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“I know you RBut what am I?”

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Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Running backs are a weapon in the NFL. This is indisputable. And not just as receivers out of the backfield either, this is not a mind game I’m playing with you where I flip the script in a second and say that running doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. Ezekiel Elliott is a great example of a running back who is a weapon on the ground and successful in spite of the Dallas Cowboys having nary the whisper of a passing game threat. Elliott has led the NFL in rushing yards per game in each of his first two seasons and he’s doing it again:

73 carries, 426 rushing yards, 5.8 yards per carry, and without him the Cowboys would almost certainly be 0-4 instead of 2-2. He’s a weapon on the ground. No question. He’s the best running back in the league ... and Dallas is 30th in scoring.

Ok, I might flip the script a tiny bit. A few pages at least.

I still want to make it clear though that it would be ludicrous to pretend like running backs don’t matter at all; they’re a rich and important piece of the history of football. They remain viable threats among the 11 players who start on offense, specifically among the five skill players you expect to see in most offensive formations. The question isn’t, “Do running backs matter?”

The question instead that should be focused on is: Do running backs matter the least out of those five skill players on the field? More and more evidence is pointing to the answer being “Yes.” People fighting against that answer — especially people who argue that running backs matter the most out of those five skill players on the field — are potentially still holding onto a version of football that has not existed in quite some time.

And they have little-to-no evidence to support an argument that the running back could be nearly as important as the quarterback, or even more important than a number one receiver, number two receiver, or tight end. Instead the argument seems to always fall onto the side of not, “This is why I believe running backs are still as valuable as they were in the 1900s,” but: “I just don’t believe you or those odd-looking stats you cite.”

When it comes to presenting evidence that running backs can still have a 50/50 contribution to an offense (that teams would split the responsibility between the QB and the RB, or that running plays are as valuable as passing plays), there simply isn’t any. There’s really none.

Here is a little bit of evidence that not only are running backs or rushing not near the level of important of quarterbacks and passing, but that they might now be relegated, for the most part, to being a relatively small piece of an offense; a weapon that you dispatch at times knowing that a completed pass will likely get you much more.

In other words, running backs are more like a WILL linebacker to an offense than they are a number one pass rusher or a shutdown corner.

2018 has taken the run-pass imbalance to the next level and I would think that virtually all of the notable single-season and single-game passing records will be broken. Why? Well ... why not? If passing is this efficient, why would you go back to a style of offense that is decades past its effectiveness?

The Top Offenses

  • Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes broke the record for most touchdown passes through three games, totaling 13 before the Chiefs’ Week 4 MNF game against the Denver Broncos. Mahomes added a touchdown against the Broncos and hasn’t throw an interception yet. If you’ve watched Mahomes this season, at any point did you think to yourself, “Damn, Chiefs need to run the ball more”?

He, more than any other QB, seems to represent a further shift in the evolution of quarterbacks and the passing game. His number one target is a tight end. His number two is a 5’10 speed guy who likely could have been a running back in a not-so-distant past life. His number three is more of a classic “#1 WR” type who was the fourth overall pick a few years ago.

Kareem Hunt went into Monday Night Football with 52 carries for 168 yards (3.2 YPC) and only three targets. Hunt was a Pro Bowl running back a year ago and instead of leaning on him, Andy Reid has shifted almost all of the focus to the talents of Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and Sammy Watkins. Hunt had 63 targets last season. He might be lucky to get a third of that. Folks may turn to MNF and say, “Well, Hunt carried it 19 times for 121 yards and Kansas City won while scoring 27!” but that is an abuse of context.

Hunt ran it a lot and ran it well in the first three quarters of the game. The score going into the fourth quarter: Broncos 20, Chiefs 13. Hunt was killing it and perhaps the best offense in the NFL prior to Week 4 was relegated to just 13 points. It became Mahomes’ offense in the fourth quarter and things were right again, with KC scoring two touchdowns to come from behind and win the game on the road.

And snap counts among skill players?

WR Chris Conley, 73

TE Travis Kelce, 73

WR Tyreek Hill, 70

WR Demarcus Robinson, 45

RB Kareem Hunt, 45

So even when you add in the 24 snaps by running back Spencer Ware, the combined snaps of KC’s top two backs still doesn’t equal the individual snaps of Conley, Kelce, or Hill. This is a top-two offense in the NFL.

Not that Reid minds an offense without a rushing attack: This is his 20th season as a head coach and he hasn’t had an offense that finished top-10 in rush attempts since 2002. He’s had eight teams that finished top-10 in pass attempts. And what does that do for a ground game? Reid’s had a team rank top-10 in yards per carry in 15 of his previous 19 campaigns. It’s not about running a lot, it’s about running efficiently; Reid’s “elite” backs? LeSean McCoy (52nd overall pick), Brian Westbrook (91st), and Hunt (86th). They’ve all helped a Reid offense finish top-three in yards per carry, as did Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware in 2015.

If you wanted to argue against Reid’s credentials as an offensive genius, 2018 would not be the time to do it.

  • The other 4-0 team with a new world offense is the LA Rams.

The Rams are second in scoring at 35 points per game, which is five points per game better than their NFL-best scoring output in 2017. The biggest reason for that: Jared Goff. Sean McVay has managed to help get Goff from 62% completions, 8 Y/A last season to 72% and 10.5 Y/A in 2018. His current passer rating of 127.3 would be an NFL record (and Mahomes is also on pace for breaking that record) and how much of that has to do with Todd Gurley?

Some.

In their recent 38-31 win over the Minnesota Vikings — a defense I was told many times is great — Gurley ran it 17 times for 83 yards and no touchdowns. He caught four passes for 73 yards and one touchdown. Gurley’s value as a runner was nowhere near his value as a receiver. Goff threw it to Gurley six times and gained over 10 yards per attempt, more than double his 4.8 yards per carry. Of course you can’t abandon the run (I mean, that’s really more of a hypothesis until we see a team do it), but how difficult is getting 4.8 YPC from any NFL caliber back behind this offensive line?

Gurley’s DVOA as a runner: 9.4%

Gurley’s DVOA as a receiver: 21.2%

The snap counts were more even than in Kansas City’s game, but still emphasized that Gurley is more like “one of the guys” than “the guy.”

WR Robert Woods, 55 snaps

WR Cooper Kupp, 53 snaps

RB Todd Gurley, 53 snaps

WR Brandin Cooks, 52 snaps

And season yardage totals for these four players? It goes 452 receiving to Cooks, 348 to Kupp, 338 rushing to Gurley, and 323 receiving to Woods. Add in his 192 receiving and Gurley leads the team in total yardage, but as a runner, his contributions feel more mandatory than anything else.

In both cases, let me ask you this:

Poll

If you had to get rid of one of these players, who would you release?

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    Travis Kelce
    (100 votes)
  • 20%
    Tyreek Hill
    (95 votes)
  • 57%
    Kareem Hunt
    (265 votes)
460 votes total Vote Now

Poll

If you had to get rid of one of these players, who would you release?

This poll is closed

  • 41%
    Brandin Cooks
    (197 votes)
  • 51%
    Cooper Kupp
    (249 votes)
  • 7%
    Todd Gurley
    (34 votes)
480 votes total Vote Now

The Great Quarterback Seasons

  • Drew Brees is completing over 75% of his pass attempts with the New Orleans Saints this season. Brees holds the record for best completion percentage in a single season, having completed 72% of his attempts in 2017. Brees, Eli Manning, and Goff are all beating that mark so far to open 2018. Derek Carr is at 71%. Mitch Trubisky is at 70%. Kirk Cousins is at 69.3%. Process that. Six quarterbacks are completing at least 69% of their attempts a quarter of the way into the season, and only 17 times since the merger has a QB done that over the course of a whole season. Of those, 10 have happened since 2009.

Quarterbacks are not what they used to be.

Offensive schemes are not what they used to be.

You can’t use Emmitt Smith as an example that is worthy of consideration on how to run an offense anymore. You can’t even use Adrian Peterson, and he’s still an active NFL player. The game is that much different. Not only are more quarterbacks completing almost three-fourths of their attempts, but they’re doing it with efficiency like we’ve rarely ever seen before.

It’s starting to look like a world where Goff is playing like Joe Montana, even though most people still wouldn’t have said that Goff is a top-five quarterback a couple weeks ago. Montana completed 70.2% of his attempts in 1989 and gained 9.1 Y/A with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He won MVP for the first time. He won the Super Bowl. It was the best season by arguably the best quarterback of the 1900s. Goff is completing 72.4% of his passes for 10.5 Y/A and he’s on pace for 44 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Don’t read the sentence and say, “Yes, but the game is different.” Read that sentence and say, “Yes. The game is different!” It is different. It is so vastly different that Goff is very likely on his way to destroying the best season by Montana ever. We could also have the best season by Brees in his career even though he’s 39. Matt Nagy just orchestrated a game by Trubisky in which he threw nearly as many touchdowns in one game (6) as he had in 12 starts (7) as a rookie. Cousins already has three games with a completion percentage of 72 and two games over 400 yards and he’s not even looked great for large stretches of time.

But if you’re gaining eight yards per attempt and completing 70% of your attempts, why would you be so concerned with how well you’re running it? Especially since so many of these high-powered offenses aren’t running it well at all?

The “Average” Quarterback Seasons

  • On Sunday, Andrew Luck threw for a career-high 464 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. A week earlier, he didn’t have the arm strength to throw a 50-yard hail mary attempt. I picture Luck’s body as if he was one of those half-decayed dead pirates from those Disney movies and even he’s on pace for 36 touchdowns and over 4,500 yards.
  • Andy Dalton is on pace for 44 touchdowns. Philip Rivers is on pace for 44 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. His career high is 34 touchdowns and he’s playing without his great young tight end. Were he not replaced with Jameis Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick might have topped 40 touchdowns and he became the first QB in history with three straight 400-yard passing games. AND HE WAS REPLACED. Joe Flacco - Yes, Joe Flacco — is on pace 32 touchdowns. His career-high is 25. His 7.3 Y/A is his best since 2010. Consider this “The Joe Flacco Curve.”
  • Matt Ryan’s last three games: 76% completions, 1,065 yards, 10 touchdowns, one interception, 10.4 Y/A. (Season-long pace: 55 touchdowns, five interceptions.)
  • I have yet to even write a single word about Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, Alex Smith, or Ben Roethlisberger.

But rather than argue about if a change in how NFL teams run their offenses has negatively affected running backs, why not ask yourself why in the world it wouldn’t? I mean, how does it make any sense that teams wouldn’t A) want to pass it way more than they used to and B) be way better at passing it than they used to be?

Running is a natural thing we’ve done as humans literally for as long as we’ve been upright. Throwing a giant leather potato is something humans have only been doing for like 100 years. And we didn’t do it well for most of those 100 years. Of course people were going to get better at it and when they did, the results (on average a completed pass is going to pick up way more yards than a rushing attempt) have made it unfathomable to go back to the way that the sport used to be played. On top of that, rules limiting defensive players as far as what they can do to prevent a completed pass, have made it that much easier of a decision for Brees to pass it to Alvin Kamara rather than hand it off to him.

Football has evolved way past the point of Ezekiel Elliott being as valuable as Odell Beckham, Jr. You could argue that Elliott is not even as valuable as Tyler Lockett.

Speaking of Kamara, let’s talk about the increasing skill of skill players when it comes to catching the ball:

  • The Saints’ Michael Thomas has caught an incomprehensible 42 of 44 targets. Catch% and targets go back to 1992 on Pro-Football-Reference and the current record for Catch% on at least 40 targets belongs to Cleveland Gary, who caught 52 of 55 targets for the Rams in ‘92. (Thomas’ is technically higher than that right now.) Gary is a running back and he averaged 5.6 YPC, almost half of what Thomas averages per catch. In fact, they’re all running backs. When sorting for the best catch% of all-time, the top 100 players are halfbacks of some sort. That is until you get to Austin Collie at 101 (strange, I know, but Collie caught 81.7% of 71 targets in 2010). Thomas is catching 95.5% of his targets.
  • Kamara is on pace for 140 catches. The record for catches by a running back is 104. The overall record is 143. Thomas and Adam Thielen are on pace to shatter that.
  • Thomas and Thielen now first and second all-time for catches through four games. Kamara is 12th. Zach Ertz, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Odell Beckham are tied for 45th.
  • The record for catches by a tight end is 110 by Jason Witten. Ertz is on pace for 124.
  • JuJu is 22. He’s on pace for 124 catches. The record for catches in a single season by a player 22 or younger is 103, held by Larry Fitzgerald. Beckham is second at 91 catches, tied with Eddie Royal.
  • DeSean Jackson is averaging 19.27 yards ... PER TARGET. He might only be the second-most valuable receiver on the Bucs.
  • Rookie Calvin Ridley has six touchdowns and he definitely is the number two receiver on the Falcons.
  • How much would we be talking about Kenny Golladay if it were 2005? Golladay is a 24-year-old with spectacular highlights and he’s on pace for 1,320 yards, catching over 71% of his targets for over 10 yards per pass attempt. I feel like he’s an afterthought and the Lions also have two other solid receiving options in Marvin Jones and Golden Tate.

So if those are the quarterbacks, receivers, and tight ends, then what do we make of the running backs?

The Running Backs

  • Elliott leads all backs who have at least four games with 106.5 rushing yards per game. Todd Gurley is way behind at second place with 84.5 per game. Third is Matt Breida at 78.3 yards per game. The only other player on pace for 1,200 yards is Marshawn Lynch, who is on pace for exactly that. His teammate Jared Cook is on pace for 280 more yards than that. This isn’t just about value, it’s about pecking order.

Where do most running backs rank on the pecking order of their respective offenses? Outside of Elliott and the Cowboys, I think you could argue that there isn’t another offense in the NFL where the running back is the best skill player, and that has a lot to do with Dallas having the worst WR/TE corps in the league. You may make the argument for McCaffrey and the Panthers but A) McCaffrey hasn’t scored this year, B) Most of his value is wrapped in receiving, and C) Also no good receivers.

Of course, payroll reflects this and it has been trending this way for years now.

Running back is one of the cheapest positions in football now and very few players at the position will re-sign with the team that drafted them. This now includes Le’Veon Bell, a top-tier back that the Steelers do not want to commit to on his terms, and he’s even one of the ones who does a lot in the passing game. It’s not me that’s telling you that running backs have depreciated in value, it’s the NFL.

A New Way To View The Game

We’ve often seen football as two halves: Passing and Rushing.

But it wasn’t always that way. In the beginning, it was only rushing. That was easy to do: take the ball and run it. We know how to do that naturally. Then the forward pass became legal, and teams started to do it without much success, but some folks saw the potential of what a pass could mean for an offense if you could just complete them with regularity. People like Don Coryell. The game started to change with him, Dan Fouts, Montana, Bill Walsh, the west coast offense, Steve Young and the rise of the athletic quarterback, and so on and so forth. Evolution is inevitable and in sports, going from ocean to land only takes decades, not millennia.

Why would the evolution from only rushing, to rushing and some passing, to equal rushing and passing, not eventually get to lots of passing and some rushing mixed in? Why deny that as a possibility? Especially when every single metric is pointing to the fact that:

  • It’s happening whether you like it or not
  • It’s working

Maybe that’ll shift again. Maybe it’ll even shift soon. Perhaps the team that wins the Super Bowl as soon as this season will be better at rushing than passing (Panthers, Packers, and Broncos are the only teams with good offenses that have a notably better rushing attack than passing attack). But one thing is undeniable: running backs are not 50/50 with quarterbacks. They are not 50/30/20 with 20 going to WRs and TEs. They are much closer to something like 60 for the QB, 30 to the WRs and TEs, and maybe 10 to the value of the RB. They’ve been relegated to being a small piece of the offense, at least as far as the “running” goes.

If you disagree, that’s fine. But don’t just tell me ... show me.