The Death of the Running Back

It is a widely known fact that the NFL s recently became a passing league. 4000 yards from a quarterback is an accomplishment that has been diminished by the gaudy numbers of the 32 quarterbacks. While eclipsing 4000 yards has lost some value, the a thousand yard mark is elusive to many of the premier running backs. As recently as 2006, 23 running backs topped that mark. Since then, the number of backs hitting that number is on a downward trend. There are two primary reasons for the recent decline: the difficulty of finding running back talent and the adoption of the running back by committee.

Screenshot (26)Above is a chart displaying the number of backs who rushed for 1000 yards, how many had done it for a consecutive season, and how many managed to reach a thousand yards twice in a three season interval (Note: 2006 does not include Michael Vick). What’s important about the chart is the consistency by which the same group of running backs would hit that mark. For example, in 2006, out of the 13 running backs who managed to accumulate 1000 yards at least twice in a three year span, 10 made a postseason appearance in either the ’05 or ’06 season. Having that running back who a quarterback could rely on made a huge difference in their offensive capabilities. In 2013, that number decreased to five out of seven. That means that having a versatile back does have the same significance, but that the number of backs who can provide that has been cut almost in half.

Now, the NFL is at the point where it appears that only 11 running backs will top the thousand yard mark. Those on the list include DeMarco Murray (already over 1000), Arian Foster, Le’Veon Bell, Justin Forsett, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Alfred Morris, Andre Ellington, Mark Ingram, and Jamaal Charles. While two or three more backs could have a huge game and pass the mark, it is also likely that two or three of the backs on the list will not keep producing at their current rate and come up short of a thousand yards or they may just get injured as their bodies have already taken a huge physical toll by this point of the season. As displayed on the chart, this would be a second consecutive 1000 yard season for six of the running backs. Trying to acquire such a rare commodity in the NFL is difficult. Also, evaluating what running backs are best is also challenging, as the Buffalo Bills can attest to since they traded away one of the more consistent backs in today’s games. Even when a team does acquire a running back in the free agency market or via trade, there are so many different variables that can influence a running back’s performance. Ben Tate is arguably the third best running back on the Cleveland Browns’ roster, but everybody thought he would be their number one. Out of the thirty-one instances in which a running back carried for a thousand yards or more, there were only eight occasions where the running back was able to duplicate their success from the prior season. The odds that a running back gets injured, does not produce, or cannot create plays in spite of a weak line makes them a difficult investment. Allocating a sizeable portion of the salary cap to such a high risk, high reward position is too dangerous, especially if the team structures its offense around that player.

Averages for Primary Backs

Primary Back

The chart above is the average percentage of carries, average percentage of yards, and the average yards per game the leading rusher on each team had during their respective seasons. Ultimately, the chart is a reflection of how the running back by committee has taken over the league. In a decade, the percentage of rushing attempts from primary backs has dropped by 8 % and the average number of yards per back has dropped by 16.5 yards. If a running back plays 14 games in a course of a season, which is a difference of 231 yards! If you add that difference to the running backs, the NFL is looking at, as one may expect 18 running backs with a thousand yards. Those touches that are being given to other backs plus the increase in pass attempts leads to seven backs coming up shy of the mark.

The scariest thought to all this is that some of these backs may not be able to put together three consecutive a thousand yard seasons. LeSean McCoy’s banged up O-line has brought him to a poor 3.8 yards per carry. The electric Jamaal Charles has dealt with nagging injuries throughout his career and may not even hit 1000 yards this season. The Dallas Cowboys are riding DeMarco Murray, which could easily lead to late season injury. Marshawn Lynch may not return to Seattle which could hamper his future performance. Matt Forte turns 29 this December. The physical demand of the position plus all the necessary components have heightened the difficulty for running backs to hit a thousand yards. Offensive linemen may get hit every play, but typically, only running backs get tackled 15 or more times per game. That detriment increases as the weather gets colder and the ground gets harder. There is a new perspective on running backs and it is changing the game drastically.

Stats from ESPN

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