Is the Era of the Full-Time NFL Running Back Over?

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 Is the Era of the Full-Time NFL Running Back Over?
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Is the era of the every-down running back in the National Football League over? Sure, you have the Adrian Petersons and Arian Fosters of the world, but it does seem that more teams are trending towards the running-back-by-committee approach. 

This is evidenced by the sheer number of picks that some teams around the league have spent on running backs over the past few seasons. 

A perfect case study would be the San Francisco 49ers, who have now exhausted a pick in each of the last five drafts on a running back, despite still having Frank Gore on the roster. 

Year Round Pick Player Team
2013 Fourth 131st Marcus Lattimore South Carolina
2012 Second 61st LaMichael James Oregon 
2011 Fourth 115th Kendall Hunter Oklahoma State
2010 Sixth 173rd Anthony Dixon Mississippi State
2009 Third 74th Glen Coffee Alabama

Although he has been one of the most productive running backs in the NFL over the past seven seasons, Gore's rushing totals don't compare in any way to what we saw in the league prior to the passing era we are currently in. 

Since the start of the 2009 season, Gore is averaging only 243 rush attempts per year and just 17.1 attempts per game over that span.

One of the primary downfalls to an otherwise elite Green Bay Packers offense led by Aaron Rodgers has been a lack of a commitment to the running game. While the Packers haven't had an every-down running back in the truest sense of the word, they haven't been what I would call anemic when actually attempting to run the ball. 

Before ranking 22nd in the NFL in yards per rush last season, Green Bay ranked 26th in that category in 2011 and 25th back in 2010. 

Not the greatest numbers, but this didn't indicate a lack of success for the Packers as a team. They have put up a 36-12 regular-season record and won a Super Bowl in that time. 

Despite this success, general manager Ted Thompson and Co. felt it was a necessity to go out there and double down on the running-back position in April's draft. 

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
Even Ted Thompson double dipped with Johnathan Franklin (pictured) and Eddie Lacy.

They selected Matt Miller's top two running backs, Johnathan Franklin and Eddie Lacy, making it pretty clear that they were not going to be stuck relying on an every-down running back behind Rodgers. 

Interestingly enough, Lacy (5'11" and 230) and Franklin (5'10", 205) both have the size to shoulder the load in the NFL. 

For the Packers, it was about getting two running backs with different styles to help create some semblance of balance on offense. 

Unlike San Francisco with James, neither of the running backs Green Bay selected this past April represents that change-of-pace player. 

This seems to be the trend around the NFL. 

According to the Baltimore Ravens' official website, there might be more of a balance in carries between Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice and his younger counterpart, Bernard Pierce:

While Rice has been firmly entrenched at the top of the depth chart the last few seasons, he’ll get pushed by Pierce this season. The two backs have different styles, so rotating them in and out of games will allow them both to stay fresh and also mix up the looks for the defenses. Rice had 257 carries to Pierce’s 108 last year, but a strong showing from Pierce could balance out that distribution a little more.

While this news might have caught some by surprise, the reasoning is right there. Lowering Rice's workload will keep him fresh throughout the course of the season and enable him to have a much longer window of success in the NFL.

It's basic math. 

Rice's rush attempts have gone down in each of the last two seasons, which is an indication that Baltimore is taking it easy with the talented running back. Give him about 220 rush attempts per season, and he'll be able to continue producing at a high level into his early 30s, much like what we have seen with the aforementioned Gore. 

Via Pro Football Reference. Most single-season rush attempts in NFL history

You have to go down to Chris Johnson's 358 rush attempts back in 2009, which were good for only 44th on the all-time list, to find a running back over the past five seasons who even compares to previous eras as it relates to workload (via Pro Football Reference). 

If this isn't a sign that teams are going away from the workhorse running back, I have no idea what is. 

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Edgerrin James had over 300 rushes seven different times during his career.

As mentioned before, it's all about keeping running backs fresh throughout the course of the season and helping them extend their careers. 

If the magic age for regression relative to running-back production was 30 just a couple of years back, this new philosophy might be able to tack on multiple years to the careers of some of the top running backs in today's NFL. 

Take a look at when some of the top running backs in recent NFL history started to decline:

Decline in Production
Player Team Career Attempts Age
LaDainian Tomlinson San Diego/New York (J)  2,365 29
Edgerrin James Indianapolis/Arizona 2,188 28
Clinton Portis Denver/Washington 2,052 28
Shaun Alexander Seattle/Washington 1,717 29
Marshall Faulk Indianapolis/St. Louis 2,155 29

This may be a bit subjective, but all of these running backs hit a point in their careers where they could no longer produce at the level that was expected of them. In reality, it's like they hit a wall and couldn't rebound. 

Interestingly enough, all of these running backs have career highs in rush attempts that trump those of every single running back in the NFL today not named Adrian Peterson or Arian Foster. 

Where Tomlinson started to slow down as a 29-year-old with 2,365 rush attempts, Gore just turned 30 and has almost 1,300 fewer rush attempts than what Tomlinson finished his career with at the age of 32. 

Al Bello/Getty Images
Baltimore is planning on keeping Ray Rice in his prime for a while longer.

Rice is 26 years old, with five years of experience. If you average out Rice's average rush attempts per season (243.2), he'll be approximately 33 years old before he reaches the total number of attempts that Tomlinson had in his career. Of course, this doesn't take into account what promises to be a decreased workload in the coming seasons.  

We can continue to draw comparisons, but that represents the starkest of contrasts between running backs in previous eras and those today. 

I am not suggesting that Gore or Rice will be putting up 1,200 rush yards in their mid-30s. That would be utterly foolish. What I am saying is that by keeping them fresh throughout their tenures as a professional, San Francisco and Baltimore have extended their playing careers a great deal. 

Foster leads the NFL in rush attempts over the past three seasons with a total of 956. That's an average of about 319 attempts per season and 21.2 attempts per game (via Pro Football Reference). 

It doesn't compare in any way to what we have seen in the past.

Eric Dickerson led the NFL in rush attempts three times between his rookie campaign in 1983 and his first full season with the Colts in 1988. He averaged 394 attempts per season in those three campaigns (via Pro Football Reference). 

Emmitt Smith led the NFL in rush attempts a total of three times as well (1991, 1994 and 1995). He averaged 370 attempts in those three seasons (via Pro Football Reference). 

Even more recently, Ricky Williams led the league in attempts in consecutive seasons (2002 and 2003). He averaged about 388 attempts in those two seasons (via Pro Football Reference). 

Out of all the single-season-attempt leaders over the past six years, only Michael Turner in 2008 put up numbers even near what those aforementioned players averaged during their league-leading seasons. 

This tells you a story of an NFL that is going away from the workman-like running back. 

Another important thing to look at here is whether having a true every-down running back is important in the NFL today. 

Just take a gander at the last five Super Bowl winners and who "shouldered" the load:

Year Team Player Attempts
2012 Baltimore Ray Rice 257
2011 New York (G) Ahmad Bradshaw 171
2010 Green Bay Brandon Jackson 190
2009 New Orleans Mike Bell 172
2008 Pittsburgh Willie Parker 210

With all due to respect to Mike Bell and Brandon Jackson, this isn't exactly the who's who of running-back stardom.

The interesting fact here is that most of these teams had a backup running back to help shoulder the burden on the ground. For Bradshaw, it was Brandon Jacobs. Bell had Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, while Willie Parker found himself sharing carries with Mewelde Moore. 

We already know that the NFL is currently a quarterback-driven league. In order to contend on a consistent basis, a team must have that franchise guy under center. 

That's really not in question at this point. 

This wasn't necessarily the case just two decades ago. While franchises such as the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers did have Hall of Fame quarterbacks, they also possessed elite running games. Heck, even John Elway couldn't bring home the Lombardi Trophy until Terrell Davis joined him in the backfield in Denver. 

Joe Montana and Troy Aikman are two quarterbacks from previous eras who are defined as winners. That being said, they never won the championship without a consistent running game behind them:

Year Champion Rushes Passes Leading Rusher Attempts
1981 San Francisco 560 517 Ricky Patton 152
1984 San Francisco 534 496 Wendell Tyler 246
1988 San Francisco 527 502 Roger Craig 310
1989 San Francisco 493 483 Roger Craig 271
1992 Dallas 500 491 Emmitt Smith 373
1993 Dallas 490 475 Emmitt Smith 283
1995 Dallas 495 494 Emmitt Smith 377

Where San Francisco relied more on the running-back-by-committee approach we see today in its first two championships, Roger Craig was the unquestioned workhorse during its back-to-back Super Bowl runs in the late '80s. As you already know, Emmitt Smith shouldered a vast majority of the load on the ground during the Cowboys' three title runs. 

It's more important to look at two other statistics here. In all seven of these championship seasons between Dallas and San Francisco, each team ran the ball more than they passed it. None of the last seven Super Bowl winners can say the same thing. 

One might think that the less of an onus a running game has on the success of an offense, the less of a necessity it might be to have more than one running back getting consistent carries. 

That's not entirely the case.  

Even in Minnesota and Houston, where there are two workmanlike running backs, the front offices have made the decision to draft a decent backup in order to keep the starter fresh. 

Houston selected Ben Tate in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft. Despite missing his entire rookie season, Tate tallied 175 rush attempts in his first full campaign the next year. This is interesting to note, because Foster missed three games due to injury that season. 

Minnesota picked up former Heisman finalist Toby Gerhart in the second round of the very same draft. He put up 109 rush attempts in his second season back in 2011. It isn't a coincidence that Peterson missed the final four games of that season with a torn ACL. 

It's all about finding contingency plans in case a star running back goes down as a result of injury. 

Speaking of injuries. The new NFL defender is bigger and stronger than previous generations. It's called the evolution of the human body coupled with scientific and technological advances in the offseason workout program. 

Running backs nowadays face a stronger opponent on the other side of the ball. While they themselves are stronger, this increases the chances of injury. 

It's rather simple.

The larger two objects on a collision course are, the harder the impact of the collision. If traveling at the same speed, the larger of the two objects will have more momentum. It's Physics 101.  

While many fantasy-football owners may be collectively shaking their heads at this article, it makes perfect sense for franchises around the league to resort to the committee approach. The idea is simply to keep the best of the best healthy and fresh. Why wouldn't you want that as fans of the game and fans of your favorite teams? 

Don't you want to see Adrian Peterson performing at 2012 levels for the next six seasons? I most definitely do. 

 

Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist at Bleacher Report.

Vincent is the head sports editor at eDraft, co-host of Draft Sports Radio (which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3-6 p.m. ET) and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus.

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