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NY Jets: Making Sense of Running Back Usage

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Before the start of the season, SB Nation asked its team writers to answer questions for a generic preview. This was one of the things I wrote about Matt Forte.

In some ways, it is almost better to think of Forte as more of a number three receiver than a number one back.

I meant it. It made sense. Forte had some nice counting stats during his later years in Chicago, but he had become a lower yield runner. His averages per carry during his final two season with the Bears were 3.9 and 4.1

That was to be expected. He was a 30 year old back with a lot of wear on his tires. The days of expecting him to carry the entire load were likely finished.

That was perfectly fine if the Jets intended to sign him and utilize him the right way. For many backs, receiving skills stay long after their rushing abilities start to fade. A quick run through some of the most productive receiving backs of the last two decades shows us the way.

In his final three seasons when his productive and eventually usage as a runner slipped, Marshall Faulk averaged over 45 catches.

LaDainian Tomlinson actually set a career high in yards per reception as Shonn Greene's backup with the Jets in 2011 while hauling in 42 passes at age 32.

Warrick Dunn caught 47 passes at age 33. Tiki Barber was still a star runner at the end of his career, but he had 58 receptions at age 32 as well.

Old backs may or may not gain a ton of yardage on the ground, but the ones who can catch still can help a team.

The Jets gave Forte a contract averaging $4 million per year. Is that an exorbitant deal? The patron saint of catching passes out of the backfield, Darren Sproles' current contract is $4.5 million.

Beyond this, the Jets gave Bilal Powell a deal almost as lucrative as Forte's. I do not think the plan was to utilize Forte exclusively as a pass catcher. He still could provide something as a runner, but the days of him shouldering the load seemed to be over by any reasonable assumption based on his age and career workload. Sure, he had been durable in his career, but he was going to have more difficultly recovering from a pounding in 2016 with around 2,500 career touches on the odometer than he would as a rookie. It served everybody's purposes to keep him fresh and utilize that receiving ability which tends to last longer. Powell was around to help carry some of the load.

That is what makes the way these guys have been used so puzzling.

Heading into this season, I liked the signing because I saw a plan that made sense. So far this season, I have seen an opposite plan that has made appreciably less sense. Instead of using modern methods of player evaluation that understand the way usage can impact a back's productivity, the Jets have used decades old discredited theories about toughness and playing every down.

It started the first two weeks. Forte had an unfathomable 59 touches in the first two games. That was crazy use for such an old backs. Beyond that, 52 of these touches were handoffs. He wasn't used as a receiver, a trend that has continued up to this point.

Check this out.

Carries in 2016

Forte: 102

Powell: 20

Yards per carry

Forte: 3.5

Powell: 6.0

It gets crazier.


Forte: 22

Powell: 33

The last three week tell an even more bizarre tale.


Forte: 92

Powell: 103


Forte: 35

Powell: 11

Powell is getting into games more frequently, but he isn't being use to lighten Forte's workload. We all know Powell won't sustain that 6 yard per carry average with more touches, but is there any reason his load of carries should not go up?

Why isn't Forte being utilized more where he can help in the receiving game? This passing game needs all of the help it can get. He can be split wide more to help tip the coverage. If a linebacker follows him, it gives away man to man. Send him outside. Maybe he can draw a top cornerback and give Brandon Marshall and easier matchup.

This was really the role he was made to have for the team. At least I thought this was the role the Jets signed him to have. Instead we have seen him used to perform in a role where he will struggle as a 30 year old.