Inside the Numbers: Why Former Top Running Backs Have Struggled This Season

Ryan CallahanAnalyst IDecember 10, 2008

The downfall of runners like LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson have led some people to wonder how they went from the best runners in the game to average running backs in such a short amount of time.

Larry Johnson enjoyed two great seasons as the Kansas City Chiefs’ feature back. In his first season as the full time starter, Johnson rushed the ball 336 times for 1,750 yards, a 5.2 average yards per rush. The next season, he led the league in rushing attempts with a whopping 416. Even though he had 80 more attempts than the season before, his yards only went up 39. His average yards per rush went down almost a yard, to 4.3.

In 2007, Johnson missed half of the Chiefs’ games with injuries, and his average yards per rush dropped to a career low 3.5. This season, he has missed four games and his average yards per rush is 4.5.

LaDainian Tomlinson achieved one of the greatest seasons in NFL history for a running back when he broke the touchdown record in 2006. Prior to this season, Tomlinson had seven straight seasons where he carried the ball more than 300 times. He rushed for 1,000 yards and 10 or more touchdowns in every season he has been in the league.

But this season, at the age of 29, Tomlinson is having the worst season of his career. He has rushed the ball 242 times for just 885 yards, a dismal 3.7 average yards per rush. He will need to score a touchdown in each of his last three games to tie his career low for rushing touchdowns of 10, which was in his rookie season.

His average has dropped lower and lower as the season progresses: 3.8 in September, 3.9 in October, and 3.2 in November. He only has two 100 yard games the entire season. Obviously, a toe injury has hampered his performance, but even when totally healthy Tomlinson has not put up big numbers.

Willie Parker of the Steelers is another running back whose numbers have taken a drop this year. In 2006 and 2007, Parker rushed the ball 327 and 321 times respectively. In 2006 he rushed for 1,494 yards with a 4.4 average, and in 2007 he rushed for 1,316 yards with a 4.1 yard average.

This season, Parker has been struck by injuries and his numbers have suffered. He has just 597 yards with a 3.9 average yards per rush in eight games. The 3.9 average is the worst of his five year career. Just like with Tomlinson, injuries have hurt his production this season.

One of the overlooked running back’s who fell from grace is Jamal Lewis, currently on the Cleveland Browns. In 2003, Jamal Lewis rushed for over 2,000 yards with a 5.3 average yards per rush with the Baltimore Ravens. He carried the ball 387 times that season. These were his yards per rush in the following four seasons: 4.3, 3.4, 3.6, and 4.4. This season he has carried the ball 226 times for 800 yards, a dismal 3.5 average yards per rush.

The constant pounding an NFL running back faces appears to take a toll after a few seasons or maybe more, but it eventually catches up with every runner. For this reason, the latest trend in the NFL is for teams to split carries between two backs or even three backs to run over defenses.

This season, two running backs have carried the ball a considerable amount of times more than the rest of the league. Michael Turner has 300 attempts and Adrian Peterson has 293 attempts. Look for their numbers to decrease over the next few years due to an overload of carries.

The Carolina Panthers, New York Giants, and the Tennessee Titans are just a few teams who have mastered the two or three back system this season. These three team’s combined record is 33-6. They are also all near the top in rushing offenses this season.

The New York Giants split carries between Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, and Ahmad Bradshaw. Through week 14, none of them have over 200 attempts, but Brandon Jacobs has already reached 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season. Last season he rushed the ball 202 times for 1,009 yards for a 5.0 average yard per rush. This season, he has played even better carrying the ball 195 times for 1,002 yards and an average of 5.1 yards per rush.

The Giants’ second running back, Derrick Ward, has carried the ball 138 times for 669 yards and a 4.8 yard average. Ahmad Bradshaw has carried the ball 54 times for 319 yards, for an incredible 5.9 yard average. It is no mistake that the Giants’ have one of the best offenses in the league and have clinched the NFC East with an 11-2 record.

The Panthers split carries between to backs: DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Williams has carried the ball 212 times for 1,141 yards. His yards per rush is 5.4, which leads the league for runners who have rushed more than 150 times. His backfield mate has enjoyed similar success. The rookie Stewart has 142 attempts for 699 yards and a 4.9 average yards per rush. Once again, it is no mistake that the Panthers are tops in their division with a 10-3 record.

The Tennessee Titans used two first round picks over the past three years on running backs LenDale White and Chris Johnson. Rookie Johnson has carried the ball 222 times for 1,094 yards for a 4.9 average yards per rush. His back mate White has rushed 170 times for 674 yards for a 4.0 yards per rush average. White’s average has been held back because he is used to often on the goal line, as evidenced by his 14 touchdowns this season. 

If a team wants to have a successful rushing attack, a running back by committee system appears to be the way to go. It is no coincidence that three of the top teams in the NFL utilize a split carries system. Some of the great backs in the league this season have played horribly because their heavy load of carries has caught up with them. One can expect more and more teams to begin to limit their star running back’s carries over the next few seasons.