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Bar is low for Rashaad Penny or Chris Carson to become elite running backs

NFL: Seattle Seahawks-Minicamp Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The conversation around running backs over the last couple of years has been loud and controversial. That sort of makes it a “controvasion” which is a word that I just made up that I hope to get trending. #Controvasion

That controvasion won’t be stopped by this article, which is about the individual impact of running backs in the year 2018.

Taking a sample size that wasn’t too long ago, 16 running backs averaged at least 67 rushing yards per game from 2007-2009. Those backs included Chris Johnson (104.3) at the top, plus Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson, Clinton Portis, Thomas Jones, Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs, DeAngelo Williams, Cedric Benson, Ryan Grant, LaDainian Tomlinson, Jamal Lewis, Brian Westbrook, Matt Forte, Ronnie Brown, and Michael Turner. Just below the 67-yard mark are guys like Maurice Jones-Drew, Marshawn Lynch, Willie Parker, Ray Rice, Jonathan Stewart, Marion Barber, and Fred Taylor.

Just look at that list of 23 names and think of all the memories. The great plays. The great games. The great seasons. Some Hall of Famers. Some Hall of Highlights. Some Hall of Stats Kings. There was no shortage of individual greatness among them and this was less than a decade ago.

What about over the last three seasons?

From 2015-2017, six players have averaged at least 67 yards per game with at least two seasons: Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, Jordan Howard, LeSean McCoy, Todd Gurley, and Peterson. Kareem Hunt and Leonard Fournette both averaged 80+ yards per game as rookies in 2017. Just below that mark are Devonta Freeman, Mark Ingram, Carlos Hyde, Melvin Gordon, Doug Martin, Lamar Miller, Gore, Jay Ajayi, Stewart, LeGarrette Blount, Lynch, Darren McFadden, DeMarco Murray, Latavius Murray, and C.J. Anderson.

That’s another 23 names. Some overlap.

Now look at those two lists. Compare the elite. Compare the very good. Compare the middle. Compare the bottom. I’d say that the 2007-2009 group wins every single one of those categories and it’s not even close. And there’s a number of reasonable arguments as to how that shift happened.

Number one: Teams shifted towards more passing-oriented offenses

In 2009, five teams had a 50/50 or below split for run/pass. The lowest was the New York Jets, who were 60% run, 40% pass (offensive coordinator: Brian Schottenheimer) and to their credit, went to the AFC Championship game. The Bengals (slightly above 50%), Titans, Browns, and Panthers were also in that group of run-oriented offenses.

In 2017, the Jaguars were the only team around the 50/50 mark (50.5% pass) and also went to the AFC Championship game. This isn’t to say there is necessary causation between rushing more and winning games — Jacksonville with a great quarterback and passing attack is more-than-arguably a Super Bowl-winner in 2017 — just pointing it out. No team rushed more than half of the time on offense. Nine teams were above 61% last season, compared to five in 2009, five in 2008, and four in 2007.

Number two: Teams are sharing the ball

It’s the most brutal position in the most brutal American team sport. Nine players had at least 700 carries from 2007-2009, compared to five in the last three seasons. And four players had at least 800 carries in that first span, compared to ZERO over the last three seasons. The back with the most carries since 2015 is Gurley, with 786. They are spelled with backups and third-down backs, plus they are being asked to receive/block more and run less.

It’s following the natural flow of the evolution of the sport.

Number three: Talent may be going to other positions early on in their careers

The best high school football player in the nation is Quavaris Crouch. He is a running back/linebacker at Harding High in Carolina. Last season he rushed for 3,283 yards and 33 touchdowns on a torn hip labrum. If this were any other era, Crouch may choose to go to Alabama or USC and vie for a Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best running back on the way to becoming a top-10 pick and the next Adrian Peterson.

But this is this era, and even Crouch’s high school football coach Sam Greiner has already been advising him the whole way: You see how bad it is to be a running back in the NFL.

“He’s the best running back, no doubt, coming out (of the 2019 class),” Greiner said in late January, “but he understands, long term, what the deal is with running backs. (Pittsburgh Steelers) star Le’Veon Bell is the best running back in the (NFL) and he may get franchise-tagged again and he can’t get a long-term contract. And Quavaris still has that baby face. There’s a chance he grows another inch and gains another 25 pounds, especially once he gets to a college on a (training table). So he could be 6-3, 265 and be the next Lawrence Taylor, and I’m not just saying that. He’s that special.”

Crouch is 6’2, 230 lbs and he had 14 sacks on defense. He’s an athlete. He doesn’t have to be a great running back, he can go be a great linebacker. And he’d know that there’s less of a risk of injury — something he’s already well too aware of — and a much higher chance of a payday. This will be one of many players to opt out of playing running back at the college and NFL level, if they can. Crouch is a notable example right now who is years away from the league, but on a smaller level it’s probably been happening for awhile and we’re just now seeing the lack of talent at running back in some cases.

Wasn’t this an article about Rashaad Penny and Chris Carson? Yes.

In this universe, it won’t be hard for Penny and/or Carson to become “special” running backs relative to their peers. Most of the best running backs in the league today are 25 and under, which is something that is likely to continue: the Pro Bowl backs may often be guys on their rookie deals, players who are 0-500 carries into their career rather than the ones who’ve already been hit 1000+ times by NFL defensive players.

Now is the time for Penny and Carson to really shine. And they could.

Penny’s abilities got him drafted in the first round, more of a rarity now than in previous decades, and Carson was a clear cut above most backs during his short four-game display last season. With the additions of Ed Dickson, Will Dissly, D.J. Fluker, Duane Brown (midseason 2017), Schottenheimer, Mike Solari, and perhaps Brandon Marshall if he makes the team, the Seahawks also have a higher likelihood to block for these two backs and put them in the best-of-the-best category for running backs.

It’s just that the best-of-the-best isn’t as good-as-it-good as it used to be. There shouldn’t be anything controvasional about that.