Running Backs Don’t Matter

by Pub Sports Radio

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Twitter: @RobProbably
Last season, Todd Gurley ran the ball 256 times for 1251 yards, an average of 4.9 yards per carry. Backup Malcolm Brown ran the ball 43 times for 212 yards, an average of 4.9 yards per carry. When Todd Gurley went down with an injury late in the season, the Rams signed C.J. Anderson off of the street. In Anderson’s first game with the Rams, he took 20 carries for 167 yards and a touchdown. In his second game, he took 23 carries for 132 yards and a touchdown. That’s an average of 7 yards per carry. Todd Gurley, who has a 4 year $57.5 million contract, was outperformed by a guy who wasn’t even playing before the Rams signed him. How? It’s simple: running backs don’t matter.
If running backs don’t matter, then where does the discrepancy in output come in to play? The offensive line in front of the running back needs to be solid. If the O-line blocks well, all the running back has to do is pick the hole to run through. On top of the offensive line being good, the play-calling needs to be smart.  Coaches and play-callers need to put their running backs in optimal positions to succeed, and quarterbacks need to change calls at the line to take advantage of weaknesses they see in the defense. Running into stacked boxes will result in a low yardage total, whereas running the football with a numbers advantage, i.e 7 blockers vs 6 defenders in the box, will result in better yardage. Any running back tasked with running the ball repeatedly into stacked boxes will not put up good numbers. Running backs who get to run behind number advantages and a good offensive line will put up solid numbers.
Teams shouldn’t be investing in running backs. If they want to have a solid run game, they need to build a solid offensive line instead. Take the Dallas Cowboys for an example; for years their offensive line has been regarded as one of the best in the league. Here are some of the recent seasons running backs have had behind their offensive line:
  • 2011: DeMarco Murray: 897 yards: 5.5 Y/A
  • 2011: Felix Jones: 575 yards: 4.5 Y/A
  • 2012: DeMarco Murray: 663 yards: 4.1 Y/A
  • 2012: Felix Jones: 402 yards: 3.6 Y/A
  • 2013: DeMarco Murray: 1,121 yards: 5.2 Y/A
  • 2014: DeMarco Murray: 1,845 yards: 4.7 Y/A
  • 2015: Darren McFadden: 1,089 yards: 4.6 Y/A
  • 2016: Ezekiel Elliot: 1,631 yards: 5.1 Y/A
  • 2017: Ezekiel Elliot (10 games): 983 yards: 4.1 Y/A
  • 2017: Alfred Morris: 547 yards: 4.8 Y/A
  • 2018: Ezekiel Elliot: 1,434 yards: 4.7 Y/A
After three straight years of 1,000 yard plus rushers, the Cowboys spent the 4th overall pick on a running back. Ezekiel Elliot is a good player, I’m not trying to say he isn’t. What I am trying to say is that spending high draft capital and a large portion of your salary cap on a running back is suboptimal. DeMarco Murray was a third-round draft pick and put up fantastic numbers because the offensive line in front of him was very talented. The running back behind the offensive line matters much less to success in the run game than the offensive line does. Last season, David Johnson was stuck behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league, and he had to deal with some of the worst play-calling as well. He had to repeatedly run up the middle behind a bottom five o-line, while teams were keying in on the run game. He ran for a career-worst 3.6 Y/A. In his last full season before that, 2016, he ran for 4.2 Y/A. The difference was poor play calling and a worse offensive line.
Running backs can add very minimal value to your team in the run game compared to the value smart play-calling and a good offensive line can bring. Teams who want to establish the run still should focus on building a great o-line and make sure they are calling run plays at the smartest times when they have a clear advantage vs the defense. That’s what “running backs don’t matter” means; the rest of the team around them matters much more to the success on the ground than they do.

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