Commentary

Revenge of the "Curse of 370"

Updated: June 23, 2010, 12:57 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Funny thing about curses: Most are harder to break than you think.

Ask Michael Turner's owners last season a little about the topic. Perhaps in no other place might you find more believers in the "Curse of 370," a theory created by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders which states that any running back who carries the football 370 or more times one season is cursed, destined for a lackluster year the next.

Whether it's fair to condemn Turner for his 2009 performance isn't the issue. Yes, he suffered a severely sprained ankle in Week 10 yet attempted to play through it, and that injury was entirely responsible for earning him the label of fantasy disappointment. And yes, at the time he got hurt he was on a pace that would have put him only 19 fantasy points shy of his number during his 376-carry campaign of 2008.

Was the injury a direct result of his workload the prior year, or merely an instance of bad luck? We might never know the answer, but the bottom line is that Turner's final numbers suffered a hit, providing further evidence of a curse. We're now up to 28 occasions in NFL history in which a player has been doled out 370 or more carries in a season, and whether it was the result of injury, fatigue, advancing age, weaker team support or simply bad luck, it seems as if every one of those players suffered some effect of the curse the following year.

The evidence is substantial, and damning:

• Twenty of the 28 missed at least one game the very next season. That's 71.4 percent. As a comparison point, of the 168 players who carried the football between 300 and 369 times in a single season and either didn't do it in 2009 -- meaning they have yet to have a follow-up year -- or didn't retire immediately afterward (like Tiki Barber), only 68, or 40.5 percent, missed at least one game the very next year

• Those 28 averaged 3.3 games missed in their follow-up years; again to compare, those in the 300-369 group averaged only 1.6 games missed.

• Only one -- LaDainian Tomlinson, in 2003 -- managed as many fantasy points (or more) in his follow-up season as he had in his 370-carry campaign.

• All but three suffered a drop in fantasy points of 20 percent or greater.

• Nine didn't even score half as many fantasy points in the year subsequent to their 370-carry campaigns; that's 32.1 percent. To compare, of the 279 players to carry the football 270-369 times in a season, then appear in at least one game the next, only 56 -- or 20.1 percent -- saw their rushing yards drop by at least half, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Those backs averaged 1,049 yards and 7.4 rushing touchdowns, after averaging 1,304 and 9.3 in their 270-369 carry seasons.

• As for the inevitable follow-up questions about shorter-than-16-game seasons -- primarily those interrupted by work stoppages in 1982 and 1987 -- even if you scale the numbers of the two players whose follow-up seasons happened in those years, Eric Dickerson (1986-87) and George Rogers (1982-83), to 16-game seasons, both would still have experienced drop-offs of 30 percent or greater in terms of total fantasy points.

But these are facts you might already have known. The idea of a "Curse of 370" was widely discussed when Larry Johnson toted the rock an irresponsible 416 times in 2006, and was a point of contention again during the 2009 preseason with Turner. It has been analyzed, publicized and, yes, criticized, and by this point it might be familiar enough that you've formed an opinion about it.

Michael Turner
AP Photo/John BazemoreMichael Turner missed five games last season, after carrying it 376 times in 2008.
If you're a naysayer, that's OK. One fun thing about statistics -- and in this game we're really talking about probabilities -- is that there is no such thing as an ironclad guarantee. If the basis for your argument against is that the "Curse of 370" lacks a 100 percent success rate, that's a fair point, but what statistical measure doesn't fall at least barely short? We're still talking about an approximately 90 percent rate of "curse aftereffects," and you can be sure that if you get your fantasy football picks correct 90 percent of the time, you're going to win your league.

However, if you're a believer, there's something else you should know: The "Curse of 370," which is traditionally discussed only with players who just accumulated that many carries the preceding year, has long-term adverse effects, too.

That's an important take-back, especially in a year like this, where no running back was abused to the point of 370 or more carries last season. Chris Johnson's owners must be happy to know his NFL-leading total was a mere 358, or 12 short of the dreaded curse level, because now they can draft him with confidence at No. 1 or 2.

Meanwhile, Turner's owners -- at least the ones holding out hope his value will return to first-round levels -- have quite a bit to fear. To a lesser degree, those hoping that Johnson might rejuvenate his career with the Washington Redskins should also revisit their thinking.

Most people will tout the curse only when it pertains to the season immediately following the 370-carry campaign. That fuels the fire for skeptics who doubt its viability; sure, any running back coming off a season with that many carries is bound to regress statistically. After all, 370-plus is a massive number of opportunities, almost unmatchable. On these pages, we tend to call that sort of thing regression to the mean, or the "law of averages."

But when that regression extends two, three, even four years afterward?

Tallying the numbers of all 28 running backs to amass 370 or more carries in a single season, both in that year and each of the five seasons following it, the chart below reveals ominous long-term repercussions:

That's not all. Here's further evidence:

• Only three running backs have managed to play every game in the two seasons immediately following their 370-carry campaigns: Earl Campbell (1981-82), Eddie George (2001-02) and Walter Payton (1985-86).

• No player in history has ever played more than 59 consecutive regular-season games immediately following a 370-carry season (George holds that record). If that sounds insignificant to you, consider that Thomas Jones (71) has a longer active streak of games played, and he'll be 32 when the 2010 season starts, or more than a year older than George was when George's ended.

• Every one of the 28 370-carry seasons has resulted in at least 208 fantasy points. Those running backs, however, have tallied at least 208 fantasy points in any of the five proceeding seasons only 26 times combined.

• Only three running backs managed a better fantasy season than their 370-carry campaigns within five years of that campaign: Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith (who did it twice) and Tomlinson (who did it four times). Guess what those three have in common? (Hint: They're really, really good.)

• Of the 28 370-carry campaigns, 19 times the running back failed to score even 80 percent of the fantasy points totaled in that campaign within any of the following five seasons. Nine didn't even reach 60 percent.

In case you're wondering how age comes into play, eight times a running back began one of the two subsequent seasons to a 370-carry campaign under the age of 25, and those players missed a total of 27 games. Only three times did they tally at least 208 fantasy points, and only one (Tomlinson) improved his fantasy point total from his 370-carry year. It's a small sample size, yes, but not great evidence to support that younger players are more capable of handling heftier workloads.

Here's the full rundown of what the 28 running backs who fell prey to the "Curse of 370" did, both in their 370-carry seasons and the five years after it. "GM" represents the number of games the player missed in the given season.

Though Turner is only 28 years old and with just 782 carries on his legs, numbers that traditionally hint that he has quite a bit of his career left to play, the facts above suggest it's highly unlikely he ever again recaptures his workhorse role of 2008. That he admitted to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in June that he wasn't yet in game shape despite his ankle having healed hardly helps matters.

Statistically speaking, players affected by the curse generally lose 25.9 percent of their 370-carry campaign's fantasy production the following year, going game by game; Turner lost 22.3 percent. In their second season following their 370-carry campaign, they lost 12.4 percent of their production from their follow-up year. Not to guarantee Turner follows that trend, but if he does, it'll mean an average of 11.2 fantasy points per game in 2010 or, at best, 179 in a 16-game season, a number that 10 running backs topped last season.

Hardly sounds like a bounce-back, curse-busting number, does it?

Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.