NFL Playoffs: Super Bowl Running Backs

Ray Rice, Frank Gore, Ahmad Bradshaw, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis will try to make the Super Bowl tomorrow. Bradshaw is the only one who has been there before, as a player on the 2007 championship team.

People spend a lot of time, or should I say waste a lot of time, arguing about what positions are the most important to be "elite" at if you want to go to the Super Bowl. It's not that the argument is invalid or that the discussion isn't worth having, it's that I feel like people just "say stuff" too often without looking it up. I don't really care what your gut tells you or what three random examples you have, use intelligent analysis or historical data to back it up.

There are exceptions to every rule. So having an "elite" quarterback does not guarantee a Super Bowl, nor does the lack of an "elite" quarterback prevent you from going to the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl and so did Trent Dilfer. There are no rules as to what you have to have in order to win a championship. I REPEAT:

There are no rules as to what you have to have in order to win a championship.

You have to have 53 players. You have to have some coaches. A stadium would be nice. Having a lot of good players helps. It's hard to win with bad players and bad coaches. But there's never going to be a hard and fast rule that says "You just can't win in the NFL with a shitty quarterback."

You can. Teams have. Phil Simms was not a great quarterback. Rex Grossman went to the Super Bowl and he was terrible. Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers were phenomenal this year. Seriously, they might have just had the two greatest seasons for a quarterback in history.

They aren't playing tomorrow.

However, it is interesting to look at the data and see what it tells you. I'm going to look at the last twenty teams to make the Super Bowl and see how talented they were at certain positions. I'm starting with running back. I'm not going to look at every position. I don't know what I'm going to look at. I just decided to do this because it's relevant as of today and I have a little bit of free time. Enough free time to write this today also.

Yeah.

A running back hasn't won the Super Bowl MVP since Terrell Davis in 1997. That doesn't mean anything probably, but it is interesting. Will I find other interesting results? You might be surprised how few 1,000 yard backs make the Super Bowl. Here are the last twenty Super Bowl running backs, including running-back-by-committee situations:

2010: Brandon Jackson, James Starks for the Packers. Rashard Mendenhall for the Steelers.

Jackson was the primary ball-carrier during the regular season after Ryan Grant got injured and Starks only had 29 carries in 2010. Starks had more yards in their Wild Card game against the Eagles than he did in the regular season. Jackson is not good. Starks talent is questionable.

Mendenhall is good. He's not elite. He ran for 1,273 yards and 3.9 yards per carry. That's not a great YPC. But the Steelers like to run the football. In 2010 they were almost exactly a 50/50 split on run/pass on offense and Mendenhall got almost all of the carries.

2009: Mike Bell, Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush for the Saints. Joseph Addai, Donald Brown for the Colts.

New Orleans was actually 7th in the NFL in rushing attempts but Mike Bell is not good. Thomas is pretty good and was coming into his own with 5.4 yards per carry.

The Colts however were 31st in the NFL in rushing attempts. You thought Addai was good, but I forgive you. He was good as a rookie, but he's just an average back now. Over his last four seasons and 608 attempts, he's averaging 3.8 yards per carry.

Funny enough, in the Super Bowl, the Colts ran the ball more times (19) than the Saints (18) did.

2008: Willie Parker, Mewelde Moore for the Steelers. Tim Hightower, Edgerrin James for the Cardinals.

Pittsburgh ran the ball some, but weren't very good at it. Parker had 791 yards and 3.8 yards per carry.

The Cardinals didn't give a SHIT about running it. They were last in the NFL in rushing attempts and ran the ball eleven times in the Super Bowl. It was all Kurt Warner, and they had three 1,000 yard receivers.

2007: Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, Ahmad Bradshaw for the Giants. Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk for the Patriots.

Like Starks, Bradshaw was not a factor in the regular season but showed up in the playoffs. Jacobs averaged 5 yards per carry. They were eighth in the NFL in attempts and had a good balance.

The Patriots were ninth in the NFL in attempts but did not have any elite backs. Maroney had a decent season, but was out of the league by age 25. The undefeated Patriots were Tom Brady's team.

2006: Joseph Addai, Dominic Rhodes for the Colts. Thomas Jones, Cedric Benson for the Bears.

Rhodes had 112 yards and a TD in the Super Bowl. Addai had 1,008 yards and 4.8 yards per carry during the regular season. The Colts were 18th in attempts during the regular season.

Jones had 1,210 yards and 4.1 yards per carry during the regular season. Benson is very good now, or during his time with the Bengals, but was not the same factor for the Bears. Chicago was 5th in attempts.

2005: Shaun Alexander for the Seahawks. Willie Parker, Jerome Bettis for the Steelers.

Alexander is the first back on this list to really be elite when he went to the Super Bowl. He was the MVP and set some records. MVP of the regular season that is :( Seattle was 7th in attempts.

Parker had 1,202 yards and 4.7 yards per carry. Pittsburgh led the league in rushing attempts.

2004: Corey Dillon for the Patriots. Brian Westbrook, Dorsey Levens for the Eagles.

Dillon is the 2nd back to be at the top of his game when he went to the Super Bowl. He had 1,635 yards and 12 TDs. At that time, the Patriots were still the mold of running and defense and Brady being "very good" but not-yet-elite. (Besides those rings I guess.)

Westbrook had over 1,500 total yards. He was at the very beginning of his career of being "great" but the Eagles were 31st in attempts.

2003: Antowain Smith, Kevin Faulk for the Patriots. Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster for the Panthers.

Oh man, now we're really getting into some memories. Smith was a former first round pick of the Bills that had some good years, but this was really the twilight of his career at the age of 31.

This was the last year that Davis was good, but he rushed for 1,444 yards and 4.5 yards per carry. Foster was not nearly as good as I remembered him to be, and this was his rookie year when he really didn't factor in that much.

2002: Michael Pittman, Mike Alstott for the Buccaneers. Charlie Garner, Tyrone Wheatley for the Raiders.

Off-topic but have to point this out:

Player A: 62.3% completion, 3,049 yards, 22 TD/6 INT, 6.8 Y/A, 451 attempts, 92.9 rating

Player B: 61.3% completion, 3,144 yards, 17 TD/5 INT, 7.1 Y/A, 445 attempts, 90.7 rating

That's how close 2002 Brad Johnson (Player A) is to 2010 Alex Smith (Player B)

The Bucs actually didn't run the ball that much and they weren't that good at it anyway. Even with Johnson not being a great QB, they didn't rely on their backs as much as you'd assume and they couldn't run it that well. As a team, they were 3.8 yards per attempt.

Garner had 962 yards and 5.3 yards per attempt.

2001: Antowain Smith for the Patriots. Marshall Faulk for the Rams.

Smith was good but not elite. He had 1,157 yards and 4.0 yards per carry.

Marshall Faulk was one of the best that's ever lived.

BREAKDOWN:

Let's look at the 20 main ball carriers during the regular season and break them into groups. It will be like those fun camp games I never played because my mom wouldn't send me but I did see on Salute Your Shorts.

ELITE OR VERY, VERY GOOD:

Marshall Faulk, Stephen Davis, Shaun Alexander, Corey Dillon, Brian Westbrook

GOOD:

Joseph Addai, Charlie Garner, Antowain Smith in 2001, Willie Parker in 2005, Thomas Jones, Brandon Jacobs, and Rashard Mendenhall.

THE REST:

The rest.

Out of the twenty primary carriers for Super Bowl teams, I found that 25% were elite. That number is also dropping every year and as the rules change that allow more power to the quarterback and receivers, we will probably continue to see that number drop. The best running back to lead his team to the Super Bowl in the last three years was Mendenhall and I mean... he's okay.

A lot of these teams actually have really shitty running backs and didn't run the ball that much.

This isn't predictive of anything really though, it's just an evaluation. It doesn't mean that Gore and Rice, two of the best in the game, won't make or win the Super Bowl just because other teams haven't gone that route. I'm also noticing that of those five elite backs I chose, only one of them won that Super Bowl and that was Dillon.

In fact, even in the good class, there's a lot of losers.

The 10 Super Bowl Champion running backs that I listed:

Smith, Pittman, Smith, Dillon, Parker, Addai, Jacobs, Parker, Bell (Thomas), Jackson (Starks)

That's not a very "who's who" list of backs.

Maurice Jones-Drew won the rushing title for a 5-11 Jaguars team. The rest of the top 10 goes like this:

Rice, Michael Turner, LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster, Gore, Lynch, Willis McGahee, Steven Jackson, Ryan Mathews.

So out of the top 10, five of them made the playoffs. That's not a bad ratio by any means and two of them are still playing for a title. Going back in history and especially lately though, you won't find a lot of players that won the rushing title or finished in the top five in rushing or top ten and then also won a Super Bowl.

Teams are airing it out and backs usually have to be multi-dimensional and more Marshall Faulk-like in their style in order to be successful. Look at the recent success of those small, shifty, pass-catching backs: MJD, Rice, McCoy, Mathews, and Foster and Jackson to a degree. Turner is in a class by himself as a run-only back with a ton of success.

So, is the question: Should Seattle re-sign Marshawn Lynch if having a running back doesn't guarantee success? Or that you can win a title with Brandon Jackson and James Starks, so what's the point?

If that is the question, I'd say we shouldn't base our team needs off of the team needs of a team that has Aaron Rodgers. We do not have an elite QB, so we have to compensate with a very good (not yet elite) running back named Marshawn. He's not going to guarantee Seattle success, but he doesn't hurt and he's certainly not easily replaceable. If we get Rodgers and Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley though, let me know.

You can follow me on twitter or check out my neat website.

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