What in the World Is Happening to the NFL's Star Running Backs?

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What in the World Is Happening to the NFL's Star Running Backs?

It's one of the most mystifying things NFL fans have ever seen. As the NFL season approaches its halfway mark, nearly all of the league's star running backs are way off the pace.

Minnesota Vikings superstar Adrian Peterson has just 511 yards after six games and is on track for 1,363 yards—just over half of the 2,500 yards he was targeting for this season. Baltimore Ravens workhorse back Ray Rice is averaging 2.8 yards per carry.

The Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson—"CJ2K"—will need 19 games at his current pace to crack 1,000 yards, never mind 2,000. Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars is a shell of what he used to be, and it looks like Trent Richardson, just traded to the Indianapolis Colts, will never be anything special.

Fantasy football owners hardly need to be told this is the worst year for running back production in a long time. It seems like even the few who are playing well can't stay healthy (e.g. Arian Foster, Doug Martin and DeMarco Murray).

At 97.9 yards per game, Philadelphia Eagles tailback LeSean McCoy is far and away the NFL's leading rusher, on pace for the lowest league-leading total since 2007—and before that, 2001, per Pro Football Reference.

What in the world has happened to the NFL's star running backs?

 

Back in the Day

When I was a tyke, running back wasn't just a premium skill position. Arguably, it was the premium skill position, as superstars like Walter Payton and Barry Sanders not only carried good teams to championships, but they also elevated mediocre teams to contenders.

Running backs had a week-in, week-out impact on the game in a way they just don't today. With a steady diet of carries, even average running backs were consistent performers, stabilizing their teams' offenses.

1988 Topps 1,000 Yard Club Marcus Allen card picture from TradingCardDB.com

In the sports-card collecting world, it's common for companies to put out "subsets," or special groups of top players with themed graphics. In the 1980s, the main subset carried by Topps was the "1000 Yard Club," reserved for running backs and receivers who had racked up 1,000 yards the previous season.

A "1,000-yard rusher" used to be a thing that mattered to sportswriters as well as schoolchildren. In 1981, the year I was born, there were 15 1,000-yard rushers (across only 28 teams, mind you) and just 12 receivers so productive.

This season, only 14 rushers are ahead of the 62.5 yards-per-game pace needed to hit the magic mark; four of them are Foster, Martin, Murray and Green Bay Packers back Eddie Lacy—all of whom have missed multiple games (or are expected to miss multiple games).

That leaves just 10 backs on pace to break 1,000, which would be the most exclusive "club" since the league-wide offensive doldrums of the early 1990s:

Since 1988, the first year after the 1987 strike-shortened season, the "membership" of the 1,000-yard "club" has swung from mostly rushers to mostly receivers; there have been 376 1,000-yard rushing seasons in that time, but 449 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

If you read my piece on the history of NFL offense, you'd know why.

 

Run-Pass Balance

The NFL's offensive history can be bisected by the 1978 rule changes that allowed for modern pass blocking (and outlawed old-school physical pass coverage). Before then, NFL teams had always run more often than they passed, sometimes much more often.

The 1978 rule changes immediately brought the run and pass into balance, and since then the pendulum has swung further and further in the direction of the aerial game:

Barry Sanders spent year after year running out of the Detroit Lions' pass-first offenses; fans and media alike cried out for him to get more touches.

He averaged 20.0 carries per game across his career, per Pro Football Reference. This season, that would give him the third-heaviest average workload, behind only LeSean McCoy (20.1) and Doug Martin (21.2).

Yes, that's the same Doug Martin who told the Buccaneers' official site, "As long as I feel fine, then I have no worries" about handling a heavy workload—and who is now out indefinitely with a torn labrum.

 

Running Backs By Committee

Since Sanders' days, the notion of a true workhorse back seems to have fallen by the wayside. Only a few elite backs have the combination of size, strength, speed and durability it takes to carry the rock 20-plus times per game in modern single-back offenses.

Specialization has become the norm; two-down backs, third-down backs, goal-line backs and change-of-pace backs have all become seats on the infamous "running back by committee."

Let's visualize how non-starting running backs have shouldered more and more of the load since Sanders' rookie year, 1989:

This graph represents the total year-over-year number of rushing attempts by running backs who were active for 12 or more games, per Pro Football Reference, but started fewer than three games.

The red line at the top is the sum of all such "committee" backs' carries for each season; we see it was about 800 carries when Sanders came into the NFL. In 2012, that total was more than doubled, over 1,800.

Meanwhile, per Pro Football Reference, total carries league-wide climbed from 13,068 in 1989 to 13,925 in 2012. That sounds like a small increase, but it's actually a decrease: the NFL expanded from 28 teams to 32 in that time, meaning each team ran an average of 466.7 times in 1989, compared to 435.2 in 2012.

What do all of those spiky colors beneath the red at the top mean? Each color band represents an individual running back. For example, the dark blue parallelogram in the late 1990s represents former Buffalo Bills running back Darick Holmes.

We see that in Barry's rookie season, there were a few such big chunks and many tiny stripes, meaning only a few situational backs were responsible for many of the "committee" carries. Yet look at the end of the graph at 2012; we see many thick color bands. This means there are a lot of second and third backs getting significant work.

Twenty teams—62.5 percent of the NFL—had more than one rusher with 80-plus carries in 2012.

An interesting footnote: Pro Football Reference doesn't separate running backs from fullbacks, which actually gave me problems. Before the rise of the three-receiver set in the 1990s, fullbacks and tailbacks were a sort of built-in "running back by committee."

It's interesting to note that the extinction of fullbacks may have made the single workhorse back an endangered species.

 

Draft Position

With the rise of specialization, it seems as though the do-everything back has been devalued. Certainly, the Cleveland Browns didn't get production from Trent Richardson worth the 2012 No. 3 overall pick—and the Colts aren't getting any more production for the 2014 first-rounder they traded to get him from the Browns.

The idea that teams can pick up a back "anywhere" and plug him in has gained a lot of traction, but is it true?

This graph shows the statistical correlation between the overall draft position of running backs and their rushing attempts for each season. In this case, a "higher" overall draft position is numerically lower, so a more negative correlation is actually stronger.

A correlation of -1.0 would be perfect; that is, players got carries based directly on how high they were drafted.

During that offensive swoon of the early 1990s, the correlation actually went weakly positive, meaning backs drafted in lower positions actually got more touches! This probably had more to do with the fact that offenses overall were struggling than that top tailbacks were struggling.

In 2002, it was as close to -1.0 as it's been in recent history; a correlation of -0.617 shows teams were getting most of their running production out of the most talented backs.

Since then, though, the correlation has been steadily weakening, and last season it was as weak as it's been since the mid-1990s. Teams are getting more production from less highly drafted backs, but it's not quite to the point that draft position doesn't matter at all.

 

The Death of a Workhorse

Is this the end for workhorse backs? Maybe, and maybe not. Two of the most productive backs in the NFL are LeSean McCoy and Alfred Morris, whose teams have new-school running games that feature the read-option and pistol formation, to varying degrees.

McCoy and Morris are not only among the league's leaders in rushing attempts per game, but they're also No. 2 and No. 1, respectively, in average yards per carry.

Using the quarterback to occupy a defender gives tailbacks the numbers advantage they had in the 1980s, running behind a fullback. This could be a new lease on life for talented backs—to get a steady diet of 20-plus carries and not take a Martin-like pounding.

Though the trend in the NFL has always been toward the passing game and specialization, this new way of running the ball could just swing the pendulum back toward the stud running back.

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