How to Craft the Ideal Backfield in Today’s NFL

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksFeatured Columnist IVJune 18, 2022

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 09: Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) carries the football during the third quarter of the National Football League game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns on January 9, 2022, at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, OH. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NFL in 2022 is more pass-heavy than ever before. Last year, 10 teams averaged over 250 passing yards per game. Only half that many teams averaged 140 yards per game on the ground. But running the ball hasn't fallen completely to the wayside, nor has an effective run game lost its importance. Of the NFL's top-10 rushing teams in 2021, seven made the playoffs.

What has changed is the route that teams are taking to build that solid run game. The days of the 350-carry workhorse back aren't completely dead, but they are falling by the wayside. Nowadays, it's about committee attacks. Passing-down specialists. And the importance of depth.

Old-school football hasn't disappeared from the NFL. But more and more each year, it has a new-look feel to it.

Bye-Bye Bellcows

One decade ago, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson became the most recent running back to win the NFL's Most Valuable Player award. That year, Peterson gained 2,097 yards on the ground—just eight yards shy of Eric Dickerson's single-season record. Peterson did so in true workhorse fashion, carrying the ball 348 times, or 21.75 carries per game. He was one of five backs to eclipse 300 carries, and 10 backs to amass at least 275.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 18: Adrian Peterson #28 of the Minnesota Vikings carries the ball during an NFL game against the Indianapolis Colts at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Tom Dahlin/Getty Images)
Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

Fast forward 10 years, and there were just two running backs who topped 300 carries—Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts and Najee Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Joe Mixon of the Cincinnati Bengals joined them as the only other back to hit 275 carries. Taylor led the NFL in carries per game, at 19.5 carries per game.

Admittedly, part of the drop in carries can be explained by backs catching more short passes. If you add receptions to the mix, there were eight running backs that averaged 20 touches a game in 2021. It's the same number as in 2017. But per StatMuse, back in 2012 there were 10, and two more backs (Knowshon Moreno and Ray Rice) had 19.9.

By any objective measure, running back workloads are being scaled back. And it's not hard to see why.

NFL teams are tired of their running backs getting hurt.

Last year's leader in touches per game was Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans, at a gaudy 29.6 per contest. The year before, Henry carried the ball 378 times on the way to over 2,000 rushing yards. But that put Henry on a collision course with "The Curse of 370." It's a term coined by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders for the drop-off in production for backs the year following a 370-carry campaign. The historical data isn't pretty.\

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - JANUARY 22: Derrick Henry #22 of the Tennessee Titans walks off the field after a game against the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Nissan Stadium on January 22, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Bengals defeated the Titans 19-16.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Sure enough, Henry made it eight games into the 2022 season before breaking a bone in his foot.

Dalvin Cook is one of the most talented runners in the NFL, with three straight 1,000-yard carries on his NFL resume. But he has also missed time in all five professional seasons, and as he told Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, the reality is that running back may well be the most fragile position in the game.

“We’re in the NFL. Things happen. Guys go down,’’ Cook said.

Sharing the Wealth

As more and more teams get hip to the notion of scaling back the workload of their lead back, we're seeing a lot more two and even three-headed backfields.

Last season, there were a whopping 53 running backs that totaled more than 100 carries. Fifty-five backs had more than 100 total touches). There were 10 NFL teams that had two running backs who ended the season with over 150 total touches. A whopping 21 teams had two backs with 100 touches. And two teams (the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns) had three 100-touch running backs.

Granted, the splits in Philly and Cleveland were created in part by injuries. So were some others. But both the Eagles and Browns have a history of spreading the wealth in the backfield, and they aren't alone. Fantasy football managers may hate the idea of "running back by committee," but more and more NFL teams are embracing the idea.

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 16: Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders (26) runs the ball during the NFL Wild Card game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on January 16, 2022 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last year, the Washington Commanders were not one of those teams—Antonio Gibson dominated the backfield work and ranked fourth in the league with 300 touches. But per Nick Shook of NFL.com, head coach Ron Rivera told reporters at OTAs that the team plans to involve more players in the run game in 2022.

"Well, I think for the most part, it's going to be by committee. Some of the things that we did in Carolina we're trying to emulate, you know, we had a good two-back system. We had, (former Carolina Panther running backs DeAngelo) Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and we had Fozzy Whittaker as a change of pace, third-down type of guy. Well, you look at what we have right now, you can say we have the same thing."

"So just feel that, you know, it's one of those things that you're going to go with, who's hot, who's rolling, you know, who's doing the good things. And then you're going to have to spell that guy. I mean in this league today, you know, you just can't have one primary back. You've got to have a plethora of them. And we just feel it's a very good room right now."

It's not just a matter of spreading the wealth during games, either. NFL teams are prioritizing depth almost as much as talent. The Browns gave D'Ernest Johnson up to $2.4 million this year to be the team's third-string back. The Eagles handed Boston Scott $1.75 million to do that same thing.

Teams don't want two good running backs. They want three. Four. As many as they can get their hands on.

The NFL's Best Backfields

Having a backfield where one back handles most of the rushing work while another takes care of the third-down pass-catching role is fine. Dandy even. Ben Linsley of Pro Football Focus ranked an Indianapolis Colts backfield where Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines have those roles as the second-best unit in the league.

But another reason why the Colts rank as high as they do is the presence of a reserve back in Philip Lindsay who has topped 1,000 rushing yards twice in his career. The perfect NFL backfield doesn't just have talent. Or even depth. It has both—sometimes in the form of a No. 2 back who can step into a featured role without the team missing a beat.

With that in mind, here's a look at the five best backfields in the NFL in 2022.

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 20: Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) looks on during a game between the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings on December 20, 2021, at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

5. Minnesota Vikings (Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Kene Nwangwu

When he's healthy, Cook is one of the game's best—a do-it-all back who is as dangerous catching passes as he is running between the tackles. He's the clear lead runner in the Twin Cities. But Mattison has shown to be invaluable reserve who can step into Cook's role without the run game falling apart. Cook also told Tomasson that the Vikings plan to involve Nwangwu more in the offense this season.

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 16: Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs with the football during the NFC Wild Card game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys on January 16, 2022 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

4. Dallas Cowboys (Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Rico Dawdle)

Elliott's numbers took a dip in 2021—his 58.9 rushing yards per game was a career low. But the 26-year-old still topped 1,000 rushing yards and scored 10 times on the ground, and Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy has raved about how Elliott has looked in OTAs. Pollard is one of the league's more underrated running backs. He averaged a career-best 5.5 yards per carry a year ago, and per Linsley only Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry have averaged more yards after contact per attempt than Pollard since 2019.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JANUARY 02: Jonathan Taylor #28 of the Indianapolis Colts runs the ball in the game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 02, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Justin Casterline/Getty Images

3. Indianapolis Colts (Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines, Phillip Lindsay)

Dating back to his time at the University of Wisconsin, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more productive running back than Taylor, who led the NFL last year with 1,811 rushing yards in 2021. He also amassed over 2,100 total yards and scored a whopping 20 total touchdowns. Hines is an excellent receiver and pass-protector who has topped 60 catches in two of four pro seasons, while Lindsay eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in each of his first two years in Denver.

CINCINNATI, OHIO - OCTOBER 10: AJ Dillon #28 and Aaron Jones #33 of the Green Bay Packers walk off the field after beating the Cincinnati Bengals 25-22 in overtime at Paul Brown Stadium on October 10, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

2. Green Bay Packers (Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon, Kylin Hill)

Given all the issues the Packers have at wide receiver, Green Bay may well wind up fielding the most productive one-two running back group in the league in terms of total yards this season. The team doesn't have a true "lead" back, with Jones and Dillon garnering an almost identical number of touches a year ago. Both backs topped 1,100 yards last season, and the pair combine for 17 touchdowns. This is a two-headed attack in the truest sense.

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16: Nick Chubb #24 of the Cleveland Browns talks with Kareem Hunt #27 during the Cleveland Browns mandatory minicamp at FirstEnergy Stadium on June 16, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)
Nick Cammett/Getty Images

1. Cleveland Browns (Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D'Ernest Johnson)

Saying that the Cleveland backfield is stacked doesn’t do the team justice. Chubb may be the most talented pure runner in the entire NFL—he averaged a gaudy 5.5 yards per carry in 2021 and has never averaged less than five yards a pop in a season. Hunt is a former NFL rushing king and excellent receiver who topped 1,100 total yards with 11 scores two years ago. Johnson averaged 5.3 yards on his 100 carries in 2021 and averaged over 120 yards per game in his two starts.

A perfect backfield is much like a perfect quarterback—every team strives to have one, but none do. However, the teams listed above lay the blueprint for coming close.

Stockpile talent. Add players who can serve in multiple roles. And have a viable Plan B available in case your lead back goes down.

Do that, and teams can make some hay on the ground.

And while that may seem old-fashioned, it also remains a path to success on Sundays.