The NFL has a paradoxical relationship with rushing. After quarterbacks, running backs are the most visible players on the football field, and the history of the NFL can’t be told without many great rushers. Yet over the past few years, running backs are increasingly being paid less, kept around for shorter periods of time, and rotated in and out of lineups in committee approaches. As the NFL has becoming a passing league, star running backs have gotten the short end of the stick.
Nothing represents this trend more than the relationship between two rushing statistics: carries per game and yards per carry. In 2018, teams have rushed the football an average of 25.9 times per game, which would be the lowest figure in league history. That number has been trending downward for some time—the previous low was set in 2016 (26.0 rushes per game), and the low before that was set in 2015 (26.3). Yet despite this de-emphasis of rushing, NFL teams are averaging 4.4 yards per carry this year, which would be the highest mark in league history. This, too, follows a trend—the 10 highest yards-per-carry seasons ever have all come since 2006.
Teams are passing more because—as analytics have shown—passing is more efficient than running. Points, yards, yards per play, and virtually every other offensive statistic imaginable have all increased along with the rise in passing attempts. Yet as teams run the ball less, they’ve also run it more efficiently. Running doesn’t matter, and yet the less it matters, the better it gets.
With the advent of the NFL’s passing boom, the running back position has undergone a reevaluation. The debate over running back value reached a fever pitch this offseason, when the Giants took former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley second overall in the NFL draft, Rams running back Todd Gurley signed the first big contract extension awarded to a running back in years, and All-Pro back Le’Veon Bell threatened to sit out the season (and eventually did) as he awaited his own big extension.
Should the Giants have used such a high draft pick on a position with decreasing value? Would the Rams have been better off using the $45 million guaranteed they gave Gurley to fill other roster holes? Will the Steelers regret not paying one of the best backs in the league? Those were some of the biggest questions floating around the league as the 2018 season kicked off. But really, they were all different ways of asking the same thing: Do star running backs matter?
This season has helped answer that question. In 2018, we’ve seen teams compete without their star running backs. Others found their highly touted runners to be ineffective, and a few supplanted highly drafted talents with diamonds in the rough. The 2018 season was defined by the replacement-level running back, and heading into free agency and the 2019 draft, the value of star running backs has never been lower than it is right now.
When it comes to judging the value of a star rusher, the Steelers have given us the clearest A/B test in the league this year. As Bell held out, the team replaced him with James Conner, a former third-round pick who had rarely seen the field before 2018. Pittsburgh’s ground game hasn’t missed a beat. In 2017, the Steelers averaged 104.2 rushing yards per game, picking up 3.8 per carry. This season, Pittsburgh has logged fewer total carries and rushed for only 93.9 yards per game, but the team’s yards per carry has jumped up to 4.3. The Steelers ranked sixth in rushing DVOA in 2017; this year they’re slotted at 11th. And the team’s rushing success rate—a stat that tracks the number of runs that would be considered “successful” given the down, distance, game situation, etc.—went from 47.9 last season to 47.6 percent this year.
While some of the Steelers’ success on the ground can be attributed to Conner’s natural talent, Pittsburgh’s scheme has been successful no matter who’s been in the backfield. Conner was out with an ankle injury in weeks 14 and 15 this year, and without him the Steelers still averaged 99.0 rushing yards on 4.5 yards per carry while relying mostly on Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round rookie out of NC State who was listed as an H-back in college and only split time as a rusher. In those two weeks, the Steelers actually increased their rushing success rate to 52.6 percent. Bell was likely hoping this season would show how essential he was to the Pittsburgh offense—instead, the exact opposite happened.
The Steelers weren’t the only team that found rushing success without the services of their primary running back. The Chiefs released Kareem Hunt on November 30 after video was released that showed him kicking and shoving a woman in February. The team started Spencer Ware in the weeks following Hunt’s release, and when Ware went down with a hamstring injury last week, they deployed career journeyman Damien Williams and undrafted rookie Darrel Williams. In 11 weeks with Hunt, the Chiefs averaged 115.8 yards on the ground at 4.8 yards per carry, with a rushing success rate of 51.5 percent. Without Hunt, the Chiefs have averaged 109.3 rushing yards a game, 4.4 yards per carry, and their rushing success rate has increased to a ridiculously high 60.0 percent.
Of course, teams can’t just plug in anybody at running back and expect to find success, as the Chargers have illustrated this year. In the 10 games that Melvin Gordon, the team’s starter, has played in this season, L.A. has been one of the best rushing teams in football. They’ve averaged 137.0 rushing yards per game with him in the lineup at 5.2 yards per carry with a success rate of 55.0. But Gordon missed weeks 7, 13, 14, and 15, and without him the Chargers had to rely on change-of-pace back Austin Ekeler and the little-used Justin Jackson. In those weeks, L.A. rushed for just 84.0 yards per game, averaging 3.9 per tote with a 46.8 rushing success rate.
But even Gordon—who’s considered one of the league’s premiere backs—found success this year because of the Chargers’ improvements along the offensive line. Gordon averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry in each of his first three years in the NFL, but this year, L.A.’s offensive line jumped from 26th to fourth in adjusted line yards, which allowed Gordon to thrive. The fact Gordon’s backups didn’t find the same success illustrates one important point about this trend: If teams want to trot some nobody out there at running back, they still need to find the right nobody.
In 2018, finding the right back hasn’t required a high draft pick or a rich contract. Denver spent a third-round pick on Oregon rusher Royce Freeman this offseason, hoping he could fill a hole in its backfield. But as the preseason progressed, it became clear that undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay was the more talented back. Lindsay eventually landed the starting role, and Denver’s had great success with him this season. The Broncos are averaging 123.2 yards on the ground at 5.0 yards per carry, with a rushing success rate of 48.4, and they rank fifth in rushing DVOA. Denver is paying pennies for that production—Lindsay will make just $1.73 million over the next three years, with only $15,000 of that guaranteed (and no, I didn’t forget a zero).
The Seahawks are another squad with a low-profile runner who’s outperforming a high draft pick. After a season in which no back on the team picked up more than 240 total rushing yards, Seattle drafted Rashaad Penny with the 27th pick in April, hoping to find a rusher who could bring balance back to the offense. Yet it’s been Chris Carson, the second-year pro and former seventh-round pick, who has earned the bulk of Seattle’s carries this season. With Carson as the primary back and Penny and Mike Davis complementing him, the Seahawks have become the most run-heavy team in football. They are one of only two teams in the league (the other being the Titans) that have run the football more times than they’ve passed it (457 carries to 377 pass attempts), and they rank seventh in rushing DVOA while averaging 154.9 yards per game.
Yet Carson was also on the team last year. So what changed? Carson’s certainly improved this year (and he reportedly looked “phenomenal” in training camp), but the biggest jump has been with Seattle’s offensive line. The Seahawks line ranked 31st in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards last season, and this year it’s 14th. Plus, new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is committed to the run. Seattle’s turnaround from 2017 to 2018 is a testament to how a team’s scheme and supporting cast can have as big an impact (or bigger) on rushing success as the player who is handling the ball.
And just as good systems can build up backup and replacement running backs, bad ones can also tear down those backs who were once deemed stars. In Arizona, do-it-all back David Johnson missed nearly all of 2017 after breaking his wrist in the team’s season opener, and the Cardinals’ rushing offense crumbled, sinking from 14th in rushing DVOA to 32nd. With Johnson back in the fold this year, the Cardinals running game was supposed to rebound, but that hasn’t happened. The team is still last in rushing DVOA, and it’s averaging 82.4 rushing yards per game on 3.7 per carry, with an abysmal 38.6 success rate. Like the Seahawks last year, the Cardinals have one of the worst offensive lines in the league, and they’ve been hampered by injuries. In the passing game, Josh Rosen has been in over his head as a quarterback, looking every bit like a rookie with 10 touchdowns to 14 interceptions and the league’s worst adjusted net yards per attempt. This offense has simply cratered in every aspect. And while Johnson is supposed to be one of the league’s best backs, even he can’t overcome the hand he’s been dealt this season.
Throughout 2018, teams across the league have found success on the ground using unconventional running backs. And as good systems have proved to be the most important piece in unlocking a solid rushing attack, the notion that star rushers are no longer very valuable has been solidified—and that could have a lasting impact around the league.
Let’s circle back to Barkley, who was at the center of the debate over running back value in April. After Giants GM David Gettleman drafted Barkley, he waved off those who would frown at taking a running back so highly:
Dave Gettleman explains why analytics don't work for Saquon Barkley. #SupNerds pic.twitter.com/DcOSNLRJ6E— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) April 27, 2018
“It is a crock,” Gettleman said of the suggestion that analytics showed picking a running back that high was a mistake. “At the end of the day, a great player is a great player. He is a touchdown maker. He is a threat to take it to the house every time he gets his hands on the ball.”
Through 15 weeks of the NFL season, Gettleman seems to have a point. Barkley has been everything he was billed to be and more, with 1,809 scrimmage yards and 13 total touchdowns to his name. He’s averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has raised the Giants offense from abysmal levels to … well … at least mediocre this year. The Giants (who have also had a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. for much of the season after he missed most of last year with an ankle injury) have risen from 23rd in offensive DVOA in 2017 to 17th this year. On the ground, Barkley has boosted the team’s rushing DVOA from 29th to 22nd, though the Giants’ success rate on runs has fallen, from 43.5 percent to 40.5.
And there’s the rub: Barkley is probably the single-most talented skill-position player in all of football, but he can’t match the efficiency of far less talented backs in better schemes with better supporting casts. Barkley is an amazing player, but should the Giants have used the no. 2 overall pick on him? The early returns suggest they had better options—and that’s been true for many teams that invested in their running back in recent seasons.
The debate over a running back’s value will continue well after 2018, but this season has largely answered many of the questions we had coming into the year. High-octane attacks have rolled onward without their star backs. Teams who expected a highly drafted player to be their running back of the future saw less-heralded (and, crucially, cheaper) options win the role. Some teams with star backs have watched their offenses crumble. And perhaps the most talented runner of all is part of a below-average rushing offense.
Over and over, 2018 has indicated that the key to a good rushing offense isn’t having a star running back, but putting decent personnel and play-calling around a serviceable one. As this reality becomes more and more clear, the market for star running backs will only continue to shrink.