Earlier this week, I wrote a column detailing the struggles of running backs the season after rushing the football 390 or more times. Including DeMarco Murray, who recorded 392 carries in 2014, a total of 10 runners had reached 390 carries in a single season in the Super Bowl era (Eric Dickerson is on the list twice).
Admittedly, that is not much of a sample size for almost 50 years of data.
As a result, I took things one step further to see if there was any correlation between a running back's total touches and a decline in production the following season. Since Murray and his potential value for 2015 is the point of this exercise, I took into account all backs with at least 425 touches (Murray had 449) and looked at what those runners did the very next campaign.
During the duration of our research, the 425-touch mark has been met 18 different times during the Super Bowl era (compared to 390 carries, which was reached 10 times before Murray).
James Wilder, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1984): No runner has had more touches in a single season than Wilder, who posted a ridiculous 492 during the course of the 1984 campaign. During that season, he put up a solid 300.9 fantasy points on the strength of over 2,200 scrimmage yards and 13 touchdowns. Wilder did put up good totals the following season (1,300 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns), but he missed four games and finished with 76.8 fewer fantasy points compared to his 1984 production.
Larry Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs (2006): Johnson totaled 457 touches in 2006, the second-most in a single season at the running back position. That included what is still an NFL-record 416 carries and an impressive 329.9 fantasy points. L.J. would miss eight games due to injuries and was a massive disappointment in 2007, though. Based on the totals he scored in his eight games, Johnson projected to post 193 fantasy points ... or 136.9 fewer points than he had recorded in 2006.
Eddie George, Tennessee Titans (2000): George was a fantasy stud during his career in Tennessee, but his best season came in 2000 when he had career bests in both rushing yards (1,509) and touchdowns (16). The Ohio State product would also produce the third-most touches (453) in the Super Bowl era. While he would start all 16 games the following season, George failed to rush for 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. He also finished with 140.4 fewer fantasy points compared to 2000.
LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers (2002): Tomlinson is one of the two best running backs in fantasy football history, and he's one of two players to increase his totals after a 425-touch year. After touching the football 451 times and scoring 305.2 fantasy points in 2002, Tomlinson went on to score 339 points the following season ... and he did it with fewer touches (413). He had 100 catches that season and totaled over 2,000 scrimmage yards for the second year in a row.
Edgerrin James, Indianapolis Colts (2000): James was a fantasy superstar during his time in Indianapolis, earning first-round value on a regular basis as one of the league's elite running backs. His biggest workload came in 2000, when he had 450 touches, scored 18 total touchdowns and finished with an impressive 328.3 fantasy points. Unfortunately, the mass of touches could have caused James to break down in 2001 ... he tore up his knee and missed 10 games in the following season.
Marcus Allen, Oakland Raiders (1985): One of the most versatile and graceful runners in NFL history, Allen would have been a star had fantasy football been popular in the 1980s. He was a stat-sheet stuffer in 1985, posting 14 total touchdowns and 315.4 fantasy points on a career-high 447 touches. The Hall of Famer would see a decline in his numbers the following season, though, as he missed three games and scored 163.2 points ... or 152.2 fewer than he had recorded in 1985.
Ricky Williams, Miami Dolphins (2003): Williams was one of the most productive but enigmatic running backs in the NFL during the 2000s. He had a monster campaign in 2003, posting 1,372 rushing yards, 351 receiving yards and 222.3 fantasy points on a career-high 442 touches. Williams decided to retire and was out of football in 2004, so we'll never know if his huge workload decreased his totals. Based on the rest of our 425-runners, though, I think it would have been very likely.
Eric Dickerson, Los Angeles Rams (1983): The Rams weren't timid in using Dickerson as a rookie, as he saw 441 touches in the offense. He made them count too, as he totaled 1,808 rushing yards with a combined 20 touchdowns and 341.2 fantasy points. The SMU product didn't slow down, recording an NFL-record 2,105 rushing yards with 14 touchdowns and 308.4 fantasy points the following year. So while he did see a decline compared to 1983, Dickerson was still quite productive for owners.
Emmitt Smith, Dallas Cowboys (1995): Smith was a fantasy superstar during his illustrious career, but even he fell prey to a massive workload once in his NFL tenure. After touching the football 439 times and scoring 352.8 fantasy points in 1995, the Hall of Famer would record 231.3 fantasy points the following season. He still put up good totals (1,453 scrimmage yards, 15 total touchdowns), but the discrepancy in his fantasy numbers compared to 2005 (-121.5 points) is quite evident.
Jamal Anderson, Atlanta Falcons (1998): Anderson was a surprise fantasy star in 1998, posting 1,846 rushing yards, 16 total touchdowns and 308.5 fantasy points. He would also record a career-high 437 touches that season. Unfortunately, he would see action in less than two games the following year before a torn ACL cost him the remainder of the 1999 campaign. Anderson would never be the same runner in the stat sheets and retired after the 2001 season following another ACL tear.
Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams (2006): There was a time when Jackson was considered one of the elite running backs in fantasy land. He had his best season in 2006, when he totaled 346 carries, 90 catches, 16 total touchdowns and 325.4 points. He would go on to be a massive disappointment for fantasy leaguers the following season, however, posting just 159.3 points while missing four games. The Oregon State product would never reach his 2006 statistical success again.
Emmitt Smith, Dallas Cowboys (1992): Smith hit the 425-touch mark twice in his career, the first of which came in 1992 when he recorded 19 total touchdowns and 314.8 fantasy points on 432 touches. He would hold out for the first two games of 1993, which put him at a major disadvantage in the stat sheets, but Smith still put up 248 fantasy points. He would averaged fewer fantasy points (17.7) than he did in 1992 (19.7), but he was still a very productive running back overall.
Edgerrin James, Indianapolis Colts (1999): Along with Tomlinson, James is one of just two runners in the Super Bowl era to post 425-plus touches and see his numbers rise the following season. In his rookie year of 1999, James went off for over 2,000 scrimmage yards, 17 total touchdowns and 307.9 fantasy points on 431 touches. The workload didn't slow him down either, as Edge would record more yards (2,303), touchdowns (18), fantasy points (328.3) and touches (450) in 2000.
Eric Dickerson, Los Angeles Rams (1986): Dickerson was a true workhorse, recording 1,962 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns on 430 touches to finish the 1986 campaign with 268.6 fantasy points. The following season, however, he missed four games and was limited to just 939 rushing yards and five touchdowns. If you project the totals he put up in his 12 games over a full campaign, he would have ended with 242.5 points. Not a huge decline, but still a decline nonetheless.
Gerald Riggs, Atlanta Falcons (1985): Riggs was a stat-sheet monster for the Falcons in the mid-1980s, but his biggest campaign came in 1985 when he had 430 touches for 1,986 yards with 10 touchdowns and 258.6 fantasy points. The Arizona State product did have a nice 1986 campaign, but all of his numbers were down compared to the previous season. In fact, Riggs had fewer rushing yards, receptions, receiving yards, touchdowns and fantasy points (200.3) during that campaign.
Ricky Williams, Miami Dolphins (2002): Williams had his best fantasy football season in 2002, when he put up over 2,100 scrimmage yards, 17 total touchdowns and scored 313.6 fantasy points on 430 touches. He did have a productive 2003 campaign as well, rushing for over 1,300 yards with 10 total touchdowns. However, he scored 91.3 fewer fantasy points despite the fact that he saw 442 touches. So while Williams wasn't a bust, he didn't reach his previous year's totals.
Barry Foster, Pittsburgh Steelers (1992): Foster had a career season in the stat sheets in 1992, posting 426 touches, 2,034 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns for a total of 259.4 fantasy points. The Arkansas product would miss seven games the following season, however, and was never able to re-claim his status as an elite fantasy runner. Overall, Foster saw a decrease of 118.6 fantasy points in 1993. He would rush for a combined 1,562 yards in his final two seasons combined.
Walter Payton, Chicago Bears (1984): One of the greatest NFL running backs of all time, Sweetness put up 2,052 scrimmage yards, 11 touchdowns and 271.2 fantasy points (426 touches) in 1984. And while he didn't surpass his fantasy point total during the 1985 campaign, he came darn close. In fact, Payton would equal his touchdowns (11), while putting up 18 fewer scrimmage yards and just 1.8 fewer fantasy points. That was despite the fact that he saw the ball 53 fewer times.
So, what conclusions can we draw from this data?
First off, we had two players (Tomlinson, James) who were better in the stat sheets after a 425-touch season. Payton duplicated 99 percent of his production, so he was right there as well. What do all three of these runners also have in common? Well, Payton is in the Hall of Fame. Tomlinson is a lock to be in Canton, and James is without question in the conversation for a "Hall call."
Of the remaining 14 instances where a runner had 425 or more touches and played in the following season, nine of them failed to produce even 70 percent of their previous year's production. Let's put that into perspective. Over the course of the 2014 season, Murray put up a league-high 294.1 fantasy points. If he duplicates 70 percent of that total in 2015, he would finish with 205.8 fantasy points.
Based on the running back position this past season, that would have ranked Murray eighth in fantasy points. Not bad, but still not a monster campaign. Also keep in mind that he would have to do something that only half of the runners in our research have done the season after touching the football 425 or more times. And let's be honest ... if 205.8 fantasy points is seen as Murray's ceiling in 2015, there's a whole lot of risk involved in drafting him in the top five.
Also keep in mind that no running back since Tomlinson (2006-2007) has finished No. 1 in fantasy points among running backs in back-to-back seasons. So whether you look at backs with 390 or more carries or those with 425 or more touches in a single season, the evidence indicates that the risks far often outweighs the rewards.