Should the NFL's 'every down' running back be saved? The stats indicate otherwise
The NFL is increasingly moving away from the 'ground and pound' days and has turned into a high-flying aerial show. So, what will happen to the running back?
Going back 25 years or so, the league began a fundamental shift how the offense scored. No longer did teams' survival rely on putting the ball into the hands of their fast and powerful running back and riding him to victory.
Today, you would be hard pressed to find an "every down running back" in the NFL.
According to ESPN stats, only two running backs in the past two seasons have amassed over 300 carries; this past season, it was DeMarco Murray of the Dallas Cowboys and LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2013, it was McCoy and Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks.
Despite his production, McCoy, 26, and his potential $16 million salary were traded to the Buffalo Bills this past week, characterizing how interchangeable teams view their running backs, and many teams have adopted a running back-by-committee approach, according to the Baltimore Wire. In 2003, 13 running backs touched the ball 300 times or more, according to ESPN stats.
Now one longtime running back has had enough.
Free-agent running back Steven Jackson played the last two years with the Atlanta Falcons, was a Pro Bowl back with the St. Louis Rams, and has run for 11,388 yards in his career. He has started a website in support of his fellow every down backs.
The website titled, "Savetherunningback.org" gives fans an opportunity to craft prewritten letters to the management of their favorite teams asking them to show running backs a little more love. Especially ones who are on the field for nearly every play, whether they are running inside between the linemen or sweeping around the end of the formation, assisting with pass blocking, or catching passes out of the backfield, skills that characterize every down greats like Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions' Barry Sanders.
The site features a light-hearted public service announcement, in which Jackson says he grew up wanting to emulate a former Chicago Bears great.
"Thing is, I wanted to be Walter Payton all of the time," Jackson says as a piano plays a sad tune in the background. "Not some of the downs, not half of the downs, but all of the downs. That's why I'm speaking out for running backs across the sport."
But the problem, especially with every down running backs, is that they wear down much faster than their contemporaries at other positions. There is simply a finite amount of times a back can get hit and tackled before the body just slows down and performance is affected, and this decline is seen in running backs generally from ages 27 to 30, according to Football Perspective.
The website observed backs between the years of 1990 and 2012 who had run for at least 5,000 yards and averaged more than 40 yards rushing per game, of which there were 36. Then they examined what happened to the player after the age of 27, and what each runner's propensity to gain two yards per carry was. By age 28, the average yards per game deviated negatively from the rest of the league average for this sample of 36 running backs, according to Football Perspective.
One illustration of how quickly a running back can go from franchise cornerstone to cut day cast off is the case of former league most valuable player (MVP) Shaun Alexander of the Seattle Seahawks. Alexander ran for 1,880 yards on 370 carries in 2005 at age 28 and scored 27 touchdowns on his way to winning the NFL MVP award. The following year, he only ran for 816 yards on 252 carries. Two years later, he was out of the NFL for good.
If Steven Jackson wants to blame someone for the decline of the running back, he may want to start with legendary San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh. Walsh won three Super Bowls in the 1980s with quarterback Joe Montana running Walsh's famed "West Coast Offense." The system relied on the short-to-intermediate passing game to partially take the place of a running game.
For the balance of the 1990s and into the 2000s, quarterback play began to excel. According to Cleveland.com, this is partly because younger quarterbacks playing youth football are throwing at earlier and earlier ages, which has its own set of consequences like overuse.
This allows high school and college offenses to install more complex passing systems so, by the time a rookie QB enters the league today, they are better equipped to handle a pro offense compared to where rookies were even to start the century.
Since 2008, 33 quarterbacks have attempted 100 passes or more in major conferences in their true freshman season of college football, according to Football Study Hall, an SB Nation college football blog. Out of that group, five have gotten snaps under center at the NFL level.
Before 2008, the only quarterback to have thrown for more than 5,000 yards was Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins in 1984. And since 2008, four quarterbacks have accomplished the feat - Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints in 2008, 2011, 2012, and 2013; Tom Brady of the New England Patriots in 2011; Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions also in 2011; and Peyton Manning, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts – now with the Denver Broncos, in 2013.
Aside from developing better QB skills in their younger years, the rule changes implemented since 2000 have also tilted the game in favor of the passing attack. A 2004 rule change no longer allowing members of the defensive backfield to bump or push receivers when they get into the secondary is credited with helping the Patriots win multiple Super Bowls in the 2000s, according to the Washington Post.
In a separate Post story, it detailed the further crackdown by the NFL for illegal contact in the secondary which led to a massive spike in pass interference penalties and defensive holdings this past season, both penalties give the opposing offense an automatic first down.