Best QB-RB Backfield Combinations in Today's NFL
The modern National Football League is based more and more on the quarterback position, but there's still plenty of value in having a talented running back to balance the offense, as last season showed.
Of the eight quarterbacks that finished the 2013 season with a passer rating above 95.0, seven had a running back teammate with more than 1,000 yards rushing. Only Drew Brees went without one; Nick Foles (LeSean McCoy), Peyton Manning (Knowshon Moreno), Josh McCown (Matt Forte), Philip Rivers (Ryan Mathews), Aaron Rodgers (Eddie Lacy), Russell Wilson (Marshawn Lynch) and Tony Romo (DeMarco Murray) each had a productive battery mate in the backfield.
Quarterbacks don't necessarily need a great running back. In 2011, Rodgers set the NFL passer rating record (122.5) without having a Green Bay running back rush for more than 600 yards. But possessing a player like Lacy is certainly more favorable, given the balance and unpredictability that comes with having a strong quarterback-running back combination.
In the following slides, we will examine the eight best backfield combos in today's NFL. To compile the list, we used a combination of past production and future projection, while not leaning too far to either side.
These quarterback-running back combinations just missed the top eight of the list:
Peyton Manning and Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
Manning just put together the most productive quarterback season in NFL history, but Knowshon Moreno is now in Miami. Can Ball, a 2013 second-round pick, fill the hole? He averaged 4.7 yards per carry in limited duty last season. His opportunity is now.
Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
Gore has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in three straight seasons and seven of his last eight. But at age 31, and with his career carries adding up, Gore is heading for the twilight of his career. Another 1,000-yard season might be a stretch in 2014, especially with the talent at running back in San Francisco.
Tom Brady and Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots
Brady is a legend at the quarterback position, but how much can we trust Ridley? His fumbling issues (eight over the last two seasons) have cost him otherwise deserved playing time. He could put the Patriots' combo back in the conversation with a rebound season.
Ben Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
As a rookie, Bell totaled eight scores and almost 1,300 total yards. But he also missed three games and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, so there's room for growth. By next year, Pittsburgh's duo could easily make the top eight.
Josh McCown and Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Can McCown continue his magic away from Marc Trestman in Tampa Bay? It seems unlikely. Martin had a superlative rookie season, but his second year left much to be desired and then ended in injury. There's a chance it could all click again in 2014.
Matthew Stafford and Reggie Bush/Joique Bell, Detroit Lions
Stafford has all the talent in the world, but the results haven't always followed. He needs more consistency, which could come next season given all the firepower in Detroit. Bush and Bell were probably the best one-two punch at running back in the NFL last season.
Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Peterson is the best running back of this generation and deserves a mention here. The Vikings will be in business if Bridgewater, a 2014 first-round pick, pans out. Having Peterson around should help ease his transition to the pro game.
Aaron Rodgers and Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers entered 2013 having finished three straight seasons (2010-12) without a 1,000-yard rusher. In back-to-back years, Rodgers didn't even have a running back with more than 600 yards. Yet the Packers quarterback—believed by most to be one of the top two or three at his position in the NFL—still led Green Bay to 35 regular-season wins and a Super Bowl title.
Rodgers finally has his bell cow back.
The Packers drafted Eddie Lacy in the second round of the 2013 draft, with obvious aspirations for solving their lingering problem running the football. As a rookie, Lacy delivered and then some—rushing for almost 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns (third most in the NFL) over 15 games. At times, he carried the Packers offense while Rodgers healed from a broken collarbone. Overall, Green Bay finished 2013 ranked seventh in rushing yards, fifth in rushing touchdowns and fourth in rushing average, all new highs during the Mike McCarthy and Rodgers era.
Lacy, the 25th offensive player picked in last year's draft, was rightfully named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Rodgers, 30, and Lacy, 23, now form one of the top quarterback-running back combos in football. If the pair can stay healthy in future years (both missed games in 2013), the Packers will possess one of the NFL's truly balanced offenses.
Nick Foles and LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
Ask a casual football fan to name the only team in 2013 to produce a quarterback with a passer rating over 100.0 and a running back with at least 1,500 rushing yards and you might get a number of delayed—and likely wrong—answers.
But this game of NFL trivia has an easy solution, and it can be found in the City of Brotherly Love.
Nick Foles came out of relative obscurity to throw for 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions last season, giving him an NFL-best passer rating of 119.1. His mark was the third highest in NFL history. Already a legitimate star, LeSean McCoy exploded in Chip Kelly's new offense, winning the NFL's rushing crown with 1,607 yards and a 5.1 yards-per-carry average. No other NFL back topped 1,500 rushing yards in 2013.
The two now have a legitimate case for being the game's top quarterback-running back combo.
A third-round pick in 2012, Foles is still just 25 years old. He has room for growth working with Kelly, but he'll also need to prove he's more than just a 10-game wunderkind. Consistency rules the day in the NFL. McCoy only just turned 26, meaning his productive window is still wide open. He'll be an annual challenger for the rushing title in Kelly's volume rushing offense.
If Foles continues his progression and McCoy avoids any major injury, the Eagles' tandem could run circles around defenses for the next several seasons.
Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
Since 2012, Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch make up the only quarterback-running back duo to produce back-to-back seasons with a passer rating above 100.0 and at least 1,200 rushing yards.
Too short for some coming out of college, Wilson has since spun the heads of NFL personnel, compiling 57 total touchdowns (52 passing), a 100.6 passer rating, 24 wins, 10 game-winning drives and a Super Bowl title for the Seattle Seahawks during his first two NFL seasons. He's now one of the game's emerging superstars; a humble, likable figure off the field, and an absolute killer on it.
Of course, Wilson likely wouldn't have accomplished much of anything the last two years without Lynch, his battering ram of a running back. Lynch's 2,847 rushing yards since 2012 rank third in the NFL, while no player has more than his 23 rushing touchdowns. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the 133 missed tackles forced by Lynch since 2012 also rank No. 1 in the NFL.
Together, the two provide the Seattle offense with the kind of balance needed to finish in the top 10 of scoring in each of the last two seasons (ninth in 2012, eighth in 2013).
The one worry here might by Lynch's age and overall usage, two mitigating factors that will eventually break up this tandem. Lynch is 28 years old and has almost 2,000 career touches. Add in his contract, which calls for a $9 million cap hit in 2015, and it's possible we'll need to sub out Lynch for Christine Michael by this time next year.
Philip Rivers and Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
By the end of the 2012 season, it would have been difficult to project Philip Rivers and Ryan Mathews as legitimate candidates for this kind of list. But the arrival of a new head coach and a little injury luck has turned things around for the San Diego tandem.
Mike McCoy has all but revived the career of Rivers, who before 2013 had suffered through back-to-back disappointing seasons. After three consecutive years with a passer rating over 100.0 (2008-10), Rivers faded to a mark of 88.7—with 35 picks and just 15 wins—in 2011 and 2012 combined. But Rivers regained his magic last season, throwing for 32 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions for a passer rating of 105.5—fourth best in the NFL.
Mathews, a first-round pick in 2010, finally stayed on the field.
Ten missed games through his first three seasons slapped the inevitable "injury prone" label on Mathews, but 2013 saw the Fresno State product play in all 16 games for the first time in his career. And with the departure of the injury bug came results, as he rushed for 1,255 yards—a new career high and good for seventh most in the NFL.
While Mathews is somewhat forgotten in the running back circles because of his injury issues, it's worth pointing out that's he averaged roughly 78 rushing yards per game in the two seasons (2011, 2013) in which he's played in at least 14 games.
Rivers can't afford another slide, and Mathews needs to be on the field. But based on the 2013 season, these two Chargers absolutely deserve a spot among the top eight.
Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
Tony Romo may be the most polarizing player in the NFL. DeMarco Murray is rarely described as a top-10 running back.
So why did the Romo-Murray pairing make the list? Just look at the numbers.
Think what you want about Romo and his leading of the Dallas Cowboys, but there's no combating his production. He has eight straight seasons with a passer rating over 90.0. Over just the last three years, Romo has thrown 90 touchdown passes, averaged 4,305 passing yards and completed 13 game-winning drives. Given all the criticism he faces, it's probably fair now to call Romo underrated.
Murray has just one 1,000-yard season during his first three years in the NFL, but that reality is thanks mostly to injuries. He's missed 11 career games. When on the field, Murray is an undeniable talent.
His career average sits at a rock-solid 4.9 yards. His 1,121 rushing yards in 2013 ranked 10th in the NFL, despite him missing two games. He's also averaged 72.5 yards per game over 37 appearances and 31 starts. Murray can also catch the football (38 catches per season since 2011). Most importantly, the Cowboys are 11-4 when he rushes for more than 80 yards.
Murray's inconsistent availability is a worry, and Romo is now 34 years old. But you can bet that if the Cowboys get 16 games out of both players in 2014, the Dallas offense will be among the league's best.
Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, Chicago Bears
An older quarterback learning new tricks and the most underrated running back (and maybe even player) in the game secures Chicago's backfield duo on the list.
Jay Cutler hasn't yet completed his transformation as a quarterback, and the 2013 season still provided too many examples of the old "bad Jay." But the arrival of head coach Marc Trestman has had a clear and positive effect on Cutler, who posted a career-high passer rating of 89.1 over 11 games last season. If he takes another step forward in his second year with Trestman, Cutler could reassert himself as one of the NFL's upper-tier quarterbacks.
The progress at quarterback in Chicago is encouraging, but the many skills of Matt Forte often power the Bears offense.
How underrated is Forte? In 2013, he finished second in the NFL in rushing yards (1,339), third among running backs in receptions (74) and yards from scrimmage (1,933) and fifth in total touchdowns (12). Yet Forte was somehow left off the All-Pro team in favor of Eddie Lacy (he did make the Pro Bowl, however).
Forte has been doing it his whole career, too. Over his six NFL seasons, the 28-year-old back is averaging more than 1,100 rushing yards and almost 1,600 yards from scrimmage per year.
Expecting a 31-year-old Cutler to continue his progression has its risks, but Forte is as dependable as running backs come. Trestman and the Bears can feel confident in their duo in 2014 and beyond.
Alex Smith and Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
Alex Smith is efficient. Jamaal Charles is dynamic. Together, the two helped power an offense that finished sixth in scoring and a team that won 11 games in 2013.
Smith's numbers don't jump off the page. He finished last season ranked 14th in passer rating (89.1), 17th in yards per attempt (6.8), 19th in completion percentage (60.4) and 23rd in passing yards per game (220.9). But he did throw 23 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions, and his performance in the postseason—435 total yards (378 passing) and four touchdowns in a 45-44 loss to the Indianapolis Colts—further proved he can produce big numbers in big situations.
Over three career postseason games, Smith has 10 touchdowns and no turnovers, plus a passer rating of 108.6.
Charles certainly has the numbers, regardless of the parameters used. His stat line in 2013 was something from a video game: 1,287 rushing yards, 5.0 yards per carry, 70 receptions, 693 yards, 19 total touchdowns. His 1,980 yards from scrimmage trailed only LeSean McCoy, while no player in the NFL was closer than five scores away from his 19.
Take away Charles' 2011 season, in which he played in just two games, and his averages from 2009-10 and 2012-13 are as follows: 1,345.8 rushing yards, 47.5 receptions, 1,769 yards from scrimmage and 10.3 touchdowns. He's elite in every sense of the word.
A quarterback doesn't have to be statistically dominant when the offense's running back is as uniquely productive as Charles. Smith does enough to properly complement the devastating weapon lining up behind him.
Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins
Washington's backfield tandem would have been an easy selection if not for a sobering knee recovery last season.
Second-year running back Alfred Morris has certainly held up his end of the bargain, rushing for 2,888 yards since the start of 2012. Only Adrian Peterson has rushed for more yards over the last two seasons. Morris' 20 rushing touchdowns trail only Peterson (22) and Marshawn Lynch (23). He's also played in all 32 games while still maintaining a rushing average of 4.7 yards per carry and 90.3 per game.
However, Robert Griffin III's recovery from reconstructive knee surgery put a dampener on an otherwise encouraging start from the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft.
Griffin III's passer rating dropped from 102.4 in 2012 to 82.4 in 2013. His interceptions jumped from five as a rookie to 12 as a sophomore. He rushed for 326 fewer yards and failed to score a rushing touchdown after finding the end zone seven times in 2012.
Washington needs better from the quarterback position. With another year removed from the injury, it's probably safe to assume a rebound is coming from Griffin III.
And keep in mind: When both Griffin III and Morris are on and healthy, Washington is a tough outfit to stop. The offense scored the fourth-most points and rushed for the most yards in 2012, when Washington won 10 games.
This duo fills the final spot on the list, thanks to results from 2012 and the potential return of those numbers via Griffin III's always-healing knee.