There is always some debate among NFL analyst types as to what is the ideal workload for a running back. As recently as 10 years ago, if a team didn’t have a bell-cow running back, they were viewed as having a sub-par running game and a running back-by-committee was nothing teams wanted.
These days, two-headed and three-headed backfields have become the norm. More teams than not have a starter, a change-of-pace back and a third-down receiving back. It’s becoming rarer all the time to have a running back that is a primary player that the offense runs through.
As a way of illustrating that fact and how much the NFL has changed, when one adds up the touches per game – rushing attempts and receptions – that NFL running backs have put in over the last three years, the numbers are rather startling.
As would be expected, for our purposes, the focus is on Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. As far as a pure runner goes, nobody has carried more times than A.P. in the 31 regular-season games he has played since 2014. But, when it comes to total touches, players who are used as receivers a lot more than Peterson level the playing field in the touches-per-game ratio.
How much has the lead back role changed in the NFL? Only six players have averaged more than 20 touches a game over the last three years – based solely on games played, not factoring in games missed due to injury or suspension. Of those six, three of them – Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray – have changed teams during that span and one other – Arian Foster – is currently unemployed.
Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers leads the way, averaging 22.8 touches a game in 35 games played. Peterson is second with 22.2 touches in 31 games. The other four players with more than 20 touches per game over the last three years have all missed some time due to injuries given their workload – Forte (22.1 touches per game, 45 games), McCoy (21.4, 44), Murray (21.2, 45) and Foster (21.0, 25).
While those players make sense with the number of touches per game they had, what is somewhat surprising is how quick and pronounced the drop-off is. Only eight other running backs have averaged more than 15 touches a game.
Those players are Jamaal Charles (19.1 touches, 35 games), Doug Martin (18.4, 33), Frank Gore (17.8, 48), Eddie Lacy (17.7, 46), Chris Johnson (16.3, 43), Alfred Morris (16.2, 48), Jonathan Stewart (16.0, 32) and Mark Ingram (15.4, 36).
Just as telling as the numbers that show half of the 14 players are not with the same team that they were when their current three-year data started is how many games those players have missed due to injury. Only two of them – Gore and Morris – have played in all 48 games over the last three years and the 49ers and Redskins both moved on from them.
Of the 14 players with more than 15 touches a game, half of them have missed more than 10 games in that span. Peterson’s was suspension-related, so his missed time isn’t due to the beating he took on a game-to-game basis.
The NFL is evolving in a way that it seems very likely that when Peterson retires, he may have set a benchmark that will never be touched again.
In 2016, there were only seven 1,000-yard rushers. From 2000-2012, the league averaged 17 1,000-yard rushers – representing more than half the teams in the league. In 2013, that number dropped to 13. Only 13 rushers topped 1,000 yards in 2014. Last year, it dropped all the way down to seven.
At a time when the salaries for elite players at just about every position are on the rise, running backs aren’t seeing the top salaries at their positions going up. Peterson remains the highest paid running back in the league and, just like his career production may end up being an unbeatable benchmark in the future, so too may be how much he’s paid.
If you ask any defensive coach or player what is the key to dominating a game, they will tell you the same thing – stop the run. It remains the basis of how most offenses control the ball and control the clock, but the days of the bell-cow running back may soon go the way of the Wildcat – you may see it here or there, but it won’t be the norm everywhere else.