Commentary

Will John Fox help Knowshon Moreno?

Updated: August 19, 2011, 11:03 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Fantasy owners often have a natural reaction anytime an NFL team changes its coach: We look at the incoming coach's track record with other teams and make assumptions that what he did there will seamlessly translate here.

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In the case of John Fox, the Carolina Panthers' coach from 2002 to 2010, his reputation is that of a run-heavy coach, so naturally, the gut reaction for many is that running back Knowshon Moreno's stock should instantly soar.

Although it's true that Fox's teams, at least his offenses, are built around the running game, it's a bit of a mischaracterization to call him a "run-based coach." In truth, he's a defensively minded coach, and there's no question that the Denver Broncos, the worst defense in the NFL in 2010 by points or yards allowed, targeted Fox first and foremost in an effort to shore up their defense.

Consider that, in Fox's nine years in Carolina, his defenses ranked second, eighth, 20th, third, seventh, 16th, 18th, eighth and 18th in terms of total yards allowed.

Coaxing a breakout season from Moreno, who has failed to crack a top-15 season in rushing yards, scrimmage yards or fantasy points among running backs in either of his first two seasons, was a secondary goal. Now, looking at Fox's track record with running backs, there's no doubt he's going to help:

• In the past five seasons (2006-10) -- that time frame specifically chosen because it spans the length of incumbent Carolina starter DeAngelo Williams' career -- Fox's Panthers ran the football on 47.5 percent of their offensive plays, fifth most in the NFL, and 2,331 times total, 10th most in the league.

• On first and second downs in that same time span, Carolina ran 53.8 percent of the time, also the fifth-highest rate in the NFL.

• Fox's Panthers teams, in that five-year stretch, ranked 24th, 14th, third, third and 13th in the NFL in terms of rushing yards.

Knowshon Moreno
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesAfter receiving more than 15 carries in a game nine times as a rookie, Knowshon Moreno did so just four times in 2010.

But the problem with taking this information and formulating a "Moreno is a breakout candidate" hypothesis with it is twofold: First, Fox's reputation as a run-first coach is often misconstrued and sometimes exaggerated as it pertains to individual running backs. One of the knocks on Fox, at least from a fantasy perspective, is that he can be maddeningly unpredictable with his running back usage, ironic considering he's now coaching the same team once led by the king of running back unpredictability, Mike Shanahan.

In Fox's nine years with the Panthers, only four times did an individual running back manage at least 1,000 yards, a number exceeded by 19 other franchises in that time. Two of those occurred in the same season, when Williams and Jonathan Stewart did it in 2009. Neither of them, however, finished among the top 10 in fantasy points at the position that year.

In fact, in Fox's nine seasons as Panthers coach, Williams was the only Carolina running back to crack the top 10 in scoring at his position when he was first in 2008, and he did so only that one season. The vast majority struggled to make the top 20.

As for the game-by-game impact, let's look at the 2008 season, Williams' best and the only one in which both Williams and Stewart appeared in all 16 games. Were you aware that, in those 16 games, Stewart actually had the greater number of carries on three occasions, and on a fourth the two had an identical 15? And, in three additional games, Stewart had at least 15 carries, while finishing within five of Williams' total. Things worked out that season if you were a Williams owner, but you can be sure that those owners did sweat the week-to-week workloads.

The second problem is that Moreno himself has questions he must first answer before he can be termed an ideal fit in Fox's system. There are reasons Williams was a rumored target for the Broncos in the offseason, and it's not merely that Fox is painstakingly loyal to his veteran players.

For instance, Moreno has a propensity for injury. He has missed three games in his young career, all of those last season because of a hamstring injury, but has also drawn a questionable listing on the injury report in five other weeks, those because of knee, ribs and the same hamstring injury. The Broncos rarely leaned on him when he had injury questions; in the eight career games in which he was listed on the injury report, he has averaged 13.1 carries, compared with 15.4 in his other 21 contests. He was also a noticeably less effective runner, averaging 3.8 yards per carry in those eight, compared with 4.1 in the other 21.

In Moreno's defense, he has been getting outstanding reports in that department since camps opened. Per The Denver Post, he is "the healthiest, fittest and fastest he has been in his NFL career" and has lowered his weight from the 208-212 pounds he ranged in his first two seasons to 200 today. There's hope yet for improvement, but an outstanding preseason performance or two would be preferred before we could put substantial stock in those reports.

Another question is Moreno's value to the Broncos as a short-yardage back. Although Moreno had 15 carries in goal-to-go situations, 18th most in the league, and 10 carries inside the opponent's 3-yard line, 12th most, Tim Tebow became an obvious factor in those roles deeper in the year: Tebow was 5-for-5 in scoring in goal-to-go rushing situations and 2-for-2 from inside the opponent's 3. Considering Tebow won't be starting initially, the Broncos might use him the way he was used before he overtook Kyle Orton in Week 15 of 2010, as a goal-line vulture.

All that, of course, ignores the other valid roadblock standing in Moreno's way: The presence of Willis McGahee, inked to a four-year deal on July 31, which nicely ties together the two points above. McGahee serves as a potential platoon back, that important chip for Fox during his Carolina days, and he, like Tebow, could be a factor for the Broncos near the goal line.

The hints were ever-present in the Broncos' preseason opener: In the one series in which Moreno and McGahee played, the two shared work. Moreno had four carries and McGahee two (plus a third nullified by penalty), as Fox alternated the two on early downs. McGahee is going to be a factor in this offense, a point underscored when he told Bill Williamson, who pens ESPN's AFC West blog, that he signed with the Broncos with the hopes he'll get more rushing work than he did in Baltimore.

Put it together and Moreno should have enough opportunities to set career bests in rushing attempts and yards … yet fail to be a high-impact No. 2 running back. He's ranked our No. 18 running back and has been drafted, on average, 39th (ADP: 43.3) in ESPN live drafts so far. That's a late fourth-rounder in standard leagues, an appropriate price for a No. 2 back bordering on flex status.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.