The Rise and Fall of the Workhorse Running Back

The running back has long been one of the offensive stars of any team. From breaking tackles for a long gain, securing that tough first down or punishing the defense with clock killing runs – the position defines offensive success.  The busiest receiver last season was Wes Welker with 123 catches that tied for second best in NFL history. Compare that to the 52 NFL running backs with more than 123 touches in 2010 including top of the heap Adrian Peterson with a total of 420. Chris Johnson of the Titans just became the sixth back to break the 2000 rushing yard threshold. The running back is truly the workhorse of the offense.

And yet there is a sense that the position that gave us Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton is now being watered down into committee backfields.  In the past, it was usually an attempt to find a “thunder and lightning” scenario with two backs of vastly different talents to complement each other. Now it seems that the position is becoming “plug and play” with a group of similar backs used in a rotation.  Is it truly a decline of the workhorse back? Could it be that the league is treating the position differently now than in the past?

Undeniably the answer is robust “yes”. And it is also a resounding “no”. It’s just a matter of perspective and timing.

The Decline of the Primary Back

There has been a noticeable decline in how many of the carries for each team are being given to the primary back. For a fair comparison, consider what has happened since 2003 – the last seven years since there have been 32 NFL teams and therefore the same number of primary runners. Since 2003, there has only been a 4% overall decline which is less than one carry per game. The reality is that roughly the same thing happens each season in the NFL. It is just accomplished by an ever-changing cast of players.

Total League RB Stats 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
RB Rush Attempts 12,744 12,747 12,739 12,717 12,612 12,518 12,273
RB Rush Yards 53,304 53,314 51,825 53,336 52,365 53,170 52,782
Average Gain 4.2 4.2 4.1 4.2 4.2 4.2 4.3
Rush Attempts per Game 24.9 24.9 24.9 24.8 24.6 24.4 24.0
Rush Yards per Game 104 104 101 104 102 104 103

The average workload for primary backs will always be affected by injuries so that’s not a major factor in comparing years.  The decline in workload over the last seven seasons shows up when considering how large of a share of carries that those 32 primary backs now have.

Primary Back’s Share of Team Carries 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Over 50% 23 26 26 29 24 23 24
Over 60% 20 20 18 21 14 17 17
Over 70% 13 10 11 14 9 12 8
Over 80% 7 4 6 6 3 4 3
Over 90% 3 1 0 0 0 0 0

Only a quarter of franchises had a runner gain more than 70% of all team rushing attempts last year. In 2006, the NFL reached a high mark with only three teams failing to have a runner with more than 50% of his team’s rushing attempts (Corey Dillon – NE, Ron Dayne – HOU and Leon Washington – NYJ).  The 50% level has remained fairly unchanged but anything higher continues decline with no obvious end in sight.

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