Workhorse RBs Ride Again: How the Power Running Revolution Can Save Your Team

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 17, 2017

Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt (27) runs past a tackle attempt by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Vince Williams (98) during the second half of an NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Here's a crazy idea for all of those teams with a bad case of the quarterback blues:

  • Get a big, fast running back, preferably one who breaks tackles and can catch a little bit.
  • Run the football.
  • If that doesn't work, run the football some more.

Moneyball heresy, you claim? Analytical sacrilege? Outdated thinking? 

Maybe. Or perhaps the time has come for the pendulum to swing back and for concepts like the "workhorse running back" and "establishing the run" to be reconsidered.


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The workhorse running back is enjoying a mini-Renaissance in the NFL right now. Five running backs are averaging more than 20 carries per game: Le'Veon Bell, Leonard Fournette, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and Jay Ajayi. Only Bell and Elliott averaged more than 20 carries per game last year. Adrian Peterson was the only one to average that in 2015.

Teams giving their best backs extra work are seeing results. Gurley has helped propel the Rams to relevance with 20.5 carries for 86.8 yards per game. Fournette has dragged the Jaguars out of the sewer with 21.7 carries for 99.3 yards per game. Bell (22.3 carries for 91.7 yards per game) pushed the inconsistent Steelers past the Ravens and Chiefs with a pair of 30-plus carry afternoons.

Other workhorses share the load a bit, but that only makes them more dangerous on the touches they are given. Kareem Hunt broke 28 tackles through the first five Chiefs games, according to Football Outsiders, with broken tackles on 34.6 percent of his runs. LeGarrette Blount has broken tackles on a whopping 51.1 percent of his runs. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen combined for 28 broken tackles entering Sunday's game, when they rushed for 50 total carries (including Howard's 53-yard run) en route to an overtime victory for the Bears.

When a back averages five broken tackles per game or escapes a defender on every other carry, he should get more touches. Football is not that complicated.

You are probably getting ready write a patient comment explaining the difference between running-game cause and effect (backs get more opportunities because their teams are successful, not vice versa) or warn about the dangers of running back overuse and overvaluing a "fungible" football resource. Folks, I didn't just read the books that defined those concepts. I co-wrote them.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 15: Runningback Todd Gurley II #30 of the Los Angeles Rams on a running play during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on October 15, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Rams defeated the Jaguars 24 to 17
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

No one wants to see Hunt endure 400 carries and get used up by the end of his rookie contract. Old-timey rushing concepts nearly ruined Gurley last year. John Fox got a little carried away with the 1977 tactics on Sunday, then got lucky when Howard had a little gas in the tank on his 33rd carry.

But bringing back some elements of the workhorse-runner approach is benefitting multiple teams around the league.

      

Workhorse runners protect young quarterbacks. Elliott was the ultimate example of a big-play rusher taking pressure off his quarterback last year. Gurley is playing a similar role for Jared Goff now that Sean McVay has allowed a little fresh air into the Rams offense. The Bears may be overprotective of Mitchell Trubisky, but the rookie quarterback is better off with Howard and Cohen than without them. Blake Bortles might be beyond help, but Fournette has kept him out of sight and mind.

Workhorse runners make pass protection easier. Handoffs and play action slow pass-rushers down. Rugged running plays wear them down. On-schedule offense—2nd-and-5, 3rd-and-short—limits a defense's blitz options. Hunt averages an amazing seven yards per carry on first down. Elliott averaged 5.7 yards per first down carry last year. It only stands to reason that Alex Smith and Dak Prescott appreciate all of the 2nd-and-short opportunities.

Workhorse runners are great for situational football. Blount is averaging 6.1 yards per carry in the fourth quarter, helping the Eagles preserve leads they blew last year. As his 18 touchdowns last year proved, he also has red-zone value.

Workhorse runners make offenses unpredictable. That sounds counterintuitive, because opponents know backs like Bell or Elliott are going to get 25 touches per game. But teams with highly-specialized committee backfields can be easy to scheme against: The little guy is the receiver, the medium guy the zone-stretch runner and the big guy the pass protector or short-yardage thumper. Granite-handed types like Howard and Blount have no choice but to leave the field on passing downs, but three-down backs like Bell and Hunt can keep opponents guessing.

Ed Zurga/Associated Press

Workhorse runners work cheap. This is the best part: Dynamic running backs are readily available in the draft or in discount free agency. While Gurley, Elliott and Fournette were high first-round picks (though not trade-up-to-get-him investments like top quarterbacks) Hunt, Bell and other workhouse types (LeSean McCoy, injured David Johnson) were Day 2 selections. So for a fraction of the price of a journeyman quarterback, a team can acquire a focal point for its offense, then draft a few spares to cover for injuries.

A team that adopts the workhorse-rusher mindset reduces its dependency on both the quarterback and his pass protection. That is simple, Football 101-level thinking, yet the NFL has slowly forgotten it as coaches have constructed shotgun-based offenses designed for 40 precision passes per game by Brady-Peyton-Rodgers types. Not only are quarterbacks of that caliber rare, but so are offensive tackles who can pass protect all afternoon against defenders who rarely have to worry about a rushing attempt.

There is a reason that teams with severe pass-protection issues like the Giants, Cardinals, Lions and Colts have also been among the league's worst rushing teams. And it's not just bad offensive-line play. One-dimensional passing can create a vicious cycle that makes bad lines look worse and puts quarterbacks squarely in the crosshairs.

Take the Giants and Cardinals as examples. Both teams got stuck in a pass-oriented causality loop this season when the Giants talked themselves into Paul Perkins at running back and the Cardinals lost David Johnson. Both teams ran the ball terribly, so they became one-dimensional, which put pressure on their bad offensive lines, which took them out of running situations, which made them even more one-dimensional, which put even more pressure on their offensive lines.

Ralph Freso/Associated Press

The Cardinals acquired Peterson and let him be himself last week, and suddenly Carson Palmer no longer looks like Father Time. The Giants committed to Orleans Darkwa as the focal point of their offense out of desperation on Sunday night and upset the mighty Broncos defense in Denver.

Darkwa is a temporary solution. Peterson may not have many more 26-134-2 stat lines left at this point in his career. But if spiraling teams with aging quarterbacks got such a boost from a veteran benchwarmer and a last-legs legend, imagine what other teams could accomplish by pursuing (or finding more ways to use) their own Elliott, Fournette or Bell.

  • The Lions would not be completely reliant on a hobbling Matthew Stafford if they had a real thumper in the backfield instead of all of the third-down guys and role players they have spent years collecting.
  • The Packers soured on workhorses once Eddie Lacy started getting plump and injured. Now they must build an offense for Brent Hundley out of rookies and Ty Montgomery, who never even bothered to change his jersey number when he converted from wide receiver.
  • Rushing is such an afterthought for the Buccaneers (who average just 82.4 yards per game) that they just waited through Doug Martin's early-season suspension instead of drafting or signing any real insurance. Maybe if they took their running game more seriously, they would have an offensive identity besides "the team that hopes Jameis Winston's shoulder is OK."
  • The Browns, those Moneyball purists who wouldn't dare squander their abundance of cash and draft picks on something so quotidian as a running back, could have a Fournette or Howard taking the heat off their poor quarterbacks. Instead, Isaiah Crowell plugs along at 3.4 yards per rush until the game gets out of hand, usually by midway through the second quarter.

None of these teams are getting the results they want on offense, but they are all avoiding the obvious solution. And it's not just about the backs themselves. Most NFL teams that cannot run the ball use rudimentary running tactics, as if their coordinators got bored after drawing up a few zone-stretch plays. Teams with a workhorse rushing philosophy also get creative about running the ball. The Rams' sweeps and fake end-arounds, the Chiefs' pulling linemen and option wrinkles, and the Bears' constricted formations and multi-tight end sets are all examples of how NFL teams can run both harder and smarter.

"Establishing the run" sounds like a silly, outmoded concept. But it's no sillier than trying to execute a complex passing offense with an inexperienced and/or untalented QB and no left tackle.

Committing to the workhorse mentality doesn't mean going full Jeff Fisher, lining up in the I formation 30 times and hammering a great player into the line until his ACLs snap. It means valuing great running backs and finding great ways to use them. Teams that dare to do so discover that running hard and well solves a lot of other problems.

   

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.