension to his game.
Mornhinweg has traditionally succeeded by utilizing the passing game to create open space for his backs. A quick glance at Marty’s body of work shows 10 seasons out of a possible 14 in which his running backs have caught 39 passes or more, highlighted by a 68 reception season from Charlie Garner in 2000, 90 reception season from Brian Westbrook in 2007, and most recently a 78 reception season from LeSean McCoy in 2010.
Ivory caught just two passes on his 336 snaps last season. Two. Before last year, he had accumulated only three other receptions in his entire three year career (while a member of the pass happy Saints no less). It’s both the reason the Jets brought in Mike Goodson (boy did those plans go horribly awry), and the reason Powell (36 receptions) stole so much field time last season.
It seems a foregone conclusion the Jets will bring in an upgrade on Powell to play the shifty complement to Ivory’s battering ram. If the reports are to be believed, New York dabbled in the Maurice Jones-Drew market before he signed in Oakland, and they’ve been listed as a possible destination for former fantasy stud (and owner of five 40+ reception seasons) Chris Johnson.
If the Jets bring in CJ2K, Ivory’s outlook becomes even murkier, as you’d think Johnson would command more than Powell’s 11 carries per game from last season. Should Johnson prove too rich for frugal GM John Idzik’s blood, I would bet on the Jets finding a mid to late round running back in next month’s NFL Draft who fits Mornhinweg’s game plan.
Knowing what we know today about the Jets backfield, I would be inclined to move Ivory ever so slightly up my 2014 rankings with Vick as his quarterback. He figures to do the bulk of the between the tackles running and heavy lifting at the goal line for a Jets team that has finished outside the top six in rushing attempts only once in the Rex Ryan era. Given the Michael Vick bump, he goes from a terribly boring low end RB3 to a guy who may be able to push into the top 27 or so running backs if everything breaks just right.
And if the Jets make an acquisition in the next few weeks that dramatically alters their running back hierarchy, keep an open mind to the Michael Vick Effect when valuating the situation. If history tells us anything, inflated rushing totals will be there for the taking in the Jets backfield next season.
As I was putting the finishing touches on this article, Jets beat writer Rich Cimini said in an interview he expects Geno Smith to open the season as the Jets starting QB. While Mr. Cimini is exponentially more plugged into the Jets than yours truly, I’m calling shenanigans on this one. The Jets did not pay Michael Vick $5 million to be the back-up next season, nor do I believe he came to New York without some assurance he would be given the opportunity to start. The Michael Vick Effect remains in play.