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Predicting the Year After Scoring 18 Touchdowns

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 7/6/2022 Michael Fabiano
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No matter how good the player, following up a prolific fantasy season is often met with a steep decline.

Steve Van Buren isn’t a name that most fantasy footballers remember. After all, his Hall of Fame pro football career started in the 1940s and ended after the 1951 season.

That was a LONG time ago.

However, Van Buren was the first running back in a long line of players who have fallen into a trend pertaining to scoring touchdowns. In 1945, he became the first running back to score 18 or more times in a single season. That was quite a feat back then when you consider that the regular season lasted just 10 games. “Supersonic Steve,” as he was called, would have been one of the first fantasy superstars had our great game been around back then (most agree that fantasy football didn’t begin until the early 1960s).

That trend I mentioned has to do with running backs who score 18 or more touchdowns in a single season and their inevitable decline in the following year. Buren was the first back to hit that mark and experience this decline, as he saw his total drop from 18 to five in 1946. That trend has continued in the many decades since then, even with advancements in team offenses, coaching strategies and player skill sets.

Heck, it happened just last season.

We'll get to that soon, but first, let's look at the historical data of running backs who have scored at least 18 touchdowns in a single season and what happened to their total end-zone visits the following campaign. This is relevant information because we’ve had four runners hit that mark over the last two years, including three last year. In 2019, we had a trio of runners score 18-plus times. That had only happened once before (2005).

Based on my research, there have been 58 instances of a back scoring 18-plus times in a single season. All but six saw that total decline the following season. Six. LaDainian Tomlinson had the biggest leap, scoring 20 times in 2005 and 31 times (+11) in 2006. Shaun Alexander saw an eight-touchdown increase in 2005 after scoring 20 times in 2004. No other runner who saw an increase had more than three additional scores.

Every other running back saw a decline from one to 21 touchdowns after a season with 18-plus touchdowns. That’s 89% of the time. Furthermore, the decline was eight or more touchdowns 32 times (55.2%). Another six runners saw a decline of six to seven, and 17% of the runners in this research experienced a decline of five or fewer scores.

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Now, you might be thinking that today’s football is far different than football before the turn of the century. And, of course, you'd be right. But this trend hasn’t changed.

Not at all.

Since 2000, there have been 32 instances of a running back scoring 18-plus touchdowns. Just five (16%) saw an increase in touchdowns the following year. In the other 27 instances, the average decline in touchdowns was 10.3, ranging from one fewer to 21 fewer.

Even if we remove Christian McCaffrey (2020), Larry Johnson (2007), Edgerrin James (2001) and David Johnson (2017), all of whom missed eight or more contests due to injuries following a season with 18-plus touchdowns, the average decline was still 8.9.

If we shrink the research down to this decade alone, a decline in touchdowns comes 90% of the time. The decrease was greater than seven scores 60% of the time. That includes Alvin Kamara, who saw a decline of 13 touchdowns last season. He’s actually seen an average decline of 12.5 scores in two seasons after hitting the 18-score mark.

As you can tell, the data is overwhelmingly against a running back, scoring 18-plus touchdowns in back-to-back seasons. And in many cases, he won’t even come close. That’s not good news for the trio of backs who hit 18-plus last year, Jonathan Taylor, Austin Ekeler and James Conner. I’d still feel pretty good about the chances of Taylor getting into the 12-15 touchdown range, but the decline could be bigger for Ekeler and Conner.

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Ekeler, whose previous career-best was 11 touchdowns (2019), will almost certainly see a decline in both touches and red-zone chances with rookie Isaiah Spiller in the mix. Even Ekeler himself predicts he’ll see fewer touches, so I’d expect a ceiling of 12-14 touchdowns. That would be a decline of six to eight scores, but most fans would take it.

As for Conner, his previous career was 13 touchdowns with the Steelers (2018), and he scored six fewer times the very next year. In 2021, Conner's 42 red-zone looks were a career-high, and Arizona was fourth in drives that resulted in a goal-to-go situation. It was the perfect touchdown storm, but the forecast won’t be as pleasant this season. In fact, I’ll predict a campaign with eight to 10 touchdowns on the high end in 2022.

Those totals for Taylor, Ekeler and Conner, might be conservative, but our historical data has taught us that a decline (and in many cases a collapse) of end-zone visits is likely if not inevitable. Keep that in mind when you’re constructing your 2022 fantasy rosters.

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Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!

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