NFL

Why 2-RB System Has Led to Death of the Feature Back

LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 24: Running back Adrian Peterson #28 of the Minnesota Vikings is helped off the field after being injured in the third quarter against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field on December 24, 2011 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Ian HanfordFeatured ColumnistAugust 21, 2012

The day of the workhorse running back is dead. Part of that can be attributed to a movement toward spread out, pass-happy offenses, but more and more teams have adopted a two-back philosophy in the backfield.

In 2000, 10 NFL quarterbacks attempted 500 or more passes. New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde led the way with 590 passes.

Fast-forward to 2011, and we have 16 quarterbacks slinging the ball 500-plus times per season, and three (Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford) who managed to launch it 600-plus times.

The forward pass has, without a doubt, become the soup du jour in the NFL. That leaves much less room for running backs to take over an offense, but it's only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the epidemic plaguing "feature" backs in professional football.

Let's once again head back to 2000. That year eight NFL ball-carriers toted the ball more than 300 times. Very few teams used multiple backs on a regular basis.

The New York Giants gave Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne the ball 200-plus times each. The Buccaneers used Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott in a "thunder and lightning" approach, and the Oakland Raiders used straight thunder with Tyrone Wheatley and Napoleon Kauffman splitting duties in the backfield.

Franchise backs were extremely common. Eddie George was the only back to carry the ball more than 400 times, but go through the list. You will find more guys who were "the guy" than guys who shared their duties with one of their teammates.

The statistics for last year's running backs paint a different picture. Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner are the only two runners who broke the 300-carry mark. Nineteen backs broke the 200-carry plateau, but even that is down from 24 200-plus carriers in 2000.

The trends ebb and flow like anything else between 2000-11, but there's no mistaking the change in focus on NFL offenses. A quarterback's arm is far more valuable than a running back's fragile legs, and injuries have a lot to do with this as well.

Running backs have always been vulnerable. That's the nature of their job, and injuries are tough to avoid, but it's forcing teams to be more careful now.

General managers are more wary of selecting a blue-chip running back in the top five of the NFL draft. Two running backs haven't been picked in the top 10 of any draft since 2005 (Cadillac Williams and Cedric Benson).

Part of that is due to talent, but part of that is also due to the upswing of the committee approach.

Franchise backs are the minority in today's NFL. There are seven franchise talents in NFL backfields today. A handful of other teams use lesser talents in workhorse roles, but only two teams ran the ball over 500 times last season with the 49ers at 498. Seven teams cleared that mark in 2000.

The two-back system is a result of many things. Elite quarterbacks have become a familiar asset in the NFL, and offensive coordinators use their abilities to the maximum extent.

Every time a No. 1 running back goes down with a season-ending injury, it further justifies the new approach of today's playcalling masterminds.

A true franchise talent in the backfield can carry a team, but they are rare. That's why most teams covet the one that they have, and the ones who don't usually deal with injuries along the way. Jones-Drew and Turner have been remarkable healthy, but look at Adrian Peterson.

On top of that you have the benefits two different backs can provide. The key word there being different.

We've seen it at both the professional and college levels. LenDale White and Reggie Bush did it for Southern California in 2005. Alstott and Dunn were doing it for Tampa Bay before that. Versions of this have always existed, and they haven't gone away.

Look at today's teams. I bet you can name more than one running back from most of them, and that's not just from playing Madden. These guys are on the field, sharing duties.

But it's more widespread now. As teams begin to use more exotic sets, versatility becomes a valuable trait for any team. Being able to plug in a certain back in a certain situation is almost necessary.

Feature backs could rise again, or the NFL could continue its trek toward a hard-hitting version of 7-on-7 passing scrimmages. At this point, nothing would surprise me.

Using multiple ball-carriers has become the safest option for most NFL teams, and that's not likely to change anytime soon. The game is more specialized, and a valuable commodity will be protected more than anything else.

In today's football world, the more backs the better.

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