One of the paradigms established by decades of repetition is this: on your football team, there is the quarterback, the running back, the kicker, and the punter. Every other player has a twin playing on the other side of the field, just as the a1 rook has its symmetrical companion, the h1 rook, on the other side of the board.
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.
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 lineman, but teams were showing no interest in one of the very small number of men who were actually paid to touch the ball. Something wasn't right.
Ingram was taken by the New Orleans Saints with the 28th overall pick of the draft. It was the lowest pick that had ever been spent on the first running back. The above chart demonstrates just how wild of an aberration such a selection was. Perhaps the running back wasn't regularly chosen as the top pick, but historically he tended to crack into the top five.
It's now been four drafts since a running back was taken in the top five. The 2011 draft class was relatively weak at the running back position, but is there another trend at work here? Is the "stud" running back suddenly out of vogue in the NFL? Are teams opting instead to deploy a tandem of two or more backs who share the load?
Before we answer that question, we may as well back up and take a look at how effective running backs have been in years past.
I didn't count the rushing yards of any quarterbacks here; also, I set the minimum at 50 attempts in order to eliminate trick plays and the numbers of players who generally aren't employed to run with the ball. Career running backs did suffer a slight dip in production in 2010, but nothing dramatic.
All right, back to that question: how many teams are sticking with the "stud back" approach, and how many are putting their running backs into a rotation?
Note that this chart doesn't necessarily indicate the effectiveness of a team's running game. It's only a reflection of how many different backs they're using, and how often they're using them.
The most run-heavy team of 2010 was the Jets, who featured LaDainian Tomlinson (219 carries) prominently, but also handed off to Shonn Greene (185), Joe McKnight (39), and Brad Smith (38). Meanwhile, the Chiefs ran about as often, but split most of the load between just two men -- Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones.
The platoon system at running back isn't a brand-new development; to take one example, we can point to the Priest Holmes/Larry Johnson tandem that the Chiefs appeared content to run with for the long term until Holmes was lost to injury. The prominence of the one-man show at running back appears to have taken a dip a few years ago.
The average, which had hovered between 57 and 59 percent for a long time, sank to 54 percent and has just about stayed there ever since. I don't think this has much to do with the fact that quarterbacks started running with the ball more, because that development is considerably older than this four-year window of regression. Rather, I think we're seeing something of a paradigm shift. (Don't underestimate a number as seemingly small as five percent, especially considering that there are approximately 14,000 rushing attempts during an average NFL regular season.)
But is it paying off? Well, in order to come to an answer on that, we must first settle on a difference between "single-back" teams and "multi-back" teams, and I suggest this one: if one guy makes 70 percent or more of the rushing attempts by running backs on your team, you have a single-back team.
By that standard, there were 10 single-back teams in the NFL in 2010 (in case you're curious, these teams are the Falcons, Rams, Texans, Steelers, Titans, Ravens, Jaguars, Vikings, Browns, and Eagles). And... well, on a per-carry basis, there wasn't much of a difference in efficiency.
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.
The stud backs in question are Michael Turner, Stephen Jackson, Arian Foster, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, Peyton Hillis, and LeSean McCoy. (Of course, the numbers are skewed a bit on McCoy's stud-dom since his quarterback, Michael Vick, takes so many carries.)
[UPDATE: originally, I had mistakenly left the Bengals' Cedric Benson out of this group. Thanks to Cincy Jungle's Josh Kirkendall for the heads-up.]
Clearly, all of these backs are good. They're also young.
A difference of 1.5 years is a big one if you're a running back. We've all heard the anecdote: an average running back's career is only 2.57 years. This data illustrates how important it is to be young if you want to be an effective "stud back;" at the same time, it suggests to me that perhaps a multi-back approach is the way to go.
Players grow smarter as they grow into their thirties and acquire more experience; the problem, of course, is that their bodies have been hit with human wrecking balls 20 times a day, a dozen times a year, for most of their lives.
Given the choice, would you rather draft an exceptionally talented back in 2012, and spend the resources to acquire another in 2016 so you can prepare for the day his body won't do running back things anymore? Or would you rather draft two reasonably talented backs and split the carries between them, thereby keeping them fresh in both the short and the long term?
I certainly can't say which is the better idea, but it would be interesting to see teams continue to explore the idea. Keep in mind: Cy Young once pitched over 400 innings a year. Pitchers don't do that anymore, because the demands of the game and the people who run it changed dramatically.
The same is true of the contemporary NFL. Would it be so terrible to see a back limited to 10 or 15 carries a game? From the fan perspective, I'm not so sure, unless we're suddenly disappointed in Roy Halladay for only pitching once every six days. Slacker.