Once upon a time, nearly half the teams in the NFL had a running back they felt comfortable handing the ball to 20-30 times per game. These were the so-called workhorse running backs who routinely racked up 320 or more carries and 1300 or more yards in a single season.
Although there was a renaissance of sorts in 2012, the workhorse running back has been slowly dying off in the NFL and the reason for their demise is both obvious and obscure. The rise of the passing game may play a significant role, but that doesn’t fully explain it.
To truly understand why workhorse running backs are a dying breed, we must first understand how they came to be a breed in the first place. You can’t fully understand the evolution of the workhorse running back position without understanding its history.
A lot of people don’t realize that despite all the great running backs of the past, the concept of the workhorse running back is relatively new. Workhorse running backs existed, but these were often just the best of the best.
From the 16-game season to Free Agency
From 1978 to 1993, there were never more than six workhorse running backs (defined as playing in 14 games and averaging 20 carries per game) in a single season. Earl Campbell, Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Gerald Riggs, John Riggins and Ottis Anderson all achieved workhorse status multiple times during this era.
In this 16-year period, there were 44 instances of workhorse running backs. From 1978 to 1986, there were roughly four workhorses per season, but from 1987 to 1993, there were less than two per season. There were no major rule changes that would indicate a reason for the drop in workhorse running backs.
Many of the workhorses simply started to show their age in the mid-1980s, and some of them had even retired. Also, many of the workhorses during this era were future Hall of Famers, so they weren't going to be replaced easily.
Perhaps it was the success of the 1985 Chicago Bears defense that shifted the NFL landscape. Before the Bears, defenses were slower. Jason Smith of NFL.com recently re-watched a playoff game from 1986 and said that the running back position would have been phased out if they still ran the ball the same way today.
I watched Freeman McNeil and Boyce Green take the ball on sweeps and not just run parallel to the line of scrimmage, but actually round off in a semi-circle before deciding where to hit the hole. Sometimes they ran through it, sometimes they lost seven yards.
Smith noted how much faster defenses are today and that he didn’t think the Ravens would even allow 20 yards on the ground. It just demonstrates why players should really only be compared with players who played during the same era.
Even on between-the-tackle plays, the running back was so deep and was able to take so much time before making his cuts. There was no sense of urgency on running plays. Just. Let. It. Develop. You talk about everything being faster now? This is the biggest example I can think of.
Obviously, other defenses tried to replicate the success of the Chicago Bears by emphasizing speed. The net result was running backs that just weren’t as productive in the late-1980s. The running backs that were productive caught more passes than before.
During this same time period, Bo Jackson entered the league and achieved stardom unlike any running back before him. A well-timed advertising campaign and the rise of ESPN highlights made kids want to be like Jackson. Although Jackson was never himself a workhorse, his fame set the stage for what was the next generation of running backs.
Perhaps more importantly, Barry Sanders entered the league in 1989 and Emmitt Smith two years later. These two greats would come to epitomize workhorse running backs for about a decade, but they did so alongside plenty of others.
The Free-Agency Era to 2006
The entire concept of the workhorse running back stems from the growth of the position from 1994 to 2006. During this 13-year period, there was an average of six workhorse running backs each year, peaking in 2003, when 10 running backs achieved workhorse status.
Players like Smith, Sanders, Curtis Martin and Eddie George dominated, but the title of workhorse running back was not just reserved for the greats like before. Perhaps most notably, sixth-round running back Terrell Davis became a workhorse behind the Denver Broncos' undersized offensive line.
Davis would unite with offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and head coach Mike Shanahan to popularize the zone-blocking scheme. As we know, the NFL is a copycat league and every team now uses zone blocking to some degree. The scheme has stood the test of time, as two of the three workhorse running backs in 2012 played in a zone scheme.
Of the 135 instances of a running back being a workhorse, 77 of them came during this 13-year period (57 percent). A four-year span from 2003-2006 produced over 25 percent of the workhorse seasons, a staggering number considering the history of such seasons.
The workhorse era would prove to be short-lived for a variety of reasons.
2007 to Present
You could say that the New England Patriots had a key role in changing the running game in the NFL. Starting in 2004, the illegal contact rule became a point of emphasis after Ty Law harassed the Indianapolis Colts' receivers to the dismay of Peyton Manning.
Manning broke Dan Marino’s touchdown record by throwing for 49 touchdowns passes in 2004 and won the MVP award. Workhorses continued to produce at this point, but this point of emphasis laid the groundwork for more rules that would favor the passing game.
In 2006, the league enacted a rule prohibiting a defender from hitting the quarterback below the knee after several quarterbacks were injured. The last season with more than four workhorse running backs was that season.
In 2007, the NFL again made illegal contact and defensive holding points of emphasis. Tom Brady would throw 50 touchdowns in 2007, breaking the record set just a few years earlier and leading his team to a perfect regular-season record.
In 2009, the league added emphasis on lunging toward the legs of a quarterback after Tom Brady was lost for the season due to injury. In 2010, the NFL cracked down and reworded the defenseless player rule that prohibits a player from using his helmet to strike another player in the head or neck area.
This rule had a negative impact on defenses trying to stop the passing game. Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged at the time that the rule changes were changing the game, according to The New York Times:
“I have said I think we are going through a cultural change as a league. We believe this culture change is good for the game.”
The league was not done. In 2011, the league changed the defenseless player rule for the second year in a row to protect players who didn’t have the ball yet and made it illegal for a defender to launch himself into an offensive player.
These rules changes were aimed at protecting receivers. The result of the rule changes was that receivers no longer feared getting hit. Defensive players would have to avoid illegal hits or risk a big penalty and hefty fine.
There were no significant changes in 2012 that would impact the running game, but the defenseless player rule was modified again, prohibiting hits to the head and neck area when a player becomes part of a crack-back block.
Adrian Peterson, Alfred Morris and Arian Foster were the workhorses, with Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin missing the cut by a few carries in 2012. Of course, the NFL couldn’t let the workhorse running back make a comeback, so they came up with the "Crown of the Helmet" rule.
NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen has a complete breakdown of the new rule, but essentially running backs can’t use their helmets as weapons against defenders. While good for player safety, it’s bad for Peterson and Lynch because they both run with a physical style.
Workhorses will likely always exist in the NFL, but they have become a dying breed. The workhorse has become an endangered species that needs perfect conditions to reproduce, and the NFL seems content on making it an afterthought.
Rule changes have made the passing game the preferred method of scoring. Throwing the ball is safer compared to running the ball, and quarterbacks and receivers don’t tend to get banged up as much as running backs.
There is plenty of talent at the running back position, but there is no longer the desire by most teams to run the ball 20 times per game with one running back. If you trust your running back to carry the ball 20 times, chances are you don’t want to subject him to the pounding.