A Biased View of Todd Gurley

Researchers have found a number of common biases that people have in day-to-day interactions and situations. One of these is the representativeness bias, which is our tendency to assume something is more likely to happen because the situation is similar to others we have encountered. For example, if we are insulted by three people on twitter, we will assume that most other people on twitter are rude (while this may actually be true, it doesn’t mean we are using the right evidence to support the idea). This can have a significant influence on how we view events in the NFL and fantasy football, especially given the lack of behind-the-scenes information.

 

The “Injury”

An example of this bias may be the recent events with Todd Gurley and his performance in the NFC Championship and Super Bowl. The information available was a decrease in usage, poor efficiency, mistakes (two drops in NFC championship game), and camera shots of him on the sideline riding a stationary bike. All of this fits our description of what happens when a player is injured, thus we assumed he must have been injured. The problem is that this came at the expense of ignoring evidence to the contrary. Both Gurley and the team reported he was healthy, which was supported by him not being listed on the injury report. He was effective in the Divisional game against Dallas (115 yards and 1 TD), albeit on comparatively limited touches (16). Reports have also been released since the season ended that the injury was not an issue. Despite this information, the consensus was that he was injured and this could be the only explanation for his performance.

So why does this matter? Biases, and particularly the representativeness bias, manipulate markets and value. Artificially manipulated markets create windows of opportunities for those who can overcome their biases and capitalize. In Gurley’s case, he has the consensus first pick in dynasty and the clear cut number one selection for 2019 redraft before the playoffs. Afterward, he has fallen to the backend of the top tier with a dynasty ADP of 4-5, which is a substantial drop at the top of the rankings.

This drop is not primarily explained by a potential injury. The presence and rumors of C.J. Anderson resigning is the probable cause. Specifically, Gurley’s workload will be threatened. I believe this is heavily influenced by recency bias.

 

Performance and role

 

Todd Gurley 2017-2018 stats (per game)

G Att RuYDs RuTDs Rec ReYDs ReTDs Pts/gm
2017 15 18.6 87 .87 4.27 52.5 .4 23.69
2018 14 18.29 89.36 1.21 4.21 41.43 .29 24.19
2018 Playoffs 3 10 53.33 .66 1.33 1.6 0 10.2

Note: G=Games Played; Att=Rushing Attempts; RuYDS=Rushing Yards; RuTDs=Rushing Touchdowns; Rec=Receptions; ReYDs=Receiving Yards; ReTDs=Receiving TDs; Pts/gm=Fantasy Points per Game

 

Gurley was remarkably consistent between his 2017 and 2018 seasons across most statistics and finished as the top-scoring running back in 2018 despite missing two games (2nd in PPR behind McCaffery). His workload of approximately 18 attempts and 4 receptions per game was nearly identical through the first two years in McVay’s offense. During that time, the L.A. Rams went 24-8,  were top 2 in scoring offense both years, and were top 6 (1st in 2018) in offensive DVOA. The team’s offense ran through Gurley using play action concepts (36% of plays) and 1-1 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs; 87% of plays) more than any other team. The importance of this 1-1 scheme is that it relies on a core group of players to perform an array of duties on any given play since there is minimal change in personnel. Gurley’s versatility contributed to the success of this scheme because he can be deployed to do anything McVay needed in either the rushing or passing attack.

The team also gave Gurley a massive 4 year, $57.5 million contract with $45 million guaranteed. This contract carries a dead cap hit of $21.8 million in 2019 and would be difficult for the team to move on from until 2022 when the dead cap hit drops to $4.2 million.

Lastly, the team notably struggled when Gurley was not involved. The running backs combined for 54 and 57 rushing yards in the NFC championship and Super Bowl, respectively, and the offense was held to 26 (with overtime) and 3 points. They also lost. Their Super Bowl performance was woeful, and one could argue they should have lost the championship game had the blatant pass interference non-call been made. The coaching staff most likely will take this information as evidence that they need Gurley to be involved to optimize success.

 

Takeaway:

Based on the success of the past two seasons, combined with Gurley’s contract and the poor performance of the team when he was not properly utilized in the playoffs, I do not see how the team enters 2019 reducing Gurley’s role. I believe that there are factors involved during these playoff performances that we do not know about. It could be Gurley’s lack of conditioning from not practicing for nearly a month prior to the Divisional round. McVay may have reacted to Gurley’s early mistakes in the Championship game and chose to not use him. There is also the “fresh legs” effect, in which Anderson was effective on an elite offense with a top offensive line simply because he did not have the wear and tear of playing through the majority of a season. Over the course of an offseason and practices, it would be shocking to find Anderson — a player cut twice before joining the Rams in December — would legitimately challenge Gurley’s role.

Gurley played on 75% of offensive snaps in 2018, allowing for a quarter of snaps to be occupied by Anderson and other RBs. Comparative, Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley each played 82% of snaps, and McCaffery played an absurd 91% (this includes week 17 when he only played 13%). Gurley has elite performance with less usage (both in snaps and attempts) than comparable fantasy options. He will continue to be featured on a top NFL offense and is locked into his contract for the foreseeable future.

The events that transpired over the playoffs have left a bad taste in peoples’ mouths about Gurley and has led to some anxiety about what the future may hold. I believe the evidence suggests there will be little to no change in his situation and role, which means his recent deflated value is artificial. While his cost remains high, if your league has a concerned Gurley owner who believes he is falling out of the elite tier, he is a target worth pursuing. But then again, maybe I am just biased.

tburroughs

Dynasty and Analytics writer for @DFF_Dynasty. Fantasy football and Dynasty fanatic. Lucky husband and father to two wonderful girls. I am interested in the practical application of analytics and next generation statistics to fantasy football. Follow me @DFF_Tom

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