The Trent Richardson Trade: Do NFL Running Backs Really Matter Anymore?

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The Trent Richardson Trade: Do NFL Running Backs Really Matter Anymore?
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The acquisition of former Cleveland Brown Trent Richardson by the Indianapolis Colts this week received the kind of attention normally reserved for blockbuster trades. The Colts were expected to make some kind of move to counteract the season-ending loss of Vic Ballard to an ACL tear. 

The only block being busted was the completion of an in-season trade for a former overall No. 3 draft pick. The movement of frontline players during the season is so rare that the website Football Nation struggled to come up with eight transactions over the last 30 years to complete their slideshow

When Judy Battista of NFL.com compared it to the other 15 deals Colts general manger Ryan Grigson has orchestrated in the last year and a half, she described it as “none bigger than this one.” The only thing that raises it to that level is its cost of a first-round draft pick. 

Shopping for a running back to put your team on the right track is like trying to figure out which dialup modem is going to provide the best web experience. As B/R’s own Michael Schottey so aptly pointed out in his articleNow, More Than Ever, the NFL Is a Quarterback League,” the traditional two-back Pro Set has been relegated to history in favor of a “shift to more shotgun and multiple receiver sets...with a mindset toward leaving the run behind altogether.” 

Moving the football on the ground has not become irrelevant, it has just been consigned to a secondary role from which it may not arise for some time to come. 

There are statistics that might, at first glance, refute that claim. In 2004, Corey Dillon of the New England Patriots was the last top-10 running back to be a member of a Super Bowl winning team. Since that time, having a player of this caliber shows a fairly strong correlation to making the playoffs.  

One of those backs always made it as far as the divisional round. In some cases, two of them made it to the conference championship in the same season (2009, 2011). Three of them went to the Super Bowl (2005, 2010, 2012), only to play on the losing side. 

When contrasted with the top-10 passers, a different picture emerges. Except for the 2012 season, one of those quarterbacks always made it to the Super Bowl. In 2009 and 2011, two faced each other in America’s premier sporting spectacle.  

There are additional statistics that support the subordinate position running backs have recently played in winning a championship. Here are the last eight world champions and where their top running back placed in the league rankings.  

Note that not a single player placed in the top 10, although Ray Rice and Willie Parker circa 2005 came close. 

This does not mean that running the football has no place in securing a title. With the exception of the New Orleans Saints in 2009, every winning team in this group out-rushed their opponents over the course of the playoffs. 

What is does mean is that mortgaging the future of your team to fill a position that has lost much of its importance is a questionable strategy. 

If the mostly negative ratings of the Colts offensive line by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) are to be believed, the better trade target would have been the Browns’ Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas. With the current linemen starting for Indianapolis, how will there be enough holes for Richardson to exploit? 

Back in the days of the Pro Set, the two running back positions were listed as the halfback and fullback. While the latter term is still widely recognized, the former is hardly ever used. When its diminished impact is taken into account, the “half-back” designation may be ready for a comeback.

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