Under the Headset  

 

Running backs playing reduced role, but don't discount position

As we take a look at the trends that are shaping the 2013 NFL campaign, it's clear that we've gotten a long way from the ground-game glory days of Eric Dickerson, O.J. Simpson and Jim Brown.

Six weeks into this season, just two players -- LeSean McCoy and Adrian Peterson -- are averaging more than 90 rushing yards per game. Compare that to the nine players averaging more than 90 receiving yards per game, and you see stark evidence of how the running back position is being devalued in the NFL.

On one level, this simply is a reflection of the move away from rushing -- and toward passing -- which has been evident since at least the late 1970s, when we experienced a liberalization of passing rules. Combined rushing yards per game hit a post-merger high of 301.3 in 1976, but it's been on a major downward trend ever since. In the 21st century, we haven't seen a season with an average greater than 236 yards per game. This year, the average is down to 216.8 (the fifth-lowest figure since the merger in 1970), while the average number of combined rushing attempts per game has fallen to 53 (lowest since the merger).

That is just one way to look at the position's depreciation. Another way is examining the NFL draft. From 1977 to 1981, running backs were taken first overall four out of five seasons. But not a single running back has been taken first overall since 1995, when the Cincinnati Bengals selected Ki-Jana Carter (which makes for pretty good bar trivia -- and also displays the hazards of drafting a running back first overall).

In the past three years, just four running backs have been drafted in the first round -- none in 2013, three in 2012, one in 2011 -- and the fates of those four runners suggest teams should be cautious about using prime picks on ball carriers:

» Doug Martin, drafted 31st overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012, clearly is the shining light of the bunch, and he's averaging just 3.5 yards per carry and 81.8 yards per game for a winless team.

» The battered David Wilson, taken one pick after Martin by the New York Giants, has just 146 yards on the season, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. In fact, Wilson has been surpassed in the yardage department by Brandon Jacobs, who began the season -- like most of us -- on the couch watching games on TV.

» Trent Richardson, selected third overall in 2012, was supposed to be the cornerstone of the Cleveland Browns' rebuilding efforts, but he was dealt away to Indianapolis last month. Though Richardson figures to be an integral part of the Colts' attack, he's averaging just 3.1 yards a pop on 61 carries for his new team.

» Mark Ingram, taken 28th by the New Orleans Saints in 2011, is the one other first-rounder from the past three drafts, and he has just 17 rushes for 31 yards this season. That's fewer rushing yards than Drew Brees and an average of just 1.8 yards per carry.

Now, to be clear, I don't think we're seeing the end of running in the NFL. But obviously, we're seeing a decline in how running backs are valued and how the position is defined.

Fewer backs carry the sort of heavy workload that was common in years past. Pick any yardstick, and you can see this trend. Between 2002 and '06, nearly 20 rushers per season averaged at least 15 carries per game in the NFL. Since then, the number of backs topping that mark has dropped to 13.5 per year. And the heavy workload of 20 carries per game is becoming a true rarity. Between 2003 and '06, an average of eight runners per season carried such a load. Since 2007, the average has been just three backs per year.

The school of thought among today's NFL coaches is that you shouldn't use your stud running back like a Handi Wipe. This sentiment has been backed up by the rise of analytics in the sport, with the effects of a pounding workload becoming increasingly apparent. What used to be a notion now is clearly provable: Backs who handle an extreme workload one season generally aren't nearly as productive the next. Shaun Alexander carried the ball 1,049 times in just three seasons from 2003 to 2005. That number dropped to 470 in the three seasons that followed, as his yards-per-carry average simultaneously plummeted -- and then he was out of the game.

In today's NFL, fewer teams feel compelled to rely on one workhorse. For a while in the 2000s, many organizations followed the approach taken by the New York Giants, employing a power/speed combo of two backs. But even that has been diluted. Notwithstanding their recent expenditures of first-round picks, teams such as the Saints and San Diego Chargers regularly rotate three backs. There's a feeling among some coaches that if you don't have a standout, marquee talent like a McCoy or Jamaal Charles, you're better off with simple cannon fodder, a series of interchangeable backs you can swap out at will.

Looking at all these trends, one might believe the prime running back is facing imminent extinction in the NFL, but I'd caution against leaping to that judgment. As we just saw Monday night in San Diego, the best way to neutralize a premier quarterback is to keep him off the field -- and the best way to do that is riding a steadily productive running game. The Chargers exploited weaknesses in the Colts' rush defense and amassed four clock-eating drives of 11 plays or more. Consequently, Andrew Luck spent much of the game on the sideline, looking on helplessly as his teammates were pushed all over the field in a 19-9 loss.

Come January, teams with strong running games will be in the best position to go on the road and pull off an upset. Want to beat Peyton Manning in Denver or Tom Brady in Foxborough? Want to neutralize the chaotic crowd noise in places like Arrowhead Stadium and CenturyLink Field? The best way to spring a stunner is to incorporate a steady, pounding ground game that piles up first downs while discouraging opponents and opposing fans alike. If you don't have a future Hall of Famer at quarterback, a reliable running game might be the only thing you can take into Denver, New England, New Orleans or Green Bay to create a reasonable chance to win.

While we already might have seen the last 400-carry season -- Larry Johnson had 416 totes in 2006 -- the running game will continue to be an important part of football. What was true in 2003 and 1993 and 1983 remains true today: Your passing attack will be more dangerous if you have a credible running threat to complement it. And the best way to contain a high-powered offense remains a steadily reliable ground game that can eat up territory and clock, 4 to 5 yards at a time.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.

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