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The Rise and Fall of the Workhorse Running Back
David Dorey
April 12, 2010
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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.

The only players in the last seven years with more than 90% of his teams rushing attempts were LaDainian Tomlinson (SD - 2003), Deuce McAllister (NO – 2003), Rudi Johnson (CIN - 2004) and Ricky Williams (MIA – 2003). But heavy workloads tended to be more related to a situation for one season rather than an offensive strategy. Consider that of the 33 times that a running back had more than 80% of his teams rushing attempts,  only three players managed to do it more than once – Tiki Barber (2), Edgerrin James (3) and Rudi Johnson (3).

Total carries can be affected by injuries or by resting players late in the year by playoff-bound teams. A more accurate picture of running back use in the league is considering how many times in a season that runners passed the different thresholds for carries per game.

RB Carries in a Game 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
5 790 745 788 768 816 872 915
10 535 542 565 579 577 614 563
15 370 397 376 388 396 366 332
20 228 239 221 226 216 189 165
30 36 44 22 26 18 11 12

This paints a better picture by showing that those monster games with more than 30 carries by a single runner are on a severe downturn, dropping from a high of 44 in 2004 to no more than 12 for the last two seasons. Runners with at least 20 rush attempts in a game is the best measure of a true workhorse back since that level extended for a 16 game season nets  300+ carries in a year. Once again, the high came back in 2004 when there were 239 occasions when a runner crossed that threshold. It has since dropped to only 165 last year, a decline of 31%.  2009 also served up the lowest number of games with a runner topping at least 15 carries though the decline is less at just 14% from the highpoint.

The only recent increases have been in the number of players participating in games and yet only topping five carries. Last year witnessed a record 915 times that running backs had at least five rush attempts in a game. Same rushing totals are happening; they’re just being divided among more and more players.  The reliable, heavy-use backs continue to accept a lesser load.
And inside those rushing thresholds is another reality – it is less and less the same running back that has multiple games with a heavy rushing load. The number of players who have just one big game is on the increase while the number of backs with multiple big games continues to slip.

Running Backs with… 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
20+ carries in at least 8 games 12 10 11 12 9 6 5
30+ carries in more than 1 game 8 13 7 5 4 3 2

The 20 carry level is a standard for a true workhorse back and yet the NFL is down to only six backs with at least 20 carries in half of the games they played, halving the high mark only four years ago. Steven Jackson (11), Thomas Jones (11), Chris Johnson (10), Adrian Peterson (8),   and Maurice Jones-Drew (8) were the only runners who spent most of their games as a workhorse.  Only Cedric Benson (3) and Jerome Harrison (3) had more than one game with over 30 carries though Harrison only had four games passing the 20 carry threshold. Harrison was little used in Cleveland until getting 30+ carries in each of the final three games of 2009.

How Long Has This Been Going On?

There is no arguing that the NFL has seen a recent decline in workhorse running backs.  Even those less common big games are mostly just one time events related to an individual game situation. The best bet for a bigger workload these days is being the only healthy back on a roster ravaged by the injury bug. But that is rare and never lasts long anyway.

Since gaining the Houston Texans in 2002 to boost the total franchise numbers to 32, the NFL has been less about having a feature back.  But a better perspective is considering what has transpired in the league since 1978 when the NFL schedule was increased to 16 games.  Granted – there were only 28 teams then and that has to be taken into account. The Jaguars and Panthers brought the league to 30 teams in 1995 and then the Ravens made it 31 in 1996. Taking a look back to 1978 yields the same number of games each year for players to hit production thresholds, it just happened with a up to four fewer teams.

Season 100 Carries 200 Carries 300 Carries 1000 yard seasons 1500 yard seasons
2009 49 22 6 15 1
2008 49 24 5 16 3
2007 49 22 6 17 0
2006 48 27 10 23 5
2005 46 24 10 16 5
2004 44 24 9 18 5
2003 45 23 13 18 6
2002 46 28 9 17 4
2001 43 22 10 15 2
2000 38 24 9 23 3
1999 41 22 6 14 1
1998 39 25 11 20 3
1997 44 23 6 16 3
1996 44 19 11 13 2
1995 41 22 9 16 2
1994 39 19 7 10 1
1993 42 17 2 10 0
1992 41 16 5 13 2
1991 40 11 2 7 2
1990 45 16 0 6 0
1989 42 15 4 11 0
1988 50 17 4 12 3
1987* 38 11 1 2 0
1986 42 15 6 8 2
1985 50 20 5 16 3
1984 44 18 6 13 3
1983 50 20 6 16 2
1982** 24 0 0 0 0
1981 46 19 5 15 2
1980 51 16 5 8 1
1979 54 17 4 12 4
1978 63 17 3 11 0

*Strike shortened ’87 season to 12 games
**Strike shortened ’82 season to 9 games

And here is where the reality comes to light. The NFL has not so much seen a decline in the workhorse.  It merely came off a 12 year span where running back numbers were abnormally higher.  From  1995 through 2006 was the era of the workhorse primary back. It started the same year that the NFL added two new franchises in Jacksonville and Carolina, Baltimore in 1996 and then Houston in 2002 rounded it out.  Four years after Texans made it 32 teams, it returned to pre-1995 levels.

But those levels of 1000 and 1500 rushing yard running backs match up reasonably well with those from 1978 to 1994 considering too that there are four additional teams. 300 carry rushers have leveled off around six per season which is not much different than the early years.  Players with more than 200 carries in a season may be less than that 12 year “golden era” but almost perfectly matches up with the past considering the extra four teams.  Same with the players with 100 carries in a season.

The Rise of the Primary Back

The question is less about why there has been a recent decline and more why running backs were allowed greater roles for a dozen years.   The addition of four new teams coincided directly with the spike and it is reasonable to assume new teams with new defenses are likely to encourage opponents to run the ball more. The Jaguars were 24th against the run in their first season but the Panthers ranked 10th that year.  The Ravens opened their first season in 1996 with the 23rd best defense against the run while the Jaguars rose to 19th and the Panthers reached 8th best. The increase happened right when those new teams started but it wasn’t apparently about them. Their defenses were not the cause of easier rushing yardage and their offenses did not enjoy immediate rushing success since the Panthers Derrick Moore led his new team with only 195 carries for 740 yards and the Jaguars used James Stewart only 137 times for 535 rushing yards.  The following season saw the Ravens open with Bam Morris gaining 737 yards on only 172 runs. The addition of teams was not the cause for more high production outputs against them or by them.

The NFL is all about change and the rules committee can have a major impact on the success of either the offense or defense.  But rule changes have been much kinder to the passing game in the past and new rules at that time shouldn’t have resulted in a leap in using a primary back more.

  • 1995 saw the use of quarterbacks using radio transmitters in their helmets and a receiver knocked out of bounds could return to the field of play.  No rushing impact.
  • 1996 ushered in instant replay and actually promoted more passing with the five-yard contact rule being more stringently enforced.  Also hitting with the helmet   or to the helmet was disallowed. Blocking perhaps improved slightly from offensive linemen getting fewer ear-hole slaps.
  • 1998 prevented defenders from “flinching” before the snap to draw the offensive lineman offsides. But that was over before the play started.
  • 2007 had no new rules affecting rushing other than scoring a touchdown when any part of the ball crossed the imaginary plane through space and time marked by the pylons. Crowd noise, spiking the ball or an unbuckled chin strap should not been cause to use any runner less. Receivers no longer had to make a “football move” for a completed catch when two feet are in bounds which made life slightly easier for wideouts.

There has been no rule change that had any significant impact on the rushing game.  If anything, rules have been altered to promote more passing and protect quarterbacks and receivers. Nothing started in 1995 or ended in 2007 that gave cause for the golden era of workhorse backs.

Another obvious area of suspect is a change in offensive systems ushered in by new coaching staffs.  Jimmy Johnson went to the Dolphins in 1996 and somehow believed that Karim Abdul-Jabbar was going to be the next Emmitt Smith. But the other coaches that started in that era for any length of time were at least not immediately proponents of using a workhorse back.  Tom Coughlin spent eight seasons with the Jaguars but Fred Taylor never had a 300 carry season until Coughlin left.  Dom Capers took over the Panthers for their first four years but only allowed one 300 carry runner when Anthony Johnson inherited the whole load after Tim Biakabutuka was lost for the season. Dennis Erickson took over the Seahawks in 1995 and spent two of his four seasons there relying almost entirely on Chris Warren (’95) or Ricky Watters (’98).

Tony Dungy got his start in 1996 when he took the reins of the Buccaneers but he relied on the duo of Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn. It was not until he left for the Colts in 2002 that he settled on a single back when Edgerrin James was drafted. Jim Fassel was with the Giants from 1997 until 2003 but always relied on a committee, even drafting Ron Dayne to pair with Tiki Barber for a “Thunder and Lightning” attack. Once he left in 2004 and Tom Coughlin took over, Barber had three straight years of 300+ carries. This was from the same Coughlin who relied on a committee in Jacksonville.

Steve Mariucci spent six seasons with the 49ers and three more with the Lions and yet only once heavily used any single back with Garrison Hearst in 1998. Dick Vermeil left the Chiefs in 2006 after Priest Holmes had cranked out three straight 300 carry seasons. Injury affected the next two years and then Larry Johnson had his own monster year in 2006 in the final season of inflated workhorse stats.  There were a few instances of coaches turning to just one back to carry the load but it wasn’t that common and was often just from a unique injury situation.

So it was not the presence of new rules or additional teams or even new coaches that appears to have prompted the league to start using individual backs more heavily. The NFL salary cap started in 1994 and increased from $34.6 million to $128 million per team in 2009 when it expired. Spending more for a star running back could have occasionally forced a team to rely on him more since they had less money to pay for backups but with 11 starters on both offense and defense, no position gets proportionally ahead of others besides quarterback. And if there was a big investment in a running back, even more precaution would be taken to limit his carries and keep him fresh. NFL teams are playing to reach the playoffs and still have something left when they get there.  It is all about reaching the Super Bowl for every franchise, not to promote the glory of an individual player.

Is it possible that the NFL just enjoyed a better crop of running backs that paid off better for a dozen years? There could be at least some truth in that considering that the era ended around 2006. Running backs who retired at or near the end of the time period include Corey Dillon, Tiki Barber, Curtis Martin, Jerome Bettis, Marshall Faulk, Eddie George and Emmitt Smith.  LaDainian Tomlinson has markedly slowed down after seven seasons of 300+ carries. Edgerrin James has finally retired with his own seven years of 300 carries as well.  Jamal Lewis hung up his cleats and Clinton Portis is tailing off. Figure on several of those backs entering the Hall of Fame.

Who is in the next crop of great runners?  Chris Johnson topped 2000 rushing yards and led the league with 358 carries but the second-year speedster only weighs 200 pounds – will he hold up with that sort of workload? Adrian Peterson is an elite player and while he excelled in 2008 and 2009, he is the only runner then to manage back-to-back 300 carry seasons.  Steven Jackson has been a workhorse to be sure for a St. Louis team that has featured little else but he’s been constantly nagged by injuries. Maurice Jones-Drew and Cedric Benson both had new situations with great results. But that rounds out the workhorses from last year other than Thomas Jones who symbolizes yet another problem. Running backs are playing longer now and at least eating into what could have been opportunities for younger backs. Fred Taylor, Thomas Jones, Jamal Lewis, Ricky Williams, LaDainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook all were over 30 years of age in 2009 and played a big role on their respective offenses.

One more factor cannot be overlooked in how teams use runners.  The NFL is a copycat league. The bottom line is if it works for one team then why not try it? The “Wildcat” formation has been adopted by many teams after Miami introduced it and yet it is just another way that primary running backs could get less work since it often relies on running quarterbacks or out of position wideouts. If you want to know what is likely to be popular the next season, take a look at the Super Bowl winner because 31 other teams will be doing exactly that.  Emmitt Smith was the workhorse carrying the ball in three of four Super Bowls from 1992 through 1995 which was followed by Terrell Davis, Marshall Faulk and Jamal Lewis. All were heavy-use backs that led their respective offenses and shared little. No doubt that led many teams to hunt for their own version of a workhorse back.

But the trend has declined since then with only Corey Dillon winning a Super Bowl in 2004 and having over 70% of his teams carries that season and 345 rushing attempts. Since then the Patriots have been a study in running back rotation and perhaps the least likely team to rely on any one back. For the last four years – which coincide perfectly with the sudden decline in heavy workload backs – the Super Bowl winner has not featured a running back that has ranked better than 22nd in rushing attempts.  Basically, two-thirds of all NFL teams were using their primary back more and yet never reaching the Super Bowl.

And what has happened since 2006 with Super Bowl winners? Each have used committee backfields and had their primary back barely crack 50% of his team’s total carries. The backfield rotation of similarly sized and talented rushers has worked. No need to rely too much on one back. No need to overpay for just one back.  One reality in the NFL is that if all 11 offensive players do their jobs on every rushing play, the running back (and make that nearly any running back) will get past the line of scrimmage and be tackled in the second level with around a four yard average like most backs. No other position witnesses so many no-name players turning in great numbers only to disappear the next season. The position is being treated more “plug-n-play” than ever before.

So the golden era of the workhorse back is over, at least for now and the foreseeable future. There is no single reason why it started and it was at least in part related to the combination of talented backs landing in offenses that relied heavily on the run and for at least a time it resulted in teams like Dallas, Denver and even the Patriots winning championships relying on just one running back. But offenses are only more complicated as time marches on and what now works best is a backfield rotation that keeps players fresher and healthier and lowers a team’s liability when the primary back cannot play.

But rest assured – football will always have their star running backs. Elite talent like Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson will always command a greater share of the action. What the league is now serving up is really little different than what happened before 1995. Perhaps a bit less given the four additional teams, but the position has served up similar numbers for the last three years.  And until the college ranks can serve up more all-around backs and teams prove successful relying on just one runner, this is where we will stay.  There will be more variation in the top ten most productive runners each year than what we were used to seeing.

The league’s interest in promoting the passing game and higher scoring will also help keep the new status quo.  Is it the end of the iconic workhorse back for most teams? Yes and as it has been in the past, for the best of reasons.  There are only so many gifted backs to go around and rotations work. And championships matter most.  The New Orleans Saints typify this new direction when Mike Bell ended the regular season as t he team leader in rushing attempts (172) and yet he only ran eight times for 15 yards over the four playoff games. Pierre Thomas (36) and Reggie Bush (17) had more carries in the postseason.

For NFL fans still wanting to see their favorite team feature a super-back, take heart in the one timeless NFL truism. Teams will do whatever wins the most games. If that means sticking with just one difference-making back, then they will. It’s up to the individual players to shine and merit that extra workload.

 Season Won Primary RB of SB Winner Carries Rush Yards % of Team Rushes NFL Rank
2009 NO Mike Bell 172 654 40% 29
2008 PIT Willie Parker 210 791 51% 23
2007 NYG Brandon Jacobs 202 1009 46% 22
2006 IND Joseph Addai 226 1081 54% 25
2005 PIT Willie Parker 255 1202 53% 12
2004 NE Corey Dillon 345 1635 73% 4
2003 NE Antowain Smith 182 642 44% 26
2002 TB Michael Pittman 204 718 54% 28
2001 NE Antowain Smith 287 1157 69% 11
2000 BAL Jamal Lewis 309 1364 67% 8
1999 STL Marshall Faulk 253 1381 66% 14
1998 DEN Terrell Davis 392 2008 89% 2
1997 DEN Terrell Davis 369 1750 78% 2
1996 GB Edgar Bennett 222 899 54% 16
1995 DAL Emmitt Smith 377 1773 84% 1
1994 SF Ricky Watters 239 877 58% 15
1993 DAL Emmitt Smith 283 1486 66% 6
1992 DAL Emmitt Smith 373 1713 84% 2
1991 WAS Earnest Byner 274 1048 54% 4
1990 NYG Ottis Anderson 225 784 45% 11
1989 SF Roger Craig 271 1054 68% 10
1988 SF Roger Craig 310 1502 70% 3
1987 WAS George Rogers 163 613 36% 15
1986 NYG Joe Morris 341 1516 67% 3
1985 CHI Walter Payton 324 1551 62% 4
1984 SF Wendell Tyler 246 1262 51% 13
1983 LAR Marcus Allen 266 101 4 53% 11
1982 WAS John Riggins 177 553 63% 1
1981 SF Ricky Patton 152 543 30% 30
1980 OAK Mark Van Eeghen 222 838 44% 10
1979 PIT Franco Harris 267 1186 50% 6
1978 PIT Franco Harris 310 1082 52% 2

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