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Do not judge running backs as rookies, lest ye be judged for not knowing your history

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Seattle Seahawks v Chicago Bears Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Okay, let’s dispel a myth: Running backs should be expected to be at their peak NFL performance by Week 1 of their first professional season.

That’s the myth. That’s the lie we’ve convinced ourselves of because the position seems so easy from our point of view; the quarterback is going to hand you the ball, the offensive linemen are going to create lanes, the coaches are going to tell you where to run, and your only job is to be fast, elusive, shifty, and powerful. It’s that easy, right?

Apparently not.

A lot of people are criticizing Seattle Seahawks rookie Rashaad Penny for two reasons:

  • He’s averaging only 3.2 YPC and as a first round pick, people expect him to be a lot more productive than that, even as a rookie. Penny had seven carries for eight yards in his debut and three carries for five yards in Week 3. His most extensive work came in Week 2, where he gained just 30 yards on 10 carries. He gained a career high 49 yards on nine carries in Week 4, but ...
  • He’s at least third on the depth chart behind Chris Carson and Mike Davis.

Fans judging Penny based on these two things are making significant assumptions and lacking context. First of all, Carson is a good running back. We knew that when the Seahawks drafted Penny and Carson should have always been considered the starter. You can disagree with the decision to draft a running back in the first round when you already have a starter (and I personally do), but it doesn’t mean that Penny is a bad running back.

Davis is admittedly a different case and it is very surprising that he’s not only beaten out Penny for carries while Carson is out, but that he’s also well ahead of C.J. Prosise. It could be bad news for Penny and Prosise, but it could also be good news for Davis, now in his fourth NFL season. He had a solid game against the Cardinals and there’s little reason to question his playing time given the results.

We don’t know that Penny is bad. It could mean that Davis is good. And also this:


That context you might be overlooking or forgetting is the careers of almost every significant back in the last decade. I don’t even need to pull back farther than that — and if I did, we’d go back to an era where it was always assumed that running backs needed at least a year to get up to NFL speed. (Remember that Shaun Alexander was a backup to Ricky Watters.) I think backs still need time to get caught up to the speed of the pros.

The proof is in the careers of these backs. And the context that you’ve forgotten about their career starts is now provided.

Christian McCaffrey, 2017, Panthers

Things you forgot: Well, I hope you haven’t forgotten last season already. Though McCaffrey did catch a lot of very short passes in 2017, he only had 435 rushing yards on 117 carries. That includes games like four carries for three yards, three for seven, four for eight, seven for ten, eight for ten, four for sixteen, six for sixteen twice, and six for fourteen. In his best game he had seven carries for 62 yards.

People suddenly feel differently about McCaffrey, right? That’s because he just had his first good game as a running back, gaining 184 yards on 28 carries against the Bengals.

Joe Mixon, Bengals, 2017

Things you forgot: Through two games this season, Mixon was one of the most productive backs in the league. Last season, he had eight carries for nine yards in his debut. In his first 10 games, Mixon had 127 carries for 370 yards, an average of 2.91 yards per carry.

First career carry:

Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys, 2016

Things you forgot: In his NFL debut, he had 20 carries for 51 yards in a 20-19 loss to the Giants. Things picked up quickly after that, but just a fun fact that Elliott was not productive in his first career game.

Derrick Henry, Titans, 2016

Things you forgot: His NFL debut was five carries for three yards. That was his worst game but there were plenty more unproductive ones to come in both 2016 and 2017. In one particular game against the Colts that year, he had just three snaps and no carries and as far as I can tell, he wasn’t on the injury report once all season. Just sometimes the team appeared to not need him. What’s the difference between getting beat out by DeMarco Murray and getting beat out by Carson? Maybe name recognition. What about getting beat out by Davis? I don’t know, but Mike Davis did play well.

Todd Gurley, Rams, 2015

Things you forgot: Gurley tore his ACL the year prior to his rookie season and was not cleared for contact until just before Week 1. That forced him out of Weeks 1 and 2, and I’ve seen many-a fan complain about player health even before he’s had a chance to make it into his second month in the league. That fan anguish must have only multiplied when Gurley made his debut in Week 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Six carries, nine yards. Said the PFT headline: “Todd Gurley’s debut contains no highlights.”

It was easy to understand why Gurley might have struggled — Jeff Fisher, hesitancy following his first game in a long time, the offensive line, a good day by the Steelers defense, it was his NFL debut — but some comments from TurfShowTimes (not picking on you guys, just the only place I can go to for fan sentiment) include “Gurley looked really slow” and “I hope he runs harder than he showed today.”

The next week, Gurley ran it 19 times for 146 yards. He had 159 yards the week after that. Then 128 yards. Then 133 yards. In his first four starts, Gurley ran it 88 times for 566 yards. That is good. So, end of story, right?

No, because in his following 25 starts, Gurley ran it 432 times for 1,456 yards and 3.37 yards per carry. Use all the outside and internal factors you want to explain why a current MVP candidate was so ineffective at age 21-22, but the fact remains that he was. And then he wasn’t. That could have a lot to do with Sean McVay and Andrew Whitworth, but giving up on Gurley as a running back because of his usage or his production, and not accounting for the physical gifts that he has that would be more useful in a better situation, could make you look short-sighted during those rough patches.

Melvin Gordon, Chargers, 2015

Things you forgot: Gordon’s NFL debut was 14 carries for 51 yards. His third career game was also 14 carries for 51 yards. Those were some of the better games of his rookie season. Gordon’s single-game best in 2015 was 88 yards. He averaged 13 carries and 45 yards per game. And Melvin Gordon scored zero times on 217 touches. Backup Danny Woodhead scored nine times on 178 touches.

Rookie retrospective from Bolts from the Blue:

Gordon has become more of a threat in the years since, scoring 12 times in both 2016 and 2017. His YPC stayed at just 3.9 in each of those seasons, but he has 54 carries for 276 yards to open this season, easily one of the best marks of any running back in 2018.

Carlos Hyde, 49ers, 2014

Things you forgot: My memory told me that Hyde killed the Vikings in his NFL debt, and my memory has funked me once again. That was Hyde’s second NFL season. His debut was seven carries for 50 yards. His second game was four carries ... for zero yards. Hyde was very bad as a rookie for the most part. He had 11 carries for 14 yards against the Rams. He failed to reach 20 yards in eight out of 14 games.

Then the next year he had 168 yards against Minnesota.

Hyde still struggled for most of his second season, and continued to have bad games after that, but he was a much better, different player after his rookie campaign. He has five touchdowns in four games with the Browns this season. He had four touchdowns as a rookie.

Le’Veon Bell, Steelers, 2013

Things you forgot: Now this is a good one. Because Bell has been considered by many to be the best back in football. Perhaps the only back drafted in this period who currently has a solid case for being on a Hall of Fame trajectory. But when he started, it wasn’t that great.

Bell’s first game was 16 carries for 57 yards, though he did score twice. His next game was 16 for 34. Two games later, he had 13 for 24. Two after that: 22 for 57. These are Le’Veon Bell’s first eight NFL games: 143 carries, 455 yards, 3.18 YPC. He also caught 26 passes for 256 yards and no touchdowns. Bell’s final five games that season were decent (4 YPC) but not outstanding. He needed more time.

One offseason later, Bell had his first career game with a 5 YPC average in Week 1 of 2014. He had his first 200-yard game a couple months later, and even then struggled a bit in between. He really didn’t become the player we know him as today until the second half of 2016. It’s that stretch that has really forced the Steelers to franchise him twice and why Bell is holding out for more money.

That would not have been as understandable based on his first NFL season.

Doug Martin, Buccaneers, 2012

Things you forgot: Martin did rush for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns during his rookie campaign, and that’s what you might remember. That’s probably all you remember and your memory might have assumed that Martin was hot for the whole season. That is not at all the case.

Martin’s first four career games: 71 carries, 247 yards, 3.5 YPC, one touchdown

At that kind of pace, Martin looks like a slightly better version of the rookie Gordon we just talked about. But Martin rushed for over 1,000 yards over his final 10 games of that season, including 251 yards against the Raiders. Martin then basically took the next two seasons off before returning for another 1,400-yard campaign, and that one also started slow, got a little better, he rushed for 235 yards against the Eagles, and the end result looks much better.

Mark Ingram, Saints, 2011

Things you forgot: Almost none of y’all respected Mark Ingram, and that pretty much stretches into his fourth season in the league. I know because I am one of y’all.

Ingram was the 28th overall pick and he had 474 yards and 3.9 YPC as a rookie. He shared time with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, and Chris Ivory. The next season he had 602 yards. Then 386 yards in year three. Here are some games that Ingram had during those first three years (carries/yards): 1/5, 3/4, 3/7, 3/20, 4/19, 5/11, 5/11, 5/16, 6/13, 6/15, 7/21, 8/20, 9/11, 10/27.

Based on what I know about covering Seattle sports, I assume a lot of fans were not very giddy about the prospect of seeing Ingram for a fourth season. That is of course when Ingram made his first Pro Bowl. He did that again last year, gaining over 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

C.J. Spiller, 2010, Bills

Things you forgot: Not a great overall career, Spiller did have a couple of great seasons that showed why he was a first round pick (for that team at a time when it was still considered “normal” to take a running back this early), including 1,703 total yards in 2012.

But as a rookie, Spiller had 74 carries for 283 yards and no touchdowns.

Perhaps Penny really is more David Wilson than he is Mark Ingram. I’m not saying that he’s going to become great one day. How could I know that? It’s only been four weeks. How could you know that he’s not?