Feeling Rushed: The Rapid Extinction of The Featured NFL Running Back
A lot has been said about the death of the “bell cow” running back (RB), i.e. the featured back of an offense that stayed on the field 1st, 2nd, and in most cases 3rd down. It’s a much different game than it was even 5 years ago, and the RB tandems are becoming more and more the norm.
When I think bell cow, I think the classic 3-down beasts of the past couple decades: Shaun Alexander, Jerome Bettis, LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Barry Sanders, Frank Gore… Priest Holmes, anyone? It wasn’t too long ago that these guys were leaned on as heavily as the passing offense itself, to the point we were seeing them rack up upwards of 400 rushes a season -- that’s a lot of burned rubber.
I personally haven’t truly come to grips with the notion that a running back still can’t have his fair share in the day and age of the booming passing attack, with quarterbacks achieving historic totals seemingly every year. It certainly can’t be from a lack of talent: Adrian Peterson still looms as a 1,000+ threat even at age 31, and tantalizing young talents like Leveon Bell and Todd Gurley are on the rise. My question coming into this post was: is the preconceived notion of the death of the bell cow back purely conceptual, and if not, how real is the trend?
I compiled the stats dating back to the 1997 season to see how things have played out. At first, I figured maybe the passing age might be a bit overplayed, as the rushing attempts per game didn’t seem to be affected by the loosened passing penalties. The first stat I looked at was within the touchdown department: how many of these guys were achieving double-digit rushing touchdowns then vs. today.
Double Digit TDs (Rushing) Occurences By Year
Now listen… I’ll be the first to tell you that touchdowns are a statistic of luck meets opportunity. From a forecasting standpoint, they’re arguably the hardest variable to predict for any position. Take these two legends as an example: Ladainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk. Both logged about the same number of games (170 vs 176), finished with identical yards per carry (4.3), and are both top 10 on the career total rushing list. So why was Tomlinson able to rack up 45 more rushing touchdowns (145 vs. Faulk's 100) over a similar span? Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis played in 22 more games than Tomlinson, but achieved 54 less touchdowns. In fact, there are only 8 career rushers with 100+ TDs to their name, the latest occurrence in 2008.
Those historic marks will be borderline impossible to achieve in the modern age. It’s not just a blip on the radar now… it’s a trend, and a dying art. 2014 marked the low of the 19 year analysis with only 2 running backs achieving double digit touchdowns. Double digit scorers have occurred only 12 times in the previous 3 seasons combined. Tomlinson alone accomplished this feat 9 times over his career.
Adrian Peterson currently sits at 97, so it’s safe to say there will be at least one additional 100+ club member within the month or two of the season. The next closest would be 33 year old Frank Gore, who sits 30 behind the mark. At kickoff this season, there will not be a single running back under the age with 30 with over 50 TDs to his name. Reworded: R.I.P. 100 TD rushers.
Alright… so running backs aren’t scoring as many TDs, the most unpredictable stat to forecast. Does it actually correlate to the number of opportunities?
Top 20 Rushing Attempts By Year (Averaged)
The first of a few nails in the coffin for the bell cow starts to take shape. Over the course of this 19 year analysis, 2015 marked the absolute low for the top 20 in rushing attempts in the league, with RBs attempting a whopping 44 less average rushes than their 1997 predecessors. So let's assume a golden standard 4.0 yard per carry (YPC) for top shelf RBs: that’s an average 176 yards less per season per rusher (or about 3,500 more total yards for the combined 1997 top 20 than 2015 top 20).
Well, making that 4.0 YPC assumption is actually a huge mistake; the disparity is dumbfounding when you run the numbers. In reality, the top 20 rushers from 1997 out-gained those from 2015 by a whopping 6,200 yards combined. I mean... holy freaking mother of cocktail sauce, that is an ass load of yards left on the table.
And if there was any doubt as to the magnitude in shift of offensive philosophy, take a look at the number of RBs that were given 300+ attempts over the course of the same span.
# Of Rushers Given 300+ Attempts By Year
Not only has the absolute average taken a hit, but the true featured backs are becoming few and far between. Adrian Peterson stands alone in the 2015 season as the only RB with over 300 attempts. Over the last 9 years of the sampling (2007 to 2015), a total 36 running backs have been given over 300 carries in a season. Compare that to the 9 years prior (1998-2006): 77.
So let’s slot in this last puzzle piece. A 1,000 yard season is the benchmark for a truly productive bell cow RB.
# of Rushers Reaching 1,000 Yard Seasons By Year
If you might have noticed by now, 2015 was a very dark year statistically for RBs across the board. For the very first time over the 19 years, 2015 marks the 1st occurrence of less than double digit 1,000 yard rushers -- 7 guys pulled it off. The 2013 and 2014 seasons almost double that with 13 apiece. Only 10 years prior in 2006, we saw over triple the number of 1,000 rushers with 23 achieving the feat.
So let's cross reference that data with the stud wide receivers to see how much they're actually capitalizing on the lack of RB output in recent years:
1,000 Seasons by Year: Rbs vs. WRs
At first glance, it appears the WRs are running away with the show. Actually, they're a relatively stable bunch. Though 26 receivers accomplished a 1,000 yard season in 2015, it actually matches those from 1999. There is one single occurrence (2003) in which wide receivers weren't able to achieve more than 15 in a year. To contrast, what was also a relatively stable RB bunch has now dipped below that '15' threshold the last 3 consecutive years. *insert sad face here*
So now, knowing that the featured rushers are slowly being faded out, is the cream of the crop at the position still rising regardless of the number of opportunities they're given?
TOP RUSHERS BY YEAR
Though the true bell cow is all but dead, we can still take some solace in the fact that the talent still makes its mark (shout out to Mr. Consistency, Frank Gore: 5 top-10 finishes in a row). A total of 6 guys have appeared 3 or more times in top 10 rushing yards category over the last 6 seasons. That’s a pretty remarkable stat considering:
a. how volatile the position is,
b. the turnover at the position, and
c. how the sample size is skewed by fading talents such as Jones-Drew, Jackson, Forte and Turner who all had additional top 10 seasons in 2-4 years prior.
I grew up rooting for guys like Emmitt Smith and Eddie George, so this process has been a tad disheartening. Replaced by the Faulk’s and Tomlinson’s are the Julio’s and the Calvin’s of the modern era. 2017’s college RB prospects bring a small glimmer of hope, but the offensive philosophy has moved on far before they’ll ever take the field. But there's always a glass half-full for these kinds of things: this game is violent, it's unforgiving, and it's ultimately changed for the better (at least from a general health perspective). Running backs have long been one of the most abused, overworked, concussed, punching bags of a group over the league’s entire history. Though the bell cow is a thing of the past, the well-being of the players at the position is at least a thing of the future, and that’s a win for fans and players alike.