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Is The One-Man Backfield Really Dying?

Everyone's got an opinion these days on whether or not Tennessee is going to run Chris Johnson' wheels off before he reaches 30. He's got plenty of mileage; very few backs have been relied as much as CJ has in his first two years, and many thought that he might have been starting to show that last year (I'm not one of those people, but that's a story for another day). 

Recently, Jon Bois of SBNation wrote a compelling piece on the death of the feature back and how teams that tend to split carries generally end up having somewhat more success in terms of how well they do on the ground.  

My mission tonight is to decide a.) whether or not the single-back system is truly doomed and b.) how much of this will apply to our very own Chris Johnson by breaking down Bois' article and responding as I see fit.

Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram was expected to be the first running back chosen in the 2011 NFL Draft. He sat and watched as four quarterbacks and a couple of wide receivers were chosen. So were three offensive tackles and a center. After 27 picks, a running back still had not been chosen.

Not off to a good start Jon, while I also expected Ingram to go a little higher, it shouldn't surprise anyone that he dropped like he did. While he played well this year splitting time (oh the irony) with Trent Richardson at Alabama, he's also coming off a semi-serious injury that is only made more troublesome due to the fact that it's his knee; the career killer among running backs. Even a nagging, mostly minor knee injury can set back the most promising of careers. Now, do I think that Ingram's injury was that serious? No, I definitely don't, but why take that chance when there were some "safer" prospects out there at positions of need? Teams that come to mind are Miami, who took interior lineman Mike Pouncey, New England, who took the top rated offensive lineman left on the board (never a bad idea) in Nate Solder, and Washington who moved up and took a top rated pass rusher (also a fine idea).  

So basically what I'm trying to say is that there are more important positions out there like center, tackle, and pass rushing end/linebacker that teams will always be looking to upgrade. This is a passer's league, get guys who can protect your QB and guys who can attack your opponent's before you get a running back, chances are that doing one of the two aforementioned actions correctly will get your team more wins than any running back could. Also; I like to think that the Titans were in some way responsible for this by causing such a mad run on quarterbacks.

As teams showed less interest, the television cameras showed more. Even an impatient toddler such as myself can appreciate the need to place an emphasis on drafting linemen,

Glad we're clear!

but teams were showing no interest in one of the very small number of men who were actually paid to touch the ball.

Kind of...

Mr. Bois goes on to acknowledge that this was a decidedly weak running back class at first glance, and also notes that the overall effectiveness for ball-carriers with 50+ touches is down from last year and is actually at it's lowest point since 2000, but was 2000 not also an era where guys like Jamal Lewis, Eddie George, and Jerome Bettis ran free? Those three were all the definition of workhorse if I ever heard it (Saw it? Something.) In fact, all three of them carried the ball more than 300 times in 2000 and Eddie lead the league with 403. Small sample size? Sure, but there were certainly others who surpassed the 300 carry mark; out of the ten players who carried the ball the most in 2000, only one didn't hit 300 attempts. Denver's Mike Anderson carried 297 times. 

Now, rushing attempts seem to be a solid measuring stick here when talking about how much of a load that a given player must shoulder, but it does have it's flaws. Who cares if these guys are getting the ball 300 times a year if they aren't doing anything with it? Well, of those ten players who got to the magical 297+ mark, seven were in the top ten in rushing yards.

Next question. many teams are sticking with the "stud back" approach, and how many are putting their running backs into a rotation?

And then the pretty graph shows us that, of the top five rushing teams last year, none of the teams that relied on their one guy to carry the load were in the top five in team rushing this year. The top five rushing teams? They appear at, on average, number fourteen on the list. Suddenly, evidence points to the idea that platooning might just be a good idea and is, in fact, a growing trend that's been awhile for quite a long time (ok, relatively.)

Bois' next point states that 10 teams had running backs that took at least 70% of their team's total carries; the Falcons, Rams, Texans, Steelers, Titans, Ravens, Jaguars, Bengals, Vikings, Browns, and Eagles. The first thing that jumped out to me: those ten teams all have top-notch starting running backs. If I were to attach a name to each team, you'd have a list of Michael Turner, Stephen Jackson, Arian Foster, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew, Cedric Benson, Adrian Peterson, Peyton Hillis, and LeSean McCoy. Those names are easily interchangeable on a list of the NFL's top running backs from last season. The difference in YPA? A measely .04 in favor of the multi-back teams. Somebody call the Raiders and tell them to up Darren McFadden's workload ASAP. Speaking of workload, a team with multiple backs that they trust to carry the ball will almost certainly run more than a team that doesn't. 

Logic would follow, though, that a team with more backs is going to run more often, so it isn't surprising that we see a very significant uptick in the yards-per-game numbers.


But how about longevity? The main argument against the single running back system is that it will inevitably wear the poor guy out before he's 30. The "a running back in the NFL only has an average career of 2.57 years" argument appears again, but who's to say that's got anything to do with durability? Players are cut all the time. In fact, the average career length for the NFL as a whole lies around 3 1/2 years according to the NFLPA. 

In any case, Bois' conclusion seems to say that the best running backs are young and that a multi-back approach will prolong their effectiveness. 

Ok, I can see where he gets this. But if a player can give you more than what you're allowing him to do, what kind of value do you get out of him? Does it all come down to preference? Are four or five dominant years more valuable to a team than nine or ten solid ones? It's hard to say, but since it's not quantifiable, the name of the game is compromise. I think that what this is saying is what we've known since the beginning of time; players decline with age. Since that's the case and always will be, why not let your young warhorse run wild for four or five years, and then once he hits that golden number of 26, (give or take) the average age of a "non-premier back" in the NFL according to Bois, sign or draft someone who can take the load off for a few carries every game? 

The running back isn't a position where players are often built to last, so when you catch lightning in a bottle with a once-in-a-generation talent like Johnson or Peterson, it would be foolish not to use him to his full potential. I understand that this may cause said talent to fade in the future, but it to not maximize your team's performance in an effort to squeeze a couple more years of slightly-better-than-league-average performance seems silly. That's not to say that I think a platoon wouldn't be a good idea somewhere down the road, but when you start off a player like, say, Jamaal Charles, who constantly draws comparison to Chris Johnson, and you platoon him with the serviceable Thomas Jones, you're totally selling the first guy short.

So! To answer the question that I first posed in the title of the article, yes, the one-man backfield is an issue, no, it's not news to me, no, young players should not be sheltered from the moment they enter the league. Think of it as a rite of passage, one day, all young running backs will reach the downturn of their careers, but until that point, I think it's best to let them put the team on their collective back's and go with it.