The Zeke Factor

Feed the guy. For he has changed the NFL.

One of the challenges in developing Front Office Football Eight was dealing with ol’ Zeke. I want the game to run properly out of the box, so to speak. And a big part of that is making sure it produces “realistic” NFL statistics.

If you fire up the game for the first time, and a running back is gaining 3,000 yards in a season, for example, if you’re like most Front Office Football customers, you’re going to raise more than an eyebrow.

So a big part of my job, perhaps the only part that really matters, long-term, is ensuring that the numbers Front Office Football produces feel like professional football numbers.

Running backs are tough. Their careers ramp up as early as any position. Research suggests that a rookie running back can and will perform at peak or close to peak performance. Certainly by year two. More playing time often comes later because running backs get on the field by being explosive and holding onto the football. They stay on the field by learning effective pass protection and doing useful things on third down.

The running back model changes faster than other positions. The NFL of years past… star running backs were almost as important as the quarterback. The idea that you’d talk about a wide receiver before a running back? Maybe if you had a Lynn Swann or a Fred Biletnikoff. But still, there was Franco Harris and, well, OK, the Stabler-Biletnikoff-Casper-Branch Raiders had that passing identity and I had to look up Mark van Eeghen’s name to find that monster fullback (he did, in fairness, rush for more than 1,000 yards).

Gradually, coaches have had more success with running backs who are willing to sacrifice everything for a year or two of relative glory. Drafting premier running backs became a costly mistake. They have the shortest careers. And drafting a mistake early in the first round could cause your franchise enormous harm.

Then, in 2012, Trent Richardson was the third overall pick. Cleveland Browns. We know this story. He didn’t last long with Cleveland. At least they got a first-round pick back from Indianapolis (of course, being Cleveland, they turned that pick into Johnny Manziel). So Richardson got to play in three playoff games. His statistics from those three games: 1 yard gained, 1 fumble lost. He’s no longer in the NFL.

It wouldn’t be fair to say Richardson was the only cause of this trend, because he was decent, but not earth-shattering, as a rookie. But in 2013, the first running back selected was #37 and in 2014, the first running back lasted all the way to #54.

Last year, Todd Gurley went #10 and played quite well. Melvin Gordon went #15 and reviews are mixed. But Gurley’s success may have led to what Dallas did at #4 this year – Ezekiel Elliott. Zeke. On a pace to gain 1,750 yards with 16 touchdowns. More importantly, he’s forcing defenses to plan against him in a way we really don’t see with running backs anymore.

Back to Front Office Football… I make relatively undetailed player files for use with the game. I try and provide accurate demographic information, but I don’t try and fully model each player. For a career sim, this works best. But there’s still that out-of-the-box experience. I give each player a 0-9 rating and let the game calculate the details each time you start a new career. Elliott deserves a 9. I haven’t had a 9 running back in years, but I don’t think it would be right not to give him one, because he’s already the top back in the league and research suggests he’ll be even a bit better next year.

I also made massive changes to the game engine for Front Office Football Eight. Part to handle the new game planning and part just because engines could always use a tune-up. In testing, I was having trouble with Elliott. Given my philosophy of how the game should work, I like that the game can produce very different results given different inputs. In Elliott’s case, that meant I was seeing the NFL rushing record broken in 2016 or 2017 on a somewhat frequent basis. Honestly, I don’t think that’s all that unrealistic. I did tune peak rushing down a bit, but if you create an unrealistic game plan, you can probably get Elliott over the record.

Whatever the case, Zeke has changed the NFL and when the 2017 draft comes, you can expect more first-round running backs than we’ve seen in a long time. It’s too bad that if anything is harmed by the new CBA that limits rookie salaries, it’s the short-career, early-peak running back position. One should feed the guy.

Author: Jim Gindin

Founder and Lead Developer, Solecismic Software