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The Two Running Back System. Or "Why Shonn Greene Matters."

Is carrying a rushing attack no longer a one man job?

Pictured: Multiple Backs.
Pictured: Multiple Backs.

I think it's high time we start thinking about a two-back system.

Don't think of this as some CJ-hate served up because of some deeply rooted feelings of bitterness brought on by the "lazy" stereotype that gets thrown his way. I have always been a supporter of #28 and nothing about that has changed. That said, the NFL is changing. In a game that's been making a gradual shift away from the run for the better part of at least half a decade, it's time for the Titans to adapt or to continue wallowing. Not only has the NFL become pass oriented, the run game is changing, too. The "feature back" is becoming less and less prevalent. In the years 2004-2006, the NFL's leaders in carries were all players that broke (in lots of cases, comfortably broke) 300 carries on the year. Curtis Martin led football with 371 in 2004, Shaun Alexander topped the league with 370 the year after, and in 2006, Kansas City's Larry Johnson re-wrote the record books with 416 carries in one season. To appear on the top 10 in carries between those three seasons, 300+ carries was almost a pre-requisite. Between those seasons, only one player on the top 10 leaders in rushing attempts didn't break 300: Willis McGahee with 284 in 2004.

Let's flash forward to 2012. Five players in the league topped 300 carries last year. True, 300 is an awfully arbitrary number, but instead of treating as if it means something important, just treat it as a way to help illustrate a change in the times. Not only are teams moving away from pounding the rock 25 times a game, teams are moving away from using just one player to do their running. And why shouldn't they? It can preserve a running back's shelf life, in theory* it should start to make running backs a lot cheaper (think relief pitchers in baseball), and it forces defenses to prepare for different looks.

Well, last year Chris Johnson got 276 carries. The only other player on the team to even break 20 carries was Jake Locker with 41. The two backup running backs, Jamie Harper and Darius Reynaud, earned 19 and 16 carries, respectively. So much for throwing different looks at 'em.

*I say in theory because clearly no one told the Titans about this...

So what's the deal? Why do we care? Well I'm going to attempt to understand that myself in this next wall of text.

First off, let's take a look at the top rushing teams from 2012.

So this is a weird list. It shows us that just looking at pure volume of yardage is not the way to go when evaluating the effectiveness of a rushing attack. Advanced stats are relatively uncharted territory for football. There aren't as many out there that have breached the mainstream in the way that WAR has in baseball or PER has in basketball, but I trust DVOA for the most part as a way to start arguments and not necessarily to end them. It's all about whether you prefer quality over quantity or not. In any case, these are teams that had some degree of success running the football last year, whether they were terribly efficient about it varies. For what it's worth, Kansas City was the lowest rated team and they still ranked within the top 20. Not exactly setting the bar extremely high, but their struggles can also be partially blamed on an offensive line that struggled to get push in the run game all year long, as evidenced by the massive contrast in their power running/stuff scores (23rd/19th) and their open field/second level ranks (2nd/8th). Moving on.

Now I'll try to identify which of these teams were relying on one running back getting the overwhelming bulk of the carries.

Just starting from the top, let's look at Washington. This is a weird one. Not only did the Redskins have an awesome running back (or an awesome running scheme, I don't really know which), they also had the best scrambling QB in football until his knee exploded. This team was built to run the football. Those two, Alfred Morris and RG3, combined for 455 attempts last year. So while they didn't top the league in attempts, they were the most prolific rushing attack in the game. The duo also averaged over 5 yards per carry. Even though RG3's running abilities were on full display last year, I can't call this a true multi-back system in good faith just because even though Morris was spelled by Griffin at times, he still racked up 335 carries, good for third in the NFL. I think we'll see even more of the same this year with Griffin coming off of knee surgery. So is Washington a two-back system? Well there are designed run plays for the QB and he gets a pretty sizable amount of work, but at the same time, how long can we expect that to continue? So basically, it is and it isn't. It gets the main idea across (devalues the running back, maybe improves shelf life, forces different looks, etc.) but it's in an unorthodox fashion.

Minnesota should hardly count. Their QB got more carries than their backup running back, Adrian Peterson is a god among men, next question.

Oh good, Seattle. Seattle has a stacked backfield. Aside from one of my favorites ever since he's been in the league, Marshawn Lynch, they have Russell Wilson running all over the place with a 5.2 YPC and a backup who I'm convinced is easily starter quality in Robert Turbin. Seattle ran the ball 536 times in 2012. That's a lot of attempts in today's game, comfortably the most of any team last season. When you see all of the weapons they've got in the backfield though, it starts to make sense. Again, I'm a little wary on calling this a multi-back system because of the incredible workload that Lynch shoulders despite the plethora of other options and because the secondary ballcarrier is, for now, a quarterback, but that seems to be the way the NFL is trending these days, the increase in the usage of the read option is making more athletic quarterbacks a valuable commodity. I'll stick this one in the same category as Washington, except I firmly believe that they're trending in opposite directions. I think the Redskins will rely more and more on Morris to carry the run game while Seattle may start to turn to Wilson and Turbin to alleviate Lynch a little bit. Most of this is just circumstantial (Griffin's knee injury, Lynch's age and running style, Morris's lack of mileage on his legs, etc.) and more or less unfounded, it's just a theory.

San Francisco, even considering the wrench they've thrown in the system with the running QB getting a bunch of carries, is probably the best example of a multi-back system we have so far. Frank Gore just keeps on truckin', accruing 1,214 yards on a paltry 258 carries. Kendall Hunter chipped in another 72 carries and Colin Kaepernick added 62 of his own, a number I expect to go up even further with a full season of games under his belt this year. Consider that LaMichael James still lurks in the backfield and ought to snipe around 30-ish (maybe more) carries this year and you have yourself a true multi-back system that demonstrates to a T what I was trying to convey earlier. Frank Gore is the feature back, but not to the point that players from the mid 2000's were feature backs. He'll carry the ball 250 times a year, maybe less, to preserve his older legs and offer one style of powerful, deceptively fast running, he'll be spelled by the powerful Kendall Hunter and the lightning quick LaMichael James who will team up for 100-125 touches a year and just when the defense thinks they have it all figured out, Colin Kaepernick will decide to do it on his own and make everyone look silly. Well done, San Francisco, you've built one hell of an offense.

On the other hand, Kansas City shows just how a running back by committee approach can go really, really poorly. One thing I should mention, simply throwing new looks at defenses isn't enough when the players you use to create new looks all kind of stink. Jamaal Charles is a stud, but man, has there ever been a more irrelevant cover-athlete than Peyton Hillis? This is also a team that gave Shaun Draughn the ball 59 times and presumably expected good things to happen. Yikes. A for effort, triple F minus for execution. Seriously, KC, get a better between the tackles runner.

I feel like every time I talk about Buffalo doing well at something that I'm speaking about them doing well in spite of themselves, but actually the BIlls had a very good, very dynamic duo in the backfield and also a pretty good offensive line as far as run blocking went. CJ Spiller finally broke out as a yardage monster, but unfortunately for Buffalo, Fred Jackson has ended the past two seasons on IR because of leg injuries and isn't getting any younger. I think a lot of people dumped on the Bills for their pick of EJ Manuel, but I think he and Spiller can create a very scary read option combination sometime in the future. Whether that's their plan or not I'm not sure, but it's just an idea. Again, the Bills outwardly look a bit like a true two-back system, but injuries to Jackson appear to be hampering that. Houston is in the same boat. Ben Tate is another backup who clearly has starter potential but is stuck behind a mega-stud like Foster. You watch the Texans and you kind of see that when Tate is healthy they try to push the two-back system, but he's just too brittle. Foster led the league in carries this year with 351. That's dangerous for a guy who runs like he does. Houston should maybe look to invest in a new backup unless they're confident that Tate can remain healthy enough to actually fulfill his duties.

New England is probably the best example of a traditional multi-back system that I can find. They had their clear-cut number one in Stevan Ridley, but they also had three other players eclipse the 50 carry mark (again, arbitrary cutoff, but run with it) in Danny Woodhead (76), Shane Vereen (62), and Brandon Bolden (56). Not only did they spread the carries out pretty evenly, they blocked well and as a result had one of the NFL's strongest run games. If you're looking for a way to do this right in the traditional sense (no read-option), New England is the franchise to emulate. Shocker, right?

Ah Carolina. Remember when there was beef about who was the original "Smash 'n Dash"? DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart wanted us to believe it was them, but we knew that Cheeseburger and CJ were keeping it real. For as much as we talk about CJ's deal being an albatross, check out what DeAngelo Williams is getting paid to play 100 fewer snaps than our boy. Carolina is hampered by the fact that their best running back is Cam Newton. Their version of Smash 'n Dash combined for 3.9 YPC and barely 1,000 yards. Newton, on the other hand, almost averaged 6 YPC and basically out-produced both of his running backs in every category imaginable. Somebody surround that dude with some decent talent, please. This is an example of a team that goes to a running back by committee by necessity. Williams and Stewart probably can't carry an offense by themselves, so you pair them up and hope it balances out.

Finally, we have Chicago. I was kind of excited to use these guys as a model of what the Titans could be if they went to a consistent two-back system, but then I realized Michael Bush kind of sucked last year because of a rib injury. Matt Forte was his usual self, Bush was not. Look for this to be a better rushing attack this coming season with a fully healthy Bush spelling Forte.

We've gone over some really good rushing teams that have split carries among many backs, but for as many good ones that we have here, there are some pretty equally bad ones. Green Bay had zero consistency at running back last year, New Orleans has been searching for someone to be even average in the backfield for years now, and the Dolphins have a choice to make now that Reggie Bush is a Lion (LeShoure and Bush are my sleeper pick for "Awesome Backfield Tandem of the Year") on whether or not they want to continue to try and split carries between Lamar Miller and former first rounder plodder, Daniel Thomas.

Now that we've highlighted some of the wrong ways to approach the two-back system, why do I think it will work for the Titans? Well for starters, we're not dealing with one stud and one dud, we're dealing with one stud and one player who's averaged 4.2 YPC over his career. Is Shonn Greene overpaid? Yes, he almost certainly is, but that doesn't mean he doesn't compliment CJ's running style perfectly, nor does it mean that he's not useful. Short yardage should be no problem this year as we have one of the few guys in the league who can pick up three yards consistently. And when I say consistently, I mean really consistently. Also, Jake Locker is a pretty darn good runner himself. Not only do teams have to watch out for Johnson and Greene, they have to take into account that Jake could pull a Kaepernick and simply hold onto the ball and take off for a 50 yard score. I think by now you've probably noticed that some of the best running teams in the league are that good because they have quarterbacks who make opposing defenses respect their legs. Finally, the Titans are poised to have an excellent offensive line for the first time in a long time. I can't overstate this enough, this offensive line could be scary good if Velasco holds up his end of the bargain and plays at the same level he played at last season.

I want CJ to be fresh late in the games to deliver 25 yard daggers, I then want Shonn Greene to be able to bowl over defenders who have been run ragged chasing the fastest man in the NFL. Just try to forget what these two are being paid for a minute, I think that Loggains and Co. would be mistaken if they didn't at least give this system the old college try.