Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

28 Mar 2007

Are workhorse RB dying out? Don't be so sure.

Upon hearing that Marshall Faulk officially retired, I was curious to see his place in history. Whenever I want historical information, I start at the excellent website Pro Football Reference. What I found on Faulk was what you would expect, namely he was an amazing player. More interesting was a finding on this page dealing with various leaders in yards from scrimmage. Much to my surprise, Faulk's replacement in St. Louis, Steven Jackson, gained the fifth most yards from scrimmage in history during a single season.

I watch a fair number of Rams games and was well aware that Jackson had a Pro Bowl-caliber season, but I did not realize he was doing anything historic. His total ranked only behind Faulk himself in 1999, Tiki Barber in 2005, LaDainian Tomlinson in 2003, and Barry Sanders in 1997. Not bad company at all.

Looking at those five dates, however, gives immediate pause as to the historical significance of Jackson's efforts. Quite simply, today's NFL places increased pressure on a single running back. Furthermore, the running back is featured in the passing offense at a much higher rate. Of the top 21 yards from scrimmage seasons of all time, 16 have taken place in the last 10 years. Even more amazing, four of the top 21 took place last season. Tomlinson ranks sixth all time, Larry Johnson 19th, and Frank Gore 21st.

What struck me about that total is that this was the year that the NFL was supposedly buying into multiple running backs. The presence of four split-carry situations in the Conference Championship Games led to numerous articles praising this phenomenon. Many at Football Outsiders have been calling for this sort of arrangement for years, in large part to avoid wearing down the primary back. I wanted to believe it was true, but a deeper look shows that radical change is not likely coming.

The copycat NFL was supposed to follow this trend, but two months into the off-season, it appears that the teams in the Conference Championship game themselves are not even following the trend themselves. The Super Bowl Champion Colts let Dominic Rhodes leave in free agency without much of an effort to retain him and with no obvious in-house solution to replace him. The Bears traded Thomas Jones to the Jets for draft picks and have no established back-up to Cedric Benson. The Patriots cut Corey Dillon leaving only Laurence Maroney and third-down back Kevin Faulk. Only New Orleans kept both of their running backs, and there, Reggie Bush's versatility makes it easier to play them both at the same time.

Of course, we could have seen this coming. As recently as 2005, the Colts gave 360 carries to Edgerrin James while the Bears gave Jones 314 in 15 games. The Patriots in 2004 gave Dillon 345 in 15 games. Clearly those coaching staffs were not afraid to ride a workhorse back. All three will have at their disposal young legs to lean on next year and will likely push those backs hard.

Overall last season, 10 running backs had 300 carries compared with 10 in 2005 and nine in 2004. Of the 9 in 2004, five have since missed at least six games in a season due to injury. Admittedly, these numbers are down from the peak of 13 in 2003, but that year was the exception. Nine backs had over 300 carries in both 2001 and 2002.

The failure of teams to adapt appears to be a mistake. The success of the playoff teams can easily be explained by other factors; the teams had three of the game's five best quarterbacks for one. More persuasive is the fact that of the top 10 teams in rushing offense DVOA, only two had a running back with 300 carries, San Diego with Tomlinson and New York with Barber. Of note, their back-ups, Michael Turner and Brandon Jacobs, ranked first and eighth in DVOA (value on a per play basis) indicating that the offensive lines played a large role in each team's overall ranking.

Still, despite the success of these teams who split carries, the workhorse back appears here to stay. As long as that workhorse is also factored in the passing game, the single-season leaderboard for all-purpose yards will remain in constant flux. Jackson may yet suffer the same fate as William Andrews. The former Atlanta Falcon ranked sixth on this list from 1985 to 1997 and now finds himself 22nd.

Hopefully, Jackson does not mimic Andrews in another way. Coming off a 331 carry, 56 catch season in 1983, Jackson blew his knee out in training camp the next season. He gained only 249 yards from scrimmage the rest of his career.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 28 Mar 2007