The confusing world of running back production

We all love a good running back, but much does a good one matter and how has their impact changed over the past 20 years? Watching what they do in the 2015-16 season may help clear things up.
DeMarco Murray led all running backs last season. Can he soar again with his new team in Philly?

DeMarco Murray led all running backs last season. Can he soar again with his new team in Philly? (Photo credit: ESPN.com)

There’s been a lot of movement in the backfield this season. DeMarco Murray, last year’s leading rusher, is now an Eagle after spending four seasons in Dallas. LeSean McCoy, former Eagle, is now in Buffalo. Arian Foster remained in Houston, but is declared out for about the first half of the season with a groin injury. And we can’t leave out Adrian Peterson, who will be back in action with the Vikings after being suspended indefinitely for allegedly striking his four-year-old son. With even more running back news beyond this, I wondered how big of an impact running backs really have.

I found that last season we saw the fewest number of running backs (2) with over 10 rushing touchdowns since 1993 (going forward, it’s important to note that the NFL expanded from 28 to 30 teams in 1995, 30 to 31 in 1999, and 31 to 32 in 2002). Only DeMarco Murray and Marshawn Lynch managed to crack the 10 TD barrier, each with 13. It also marks the fourth straight season that we’ve seen that number decline.

To see if this decline existed past touchdowns, I took a look at running backs with 1000+ yard seasons. The number of running backs that cracked that number also reached its lowest point in the last two seasons (13) since 1996. The decline isn’t as sharp as with touchdowns, but there is still a noticeable and steady slide since that number reached its peak in 2006 (23).

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Last year we saw running backs struggle harder to reach those benchmarks than we have in a long time. Does this mean the value of the running back is declining as a whole or that because there’s so few good running backs, that having a good one is even more valuable?

Hoping to get some sort of indication, I took a look at the running backs of some of best teams from past years. Looking at just the Super Bowl winners wouldn’t be very helpful because we know how little can decide one game. So I decided to look at the final four teams’ (NFC and AFC Championship) running backs from the past five years. Out of 20 total running backs, twelve had over 1000 yards, eight had over 10 touchdowns, and only six had both.

Top RBs

This doesn’t clear up the picture a whole lot. It doesn’t seem vital to have a stud at running back, though having one you can count on for solid production–like a 2011 Ray Rice, 2012 Stevan Ridley, or 2014 Marshawn Lynch–can sure help a lot. New England even managed to win the Super Bowl with a leading running back with less than 500 yards, though that looks to be a rare occurrence even today.

Finally, I looked at the reverse condition. How did the best running backs fare on their respective teams? Were they good enough to take them far? Again I used the final four teams as the measure of a great season. Looking at the top running back each year–based on a combination of rushing yards and TDs–I found that only one had been able to make it to a league championship in the past fifteen years. This was perhaps the most shocking trend I found throughout all of this. Having the best running back in the league seems to be a curse.

Top Rbs2

The biggest takeaway from these two trends involving final four teams is that your running back can be a good barometer for balance. The best running back in the league could be the best running back because he needs to be. Relying on the running back too much will eventually catch up with teams.

As for the decline we see in general, it’s still hard to say where running back value is headed. Keep a close eye on how the top running backs in the league help their team this season. Are they doing well because the rest of the team is struggling? Or are they just another great piece of a balanced team? These latter teams are the ones to watch out for in the playoffs.

Also, will we see a jump in production? I expect we will, but just how big a jump may tell us what to expect in the future of the running game. We’re seeing less and less “great” backs and if the slide continues, we could see a shift in strategy on both sides of the ball.

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