The Lead Back: Extinct or Hibernating? The Story Behind the RB Downturn

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The Lead Back: Extinct or Hibernating? The Story Behind the RB Downturn
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Where has the lead running back gone?

For years, we heard about the extinction of the workhorse, doomed in the face of the passing revolution. Sure, we had guys like Adrian Peterson and Steven Jackson, but gone are the halcyon days where first-string running backs monopolize carries.

Or are they?

Last season saw 16 1,000-yard rushers, six of which hit 1,400 yards or more. This year? Just 12 backs are on pace to hit the millennium mark and two will get to 1,400.

Of course, pace is a fickle measurement—big games from some of these running backs could even things out and get this year's runners back on pace.

But if things work out as currently projected, we are looking at a down season at the position. Why?  

 

Outbreak

Still, this season was promising at first.

Heading into the 2013 season, things were looking up at the position. Adrian Peterson had come off a historic 2,000-yard season that saw him net an MVP award, a rare feat for running backs.

An infusion of young studs like Tampa Bay's Doug Martin and Washington's Alfred Morris joined the ranks of the established, increasing the number of lead backs in the league for the first time in what seemed like ages. C.J. Spiller was supposed to make the leap to the elite in Buffalo.

We were headed toward a new Golden Age for running backs. As it turns out, that was a bit of fool's gold.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Charles has been one of the few healthy, reliable RBs this season.

Martin was lost for the season with a torn labrum. Spiller was slowed for much of the year with nagging injuries. 

The old guard was hit with injuries, too. Steven Jackson missed almost half the season in Atlanta with what seemed like a simple hamstring injury. Arian Foster's foray into the stock market for football players was a disastrous one when he was knocked out for the year with a back injury, perhaps a microcosm for Houston's awful season.

David Wilson had a deja vu moment against the Cowboys this season, putting himself in Tom Coughlin's doghouse with a fumble in his earliest opportunities to grab the lead back role and run with it in New York. He would later be lost for the season with an injured neck. 

The attrition at the position has simply been too much.

 

Overrated or Overmatched?

Injuries have played a big part in this season's running back malaise, but that is only part of the problem.

What is to be said of Trent Richardson, whom the Browns passed to the Colts like a hot potato just before the music stops? The second-year player had the makings of a workhorse as a rookie, but questions about work ethic and true talent level have grown into a cacophonous chorus each week since he landed in Indianapolis.

Ray Rice's talent wasn't in question in Baltimore. So why has he become an also-ran? In his case, a horrendous offensive line is to blame. The Ravens sport the league's worst offensive line, accounting for just 2.95 adjusted line yards per Football Outsiders

The story isn't much better over at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), where Baltimore is rated the fourth-worst run-blocking team in the NFL.

Similar things can be said about Spiller's and Martin's offensive lines in Buffalo and Tampa Bay, respectively. Injuries weren't the only reason they had a stinker of a season. The Buccaneers seemingly discovered the art of run-blocking after Martin went down for the count.

 

Perception Isn't Necessarily Reality

Despite the downturn in individual rushing statistics this season, things are not what they seem.

The top-10 running backs in terms of carries are on pace that is not far off from the average of the top-10 carriers over the past 25 years.

Average of Top 10 Running Backs By Carry
Year Att Yds TD Y/A Y/G Rec Yds TD
1988-2012 314.3 1331.5 9.9 4.2 85.3 37.8 302.7 1.1
2013 289.7 1267.2 9.7 4.4 79.8 43.4 370.3 1.6

Pro Football Reference

Interestingly enough, the fact that there are only seven running backs on pace to hit 275 carries this season is not all that unusual, historically. Twenty-five years ago—in the days of Eric Dickerson and Roger Craig—only six players hit that mark. Seven got to 275 carries the following season.

The mid-'90s saw running backs really become workhorses, with many players hitting the 300-carry mark. 

There is an ebb and flow in the NFL. We seem to be at low tide right now.

Once we get some of these guys back from injury—and hopefully avoid a similar spate down the road—things should pick up once again.

 

 

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