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I've got a few words of caution to those of you itching to grab Michael Turner in the first round of your fantasy football draft: Your franchise cornerstone might be cursed!
As colleague Christopher Harris put it succinctly in Turner's 2009 player profile, "Turner had a league-high 376 regular-season carries in '08, which renders him vulnerable to the 'Curse of 370.'"
That's right, folks, there's such a thing as the "Curse of 370," the 370, of course, serving as a defined number of a player's regular-season rushing attempts. The curse dictates that any player who exceeds that benchmark suffers a significant drop-off in production the following season, even if he doesn't get hurt and miss time in said season. Much like baseball has pitch counts, football seemingly has "carry counts." Blow past the recommended number, and suffer the consequences in subsequent seasons.
Not that I'd claim it's any invention of mine; the curse has been oft-discussed in the fantasy football industry for more than five years now, dating back at least to 2004, when it appeared on FootballOutsiders.com. But those who have followed my work on these pages know I'm not one to take blanket statements as gospel without first checking the facts, and that I'm not opposed to playing a trend if backed by sufficient evidence.
Well, I've checked the historical data, and let me say that I'm fully behind the existence of a curse. In the history of the NFL, there have been 27 instances of running backs amassing 370 or more carries in a season and all but one of them declined in terms of total fantasy points the next year. (That one, LaDainian Tomlinson, somehow escaped the clutches of the curse despite 372 rushing attempts in 2002.)
Here's a breakdown of the backs' average numbers in the years they reached the 370-carry plateau, as well as in their follow-up seasons:
That means that the average running back to fit the curse criterion dropped off by more than 40 percent in fantasy production (44.2 percent, to be exact), a number that, if applied to Turner's 2008, would result in a paltry 117 fantasy points in 2009. To put that number into perspective, in 2008, Sammy Morris and Leon Washington amassed 119 fantasy points apiece, and they tied for 30th among running backs.
Here's another insight: If you're of the mind that this generation's running backs are bigger, stronger and more able to endure the wear and tear typical to the position, you're wrong. The past five backs to have run the football 370-plus times in a season -- Larry Johnson in 2006, Shaun Alexander in 2005, Curtis Martin in 2004, and Jamal Lewis and Ricky Williams in 2003 -- suffered a drop-off of 193 fantasy points on average the following year, and even if you dismiss that Williams didn't play in 2004 and run the numbers excluding him, well, the other four declined by 190 points on average in their follow-up seasons. The numbers say that modern backs are even more likely than their predecessors at falling prey to the curse. (To offer any sort of logical explanation, I'd have to say that if the modern game is full of bigger, stronger and more physically conditioned running backs, then it follows that today's running backs are taking hits from bigger, stronger and more physically conditioned linemen, linebackers and safeties.)
Here's the year-by-year breakdown for each of the 27, working backward by season:
You'll notice I included a column for "Playoffs carries," with good reason: Rushing attempts accrued during the playoffs do have an impact on a running back's future performance. As you'll see above, six of the 27 backs ran the football an additional 50-plus times during the playoffs; those players suffered a drop-off of 179 fantasy points on average the following season (compared to 109 for the other 21 in the study).
Including playoffs carries, though, also draws in running backs who might not have totaled 370 or more carries during the regular season, but surely breezed past that point when accounting for playoff games. (Incidentally, why playoff games but not preseason? It's obvious; playoff games, like those played during the regular season, are high-octane, physical contests, unlike preseason contests in which regulars rarely play for longer than a quarter.) Judging by the data, it appears that 397 carries -- exactly 110 percent of the curse's 370 -- is about the breakdown point when including playoff usage.
Here are the year-by-year breakdowns for the additional 13 players to qualify:
Though not as drastic an impact as those who fell prey to the "regular-season curse," the 13 "playoff-curse" players above saw their fantasy totals dip by 77 points the following year on average, and that's in spite of three of them actually improving the year after running the football 397-plus times. That's still sufficient evidence, though the good news for fantasy owners is that no one in the NFL ran 397 or more times in 2008 when including postseason rushing attempts. Whew, we're safe (for this year, at least)!
So that returns us to the topic of Turner, whom I'm not saying we should condemn to No. 30 status among running backs, not by a long shot. After all, for his whole career he lacks workload worries; he's 27 years old and has a scant 604 carries on his legs. It's not like the guy is toast; it's different from when, say, Curtis Martin was haunted by the curse, because at the time Martin was 32 years old with nearly 3,300 career carries.
Atlanta seems to have done an effective job in the offseason preparing to lighten Turner's load, acquiring Tony Gonzalez to beef up the passing game, having earned Matt Ryan a valuable year's experience at quarterback, and expressing to ESPN.com that the team fully intends to involve backup Jerious Norwood more in the offense. Just by virtue of the Falcons' plans to give Turner fewer carries he's unlikely to repeat his stellar 2008 but be mindful, too, as the curse can knock him down further.
As an aside to those wondering about the purpose of a column meant to caution only slightly regarding a player guaranteed to go in the top 5 of practically every draft, addressing the "Curse of 370" also has farther-reaching implications than Turner or the 2009 season alone. Like those oft-discussed "avoid 30-plus-year-old running backs" or "don't draft rookie quarterbacks" nuggets of advice, familiarizing yourself with the curse gives you insight as to when to avoid future such candidates.
Keeper-league owners, for instance, can tell you its relevance from a long-term perspective. It's an effective black mark on a running back, as Turner, for example, might have been one of the best at his position to own in fantasy in 2008, but as a result of that year's wear and tear is now a weaker bet to repeat or come close to the same performance in 2009. If you were on the fringe of contention last year, for instance, and you owned Turner, you might have had a trade decision on your hands as his workload remained on pace to fall into the grasp of the curse. Should you have traded him for a safer back, say, a Maurice Jones-Drew and perhaps another useful keeper? Maybe so. (Obviously it'd be easy for me to say yes today with the advantage of hindsight).
But I'll leave the decision with future such candidates in your hands. Is it a truly relevant evaluation tool for running backs? Or is it only a minor factor to you?
I'll tell you this: As a superstitious fella, I know any threat of a curse scares me.Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.