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Month after reactions: Running Backs

What was going on in the backfield this season?

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

2019 was another crazy year for the Buccaneers when it comes to the running back position. 2018 was about as big a failure as it gets when you consider the fact that the team spent a 2nd round pick on a back who basically was out of commission all season long despite being healthy. 2019 was better, but after sitting on it for a month, I still can’t make out what was really going on week to week. Let’s dive in and react.

On-field performance

When I decided to give it some time and go back and re-watch some highlights and cut-ups of this unit, I expected to feel a bit better about the overall situation than I actually ended up feeling. Focusing solely on the players and what they produced, let’s get into what each player actually produced.

Where going to focus on a few advanced metrics here, one of which is DYAR (Defensive Adjusted Yards Above Replacement). This metric takes into account what a player did against specific defenses. We all know that no two defenses are alike, and comparing one’s numbers against the Dolphins pass defense for arguments sake, is much different than throwing against the Patriots.

Ronald Jones finished 23rd overall among qualified backs in rushing DYAR at +40 with Peyton Barber finishing 45th at -140. What sticks out with these numbers is the fact that Barber only saw 18 fewer carries over the course of the season than Jones. It isn’t just the numbers that showed Jones was the better overall back either, it showed when watching live with your own two eyes. Raw statics wise, it looks even worse with Jones finishing a full yard + better a carry than Barber and tallying up 254 more yards on the ground.

Receiving wise, we’ll again lean on DYAR for the big comparison between Barber, Jones and Dare Ogunbowale. Jones again finished as top dog in the backfield, where he again finished 23rd among all backs at +39. Dare, the teams clear cut top choice on 3rd downs and in two-minute/hurry up situations, was several spots back with a DYAR of 32. Jones and Ogunbowale both finished with a 76% catch rate with Barber trailing the two at 67% and a DYAR of 17.

It was again Jones however, who separated himself with the eye test when catching passes. Jones caught 4 fewer passes than Ogunbowale but netted an additional 23 yards on receptions including a long of 41, nearly double Dare’s longest.

The final aspect of the backs is their pass protection which as a whole, needed to be better. One thing was clear, and it’ll be touched on a bit more in a second, is that some players had a long leash than others when it came to protecting the teams quarterback and that ultimately may have been the difference between the team having a 1,000 yard back.

Coaching decisions with the running backs...

The biggest factor to this teams running back issues has to be the usage of said backs. Ronald Jones had multiple instances where he clearly was the best running back on the team this year. Jones had 5 games where he didn’t register double digit touches out of the backfield. The games prior to each of those instances? 13 carries for 75 yards, 19 for 70 yards, 11 for 29 and a touchdown and 12 for 51 and a touchdown. There was one instance where Jones had back to back games with under 10 touches (9 and then 4 in weeks 5 and 6).

While there were some clear reasons why Jones would fall out of the game plan such as the team getting down quick and going to the hurry up or a missed block in pass protection. One thing stood out, the same standard did not appear to be the case for Barber and Ogunbowale. Early on in the season it made sense, coaches put players in roles and unless someone earns more time or isn’t performing up to par, little will change that soon. In this case however, we were deep into the final quarter of the season before Ronald Jones was given the true nod to take over. It just makes you question whether this coaching staff was that thick headed to just keep ignoring what many others could see.

Moving beyond Jones, it seems strange at times watching Peyton Barber perform admirably in pass protection only to give up his snaps to Dare all season long in crucial situations. With Jones being a second year guy and Dare struggling at times as a rookie, why not lean more heavily on the veteran of the group?

It just seemed as though this staff wasn’t sure what it had in Jones and Barber as returning players and instead, relied heavily on a rookie they picked in some heavy situations. Maybe some things go quite differently had they not given up on Jones so early in some games. Maybe a heavier dose of Barber in critical third downs and late game situations helps put the team in a more favorable position to win. Then again, who knows?

Final reactions

From the running back position, this seemed like another lost year that finished with more questions than answers. Sure, we saw the possible emergence of Ronald Jones as a feature back. But we also saw a staff that clearly lacked faith in the second year back as they regularly went away from him after a lone mistake. It was only fitting that in the final game, after a quick mistake, Jones was given more chances and rewarded the staff handsomely.

Peyton Barber is a very good backup, but that’s all he is at this point. Barber struggled to get results behind the same line that Jones had some success with. He was clearly surpassed by rookie Dare Ogunbowale in the game plans and while he has some left in the tank, it most likely will end up spent elsewhere.

Dare had a respectable rookie season but showed little reason to believe he will ever be more than what he was this season. Used almost exclusively to pass protect and catch passes out of the backfield, Ogunbowale was little more than a mediocre option in what was an otherwise explosive offense.

What does this tell Buccaneer fans? Well, better hope this staff starts believing in Ronald Jones or be prepared for this team to waste more draft capital on someone who can be a feature back on all three downs early in the upcoming draft. With so many holes elsewhere on this team, it would certainly pain myself to watch this team toss another pick into a position many other teams have found so much value in later in the draft. 2020 should be Ronald Jones season in my eyes.

No fear, Arians and company will certainly see things differently.