Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

17 Jan 2007

Too Many Carries Are Ruining Running Backs

I'm not sure if you're familiar with this concept, but...

Also, "Pro football is violent game and running backs arguably take the greatest amount of punishment." Did you ghost-write this column, Jason Mulgrew?

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 17 Jan 2007

38 comments, Last at 18 Jan 2007, 8:41pm by johonny


by zip (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 5:41pm

Without reading it, I'm going to assume the entire thing is written in hackneyed Borat-voice.

by AlexDL (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 6:13pm

I can't believe there is no mention of the research that you did here at Football Outsiders.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 6:17pm

Insightful, subtle, original, and, dare I say it... PLAGIARIST!!!

Clearly a fan of FO, but it might be nice if he had credited youse guys.

by Mike (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 6:21pm

It's interesting, but his 10-year analysis is weird - it's a rather arbitrary goalpoast, isn't it? While it's true that it could be a flawed system that doesn't expect 10 years from RBs as it does from every other position, it's massively unlikely to prepare for 5-6 years down the road when RBs are easier to replace.

by DrewTS (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 6:30pm

If he had pulled out the number 370, I'd be crying foul. As it is, I just consider this another case of FO being ahead of the traditional media.

by Pacifist Viking (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 6:30pm

I hope as this data gets more widespread, HOF voters take notice. Should a great RB like Terrell Davis be excluded from the HOF because he lacked longevity when, by reason of these statistics, the lack of longevity really wasn't his fault? The overuse doesn't just shorten/kill careers, but it greatly alters a player's historical place.

by zlionsfan (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 6:45pm

Well, if one of the criteria for the Hall of Fame is longevity, then yes, he should be excluded. I think you must consider his career as it was, not as it might have been.

by farsykal (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 6:51pm

as far as TD goes his first major (knee) injury came when he was making a tackle on an interception return in 1999. i believe he tore both his acl and mcl. i'm not sure how this correlates with high numbers of carries earlier in his career.

by Pacifist Viking (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 6:54pm

7: I agree that a career has to be what is, not what might have been.

However, perhaps longevity for a RB must be held to a different standard than longevity for other positions (I suppose in some ways it might be already). If Terrell Davis was one of if not the best RB in the league for three years, it should be considered that a.) he's playing a position with a shorter shelf-life, and b.) one reason for his shorter run of success was overuse.

For a RB that did cross 370, perhaps being one of the best, perhaps the best, RB for 3 years should be enough. Perhaps not. It depends on whether or not 3 years being the best is worth 10 years being very good, or whatever.

Either way, I'm not trying to devise a logical argument for Davis or anybody else to be a HOFer, but simply suggesting that numbers like these should be examined by the HOF selection committee.

by tim (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 7:01pm

gale sayers is in the Hall, and he played for only 6 years

by vijay (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 7:06pm

Although this is analysis that has been done here before, I have a question.

Does an analysis like this lend credence to what the Saints are doing? Reggie Bush averaged 15.2 touches/game and Deuce McAllister averaged 17.1 touches/game. Both touched the ball less than 20 times a game, but you had a RB average 32 touches per game for an average of 160 yards per game.

Obviously, it's rare to have talent like both of them fall into your lap like the Texans allowed it to do this year. But a team like the Dallas Cowboys have a similar deal. Barber had 10 touches/game and Jones had 17 touches/game totaling 27 touches per game for 130 yards/game.

LJ averaged 28.5 touches/game for 137 yards/game. Essentially, the Cowboys got nearly the same performance and same level of play for about half the touches. MEaning that theoretically, Jones and Barber will last longer than LJ. So, although every GM and coach will tell you that they want a "guy who can carry the mail", do you? Or do you want two guys who can split the mail carring duties and split the route so you can maximize your investment?

Personally, I see that kind of analysis being done here. As a readership, do you think GMs and coaches do that type of analysis? It kills fantasy football teams, but if you structure your team that way, with 2 good RBs, you can maximize your potential and your investment.

12: No, I'm not trying to be a homer.

by Becephalus (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 7:07pm

10- who cares the hall of fame is completely meaningless and ad-hoc why try to make rational arguments about it.

TD will either get in or he won't. In niether scenario to is mean much of anything.

Law of the excluded middle ftw.

by Tball (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 7:49pm

Maybe Marty was limiting Tomlinson's touches on Sunday (only 9 touches in the second half) to avoid limiting his career. The San Diego coach for LDT's year 10 season should send him a thank you note (Marty will get to coach year 7).

It should be noted the article addressed carries, not touches.

by Richard (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 8:04pm

13: Marty doesn't call the plays.

by brasilbear (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 8:06pm

RE: 11
Just for another reference point, look at Chicago this year.

Jones went 296 for 1210, 4.1 and 6 tds
Benson went 157 for 647, 4.1 and 6 tds
3rd stringer Peterson added 10 for 41, 4.1 and 2 tds.

Combined 463 for 1898, 4.1 and 14 tds.

If Benson wasn't a high first rounder pulling the big bucks (meaning he'll need to start next year) this looks like an ideal situation to have, (Did I spell situation right?)

by Basilicus (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 8:16pm

Wow. Shoddily covered plagiarism a go-go. Aside from discussion of the 370-rule, this follows almost exactly the same structure as an FO article or blog post I remember from a week or two back.

by zlionsfan (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 8:21pm

I think it's worth discussing how we think the Hall of Fame ought to work. I also think it's a given that if we got to start the HoF from scratch, it would probably be what we'd consider to be "higher quality" than the actual HoF.

I don't think TD was the best back in the league in each season from 1996 through 1998 ('98 is reasonable, '96 a possibility, but in '97, I'd have to go with #20); for me, personally, three quality seasons makes him a solid RB, but not HoF-caliber.

I would also argue that Sayers does not deserve to be in the HoF for the same reason: he had some good seasons, and was one of the best in the league during those seasons, but he only played five seasons (four plus most of another) and two games in each of two more. It's a shame that he didn't get to finish his career, but it is what it is.

(I believe in electing a player based on his own accomplishments, rather than comparing his to those already in the HoF, especially if there are brain-addled Veterans' Committees involved. In real life, I believe there are probably quite a few players who got in because they were better than that guy with the plaque in the corner.)

by DrewTS (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 8:33pm

Re 11

Does an analysis like this lend credence to what the Saints are doing?

Absolutely, it does. And the Saints aren't the only ones. More and more teams are going away from the "feature back" mindset. The Colts, Cowboys, Broncos, Patriots, Bears, and Jaguars used committees this year. Probably some others I'm not thinking of at the moment. Also worth noting (and possibly just a coincidence) is that the "Final Four" this year all use RB committees.

by James, London (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 8:53pm

Either an uncanny coincidence, or a straightforward rip-off. I'm not sure which, but it's one for the dubious goals committee to look at.

by Bill Barnwell :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 9:06pm

By the way, I just want to add that I don't (necessarily) think this is plagiarism. Just a coincidence.

Oh, and I hate Wayne Routledge.

by Marko (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 9:57pm

"Davis of the Broncos had his two most productive years (369 carries in 1997 and 392 in 1998) in years his team won the Super Bowl. Could they have won more had they rested him more?"

Maybe, if (1) he hadn't gotten injured making a tackle on an interception return, as pointed out above; and (2) Denver still had the quarterback who was there for Denver's two Super Bowl victories and if that quarterback was somewhat close to the prime of his career. I can't seem to recall his name, but I think he was pretty good. Does anyone know?

by Basilicus (not verified) :: Wed, 01/17/2007 - 10:57pm


Was it Joey Harrington? It was Joey Harrington, wasn't it?

by young curmudgeon (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 12:35am

The "Feature Back" approach has been a fad recently, but as DrewTS points out, it may be falling out of favor. Here are some interesting statistics, cherry-picked because they are the cases that came to mind. All the data are for rushing attempts and show the two (or in a few cases three) team leaders:

San Diego 2006: Tomlinson 348, Turner 80

KC 2006: Johnson 416, Bennett 36

Seattle 2005: Alexander 370, Morris 71

Now here are some interesting contrasts:

Cleveland 1963: Jim Brown 291, Ernie Green 87

Cleveland 1964: Jim Brown 280, Ernie Green 109

Cleveland 1965: Jim Brown 289, Ernie Green 111

Chicago 1965: Gale Sayers (rookie) 166, Ron Arnett 102, Ronnie Bull (I think FB) 91

Chicago 1966: Sayers 229, Arnett 55, Bull 100

Dallas 1970: Calvin Hill 173, Duane Thomas 151

Dallas 1971: Thomas 175, Hill 106 (only played 8 games)

Pittsburgh 1973: Franco Harris 188, Preston Pearson 132

Pittsburgh 1974: Harris 208, Rocky Bleier 88

Pittsburgh 1975: Harris 262, Bleier 140

Pittsburgh 1976: Harris 289, Bleier 220

Pittsburgh 1977: Harris 300, Bleier 135

Pittsburgh 1978: Harris 310, Bleier 165

Green Bay 1972: John Brockington 274, MacArthur Lane 177

Green Bay 1973: Brockington 265, Lane 170

Green Bay 1974: Brockington 266, Lane 137

It's evident that the idea of how to use running backs was very different a few decades ago. By the way, don't think you give up blocking by not having your "fullback" being a glorified pulling guard who is eligible to catch passes, which goes along with the "feature back" approach. Bleier was well known as a terrific blocker, and I seem to remember Lane and Green were, too, although that is based solely on memory, and I'll admit that it's unreliable. Nevertheless, I would be glad to see a return to having a couple of versatile and talented guys line up behind the QB instead of having one guy carry the load all the time.

by hwc (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 1:31am


I think a lot of NFL coaches prefer to split carries.

The Pats RBs this year:

Dillon (199 carries, 4.1 ypc)

Maroney (175 carrries, 4.3 ypc)

Faulk (25 carries, 4.9 ypc)

Evans (27 carries, (4.3 ypc)

I believe they extended Dillon's career by a year or two by splitting the load. Not to mention that they always have fresh back in the game. They tend to alternate series between Dillon and Maroney when both are available. Neither runs more than 15 times per game.

by hwc (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 1:40am

BTW, I suspect that Belichick LOVED that four back group. They all brought something different to the table.

Dillon is the road grader. Perfect in short yardage, in the red zone, and running out the clock.

Maroney comes in with breakaway speed (and learning the Dillon stiff arm).

Faulk is the little 3rd down back. Good receiver, lethal on 3rd down draw plays.

Evans is the blocking fullback, who produced effectively getting the handoff as the lead back as a change of pace.

by Jason Mulgrew (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 2:19am

This was a very nice article. It is definitely not plagiarism.

by Lazear, Texas Ranger (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 2:35am

well, that can now go into my no sh*t file. Next Mr. Day can do an expose on this inter-net he's heard so much about, or the emerging cellular mobile phone industry.

by David (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 5:17am

24, though I realise you were responding to a different post, 23 is positing something different. The issue with the Patriots' RB rotation this season is that you know what you are getting, because you know who is in the game.

Previously, say with Harris and Bleier in Pittsburgh, you had both of your running threats on the field at the same time. Though the Patriots did this at times, notably with a Dillon/Maroney backfield, it certainly wasn't the norm.

Who was the last fullback that was also a credible running threat. Tom Rathman, of the superbowl winning 49ers, carried the ball over 50 times in every season with the niners except his rookie season, and his last season. This also included 2 years with over 100 carries. He was more effective early in his career, averaging over 4 yards a carry for the first three years, and ending up with a 3.7 ypc career average.

Anyone since?

by Mike Alstott (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 5:34am

Dangit. I've *just* retired, and people have already forgotten me.

by Mike Alstott (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 5:45am

Oh, and RIP, Ironhead Heyward.

by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 9:28am

#11, #18 - I'm not sure the Saints are a very good example, because of how much they pay their backs. McAllister is paid like a featured back, and Bush considerably more than that, up there in the Tomlinson-Alexander bracket. That means they're tying up a phenomenal amount of their salary cap in the RB position, which is not true of the Cowboys, Broncos or most other teams known for using multiple backs. Bush may be a unique enough player to justify the approach in their particular case (though I'm not convinced), but it certainly isn't a good general model of what RBBC should look like.

by Waverly (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 10:10am

But if it's easy to replace running backs, why not "use them up" quickly? What's the tradeoff between better-than-average RBs and salary cap usage? Is it more efficient to use RBs on rookie contracts and then trade them (cf Denver), or is it better to find and use an exceptional RB sparingly for a long time?

by Andrew (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 10:47am

The Bucs-Alstott example is very interesting:

1996 Rhett 176 Alstott 96 Brooks 112 Ellison 35
1997 Dunn 224 Alstott 176 Rhett 31
1998 Dunn 245 Alstott 215
1999 Dunn 195 Alstott 242
2000 Dunn 248 Alstott 131
2001 Dunn 158 Alstott 165 Stecker 24
2002 Pittmann 204 Alstott 146 Stecker 28
2003 Pittmann 187 Alstott 27 Jones 137 Stecker 37
2004 Pittmann 219 Alstott 67 Garner 30
2005 Williams 290 Alstott 34 Pittmann 70 Graham 28
2006 Williams 225 Alstott 60 Pittmann 50

by DrewTS (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 12:45pm

Re 32

I see your point about using them up. If you're not planning on having the guy around next year, you might as well get maximum usage from him this year.

I think the problem with that can be that they wear out, not just from one year to the next, but even within the same season. Did Larry Johnson look like a superstar against the Colts? Some of that was defense of course, and some of it was poor planning. But I'd bet 457 touches (69 in the final two weeks) factored into it as well.

by Insancipitory (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 1:40pm

The Seahawks were/are planning to go something of that route with Leonard Weaver. But he ended up on IR something like 9 plays into the Raiders preseason game. He's a converted TE who's learning the Mack Strong way. With some pretty good moves of his own. In one of the interviews for the team site Mack Strong was quoted as saying something to the effect of 'Weaver's going to revolutionize the FB position.'

If the Seahawks can rebuild their O-line to a facsimilie of its 2005 glory, and if Weaver fullfills some of that promise, it would be pretty annoying having him in the backfield with Shaun if you're on defense.

by hwc (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 1:58pm

I think the problem with that can be that they wear out, not just from one year to the next, but even within the same season.

Especially if you are managing your team with the specific goal of playing 19 games in a seasons.

by Boston Dan (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 3:51pm

Bill Simmons as well, has recently discussed the overuse of running backs, but he never gives credit where it's due.

by johonny (not verified) :: Thu, 01/18/2007 - 8:41pm

-23 Teams also simply ran more in the 1960s and 1970s. Percentage of teams carries is probably a better way to illustrate the difference in usage pattern. I'd be interested to know if pass recieving added on to rushing attempts has any effect. It would seem to me backs recieving out of the back field take less punishment on these extended hand offs than they do on straight up rushing plays.