What is the beating heart of fantasy football? The reason the game that was once mocked as the pastime of the bored and unathletic has grown into one of the most popular hobbies in the country?
Perhaps it’s the challenge. If there’s one thing Americans love more than a challenge, it’s one they can take on from the couch. Or maybe it’s the camaraderie. Yes, you are competing, but you’re also bonding with your fellow man. We’ve got to while away our time on this earth doing something. It might as well be with our friends and family. But while the mental stimulation and relationship forging are nice, they’re not the reason we play. That would be winning. We like our hobbies, and we like our friends, but we really, really like winning.
This brings us to another question: If winning is why we play fantasy football, what’s the driving force behind actually winning? Broadly, you could say having a good draft and making the right pick ups. Philosophically, you could say finding value. Cynically, you could say luck. But perhaps the most basic element of fantasy football success? Finding the right young running back. For all the attempts to elevate other positions (PPR, two-quarterback leagues), it’s still backs who make the fantasy football world go round.
You will almost never win without a good running back corps. This has been made more complicated by the fact that there are fewer accomplished runners than ever. Backs have a shorter shelf life than an unrefrigerated steak, and more and more often, are employed in committee form. The three-down workhorse is a dying breed. This leaves little room for error as you try to identify the next Jamaal Charles or Arian Foster. Invariably, errors are made. In 2013, one of them was Lamar Miller.
What Went Wrong
You could be forgiven if you were one who made the mistake. On paper, Miller had everything we want and more in a Next Great Workhorse Hope™. A bead on the starting job, impressive measurables, strong rookie stats and uninspiring backups. Dolphins brass and press spent the entire offseason talking him up.
Yet, from the very beginning, there were signs of trouble. If Miller was a prototype breakout candidate, Daniel Thomas was a prototype bum. A 2011 second-rounder, Thomas spent the first two years of his career fumbling and bumbling around the football field. He entered 2013 with just two fewer fumbles (three) than touchdowns, and the owner of a career 3.53 YPC. He was Fumblin’ Dan. But Miller couldn’t separate from Thomas in camp. Miller botched his first snap of the preseason for a Ryan Tannehill fumble, and averaged a modest 4.23 yards on 17 carries thereafter.
By the middle of August, the Dolphins were insisting they viewed Miller and Thomas as a dynamic duo, and that they planned on running a balanced offense. To the surprise of no one, the latter proved false. To the surprise of everyone, the former proved true.
Miller’s problems were manifold. Embroiled in chaos off the field, his offensive line couldn’t block on it. Neither LG Richie Incognito nor starting tackle Jonathan Martin played a single snap after Week 9. Not that they’d been blazing trails before that, but losing two starting linemen for half the season generally isn’t a good thing for a running back. Elsewhere along Miller’s line were RG John Jerry and eventual LT Bryant McKinnie, two players more famous for their eating habits than their blocks. RT Tyson Clabo got washed out more often than an amateur surfer.
But if Miller’s line play was a crisis, his coaching was a comedy. Miami’s pledge to run a balanced offense somehow translated to a unit that dialed up 594 throws (10th in the league) compared to just 349 runs (29th). You could argue that was a result of poor running and poorer blocking, but that wouldn’t be giving since-fired “OC” Mike Sherman his due. For Sherman, abandoning the run wasn’t so much a half-witted, short-sighted weekly occurrence, but a way of life. A passion. What he was born to do. Sherman’s “game plans” essentially amounted to an “Ask Madden” grab bag.
In three of Miller’s best efforts — Week 4 vs. the Saints, Week 8 vs. the Patriots and Week 9 vs. the Bengals — he combined for 34 first-half carries for 209 yards (6.14 YPC). Miami trailed 21-10 at the break in New Orleans, but led the Patriots 17-3 and the Bengals 10-3. So Sherman spent the second half dialing up run after run, right? You can probably guess the answer. Miller ran the ball a total of 14 times in those second halves, including overtime against Cincinnati. That, in a nutshell, was Sherman’s “vision” for his offense, and his “reward” for a young player running well.
Miller has never been known as the world’s most-physical runner. He is not a player who moves piles with impressive leg drive, or stiff arms linebackers to tack on extra yards. Knowing this, I expected it to be one of the main takeaways from his film. Instead, I found a back who ran better than his statistics or workload would indicate, one severely let down by his line and coaching staff.
Miller is still more lightning than thunder. True to his reputation, he rarely, if ever, emerged from dogpiles with extra yards. Fighting through scrums is not his strong suit, and never will be. Miller can be felled by arm tackles, and occasionally gets ragdolled like Chris Johnson. He doesn’t always make the right cuts.
But Miller is not only fast, but quick. His acceleration jumps off the screen. Miller isn’t quite a CJ2K-esque blur, but he’s undoubtedly one of the swiftest running backs in the league. When Miller finds his lane, he’s almost always good for 5-6 yards. He gets what’s blocked, even if he’s operating with a hole the size of Tavon Austin. Miller is not immune to making the wrong read, but he gives away much fewer runs than the numbers would lead you to believe.
The problem is that, like his coaching, his blocking was as bad as advertised last season. Again, Miller is not a player who’s going to take on two tacklers and escape with extra yards. This stood out in 2013 because Miller received almost no second-level blocks. It was one cut, one block, one tackle. On the few occasions Miller’s blockers did manage to occupy a linebacker or defensive back, he usually gained 15-20 yards.
This was most pronounced on Miami’s outside-zone runs, or the rare instances Miller had the nerve to bounce wide on his own. Miller’s skill-set is tailor made for getting to the perimeter and upfield for monster gains. If only his line could ever set the edge. Whenever he was sent outside, Miller was a home run with a Green Monster in front of him. Almost without fail, Miller would be swallowed up whole before he could even think about cutting upfield. It wasn’t a matter of hesitance (Trent Richardson) or a lack of burst (Ray Rice). It was Miller’s offensive line working like a strainer. When you have a space back you can never spring into space, you have a running back who’s not ripping off as many long gains as you’d like.
There were other issues. Miller remains a work in progress as a pass protector, and has surprisingly stiff hands. He is neither the strongest nor smartest back. But the faults that defined his 2013 were the ones that were out of his control.
What Could Still Go Right
Maybe I’m being too optimistic. Great players, after all, typically dispatch the Daniel Thomases of the world when given the chance. They rise above their circumstances. But when I look at Miller’s 2013, I can’t help but see a player who was set up to fail. A back let down by his coaching staff and embarrassed by his offensive line.
Is that what coach Joe Philbin and new OC Bill Lazor saw? It’s hard to say. Philbin threw some love Miller’s way earlier this offseason, saying he does “all three things you want a running back to do." (Run, catch and block). But actions speak louder than words, and the Dolphins gave Knowshon Moreno $3 million. That all but guarantees Moreno will begin the year atop the depth chart, leaving Miller to change-of-pace duties (and Thomas in Mikel Leshoure purgatory).
Barring a Moreno injury, Miller isn’t going to be drafted as a fantasy starter. The question is if he can become one. Moreno is a more competent player than Miller, but he is not a more talented one. He’s not even close. Moreno averaged just 4.02 yards per carry before getting the chance to lead Peyton Manning’s rushing attack last season, and even then his YPC was an uninspiring 4.31. That’s despite facing the softest fronts a back will ever see. Moreno is a replacement-level talent, and replacement-level talents eventually get replaced.
If Miller does the replacing, he’ll be doing so in an offense that should be far more run heavy than the debacle Sherman put on the field in 2013. Lazor has worked for run-minded coaches going back to his days with Joe Gibbs in Washington. He watched Chip Kelly run the ball 500 times for a league-leading 2,566 yards last season. The Dolphins aren’t going to be abandoning the run at the drop of a hat anymore.
The unknowns remain the Dolphins’ offensive line and draft plans. Although they’ve added a legit left tackle in Branden Albert and road-grading guard in Shelley Smith, question marks remain at no fewer than three spots. Only Albert and C Mike Pouncey are set in stone. And though, in theory, the Dolphins run four deep at running back with Miller, Thomas, Moreno and Mike Gillislee, another runner could be added on draft weekend. Certainty is not a theme in Miller’s world right now.
Our Best Guess For 2014
Our best guess is that … we’re guessing. Miller’s strengths were evident on film last season, but so were his flaws. Sherman is gone, but Philbin remains. Moreno is a road block, but one that could certainly be bypassed.
It’s quite possible Miller and his field-stretching speed are best suited for committee duties. There’s a strong chance that’s indeed how he’ll be utilized. If Miller can do what he couldn’t do in 2013 — rise above his circumstances — he still has more than enough talent to produce a breakout season. But whereas he was ordained for glory in 2013, he’ll need help in 2014. Miller is a lottery ticket. One with favorable odds, but a lottery ticket nonetheless. You don’t give up on lottery tickets in Dynasty leagues, but you don’t count on them in re-draft formats. Miller missed his first opportunity. Whether or not it was his fault is very much up for debate. Now all he can do is hope for a second chance.