I have audited Seattle at left tackle, left guard and center. I have spoken extensively on Ray Willis and Max Unger, though less on Unger since he has become a pro. Today I want to talk about Seattle's running back situation.
Seattle has been without a superstar rusher since Shaun Alexander broke down. Teams that experience great success with a superstar rusher often think they need a superstar rusher to be successful. Seattle does not have a hallowed history, but running back is one position it has done well. The great Seahawks rushers have names any football fan knows: Shaun Alexander, Curt Warner and Chris Warren were all great rushers. Ricky Watters was a great back that spent a few late career years here. John L. Williams was a great running fullback.
Mike Holmgren had Alexander, Chuck Knox, Warner, and Tom Flores and Dennis Erickson shared Warren, though neither did spit with him. Jim Mora has Julius Jones, Justin Forsett and Edgerrin James. Jones, Force and James will never be spoken of with Alexander or even Warren, but does it matter?
The running game lost its grasp over the NFL before I was born. The modern NFL is a quarterback's league. The leading rushers of recent Super Bowl winners have been mostly late round picks like Willie Parker, Brandon Jacobs and Terrell Davis; and talented retreads like Michael Pittman, Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. Davis was a superstar in his short time, so the point is not about effectiveness. Most Super Bowl winning teams have had an effective run game.
The point is that Super Bowl winning teams have not typically invested heavily into their running back position itself. Seattle is on that track. Jones is 28. The Seahawks signed him to a cheap contract after he was run out of Dallas. Jones is Seattle's primary running back. He is a good pass blocker and can receive. It's been a long time since he looked like a good rusher, but it's been a long time since he could look like a good rusher. The 2008 Seahawks collapsed. The 2009 Seahawks await their starting line to take the field together.
Stats are a red herring and even tape can be difficult to decipher. How do we separate the line from the back? Here is an attempt.
Julius Jones was draft 43rd overall in the 2004 draft. He was the fifth running back selected. Jones ran a slow 4.51 at the Combine despite being a speed back at Notre Dame. There he set records returning kicks and punts. Jones does seem field fast, but his raw speed argues he can not lose significant speed before he is no longer a viable NFL running back.
If Jones is slowing down, you would expect it to show in his stats, but Jones' rushing and receiving longs are comparable to his career rushing and receiving longs. He doesn't look slow in the open field, he just isn't reaching the open field very often anymore.
Another thing that could slow Jones or make him less agile or easier to tackle is performance decline related to injuries. Jones has been very healthy for a back. His most significant injury was a broken scapula his rookie season. His next most significant injury was a high ankle sprain suffered in 2005. Since then, Jones has been healthy, avoiding major injuries and mostly avoiding nagging injuries.
Jones doesn't seem slower and he doesn't seem hobbled by injuries. He has developed a reputation as an unremarkable back and maybe he is. But Jones blocks well, receives well and is one the cheapest starting running backs in the NFL. His brother Thomas fits the same profile and was passed around the league before he landed on a contender. Thomas Jones has never been a remarkable rusher, but he stayed healthy, kept his speed and does the little things well. No one would argue if Thomas could be the lead rusher on a Super Bowl winning team - he was a Rex Grossman away from being just that in 2006.
So C.J. Spiller is awesome, Jahvid Best is hype, Jonathan Dwyer is big, and some of the kids are likely to crash the party, but are any of them the piece that pushes Seattle closer to a championship? I don't think so. I think Seattle could do it with Jones. And if it can do it with Jones and Jones is cheap, why spend precious resources to replace him?