The days of the feature back are over.
There are of course still running backs in the league like Adrian Peterson who are feature back quality, but teams shouldn't treat their star backs like work horses. The average NFL career is already extremely short (3.5 years), but the expiration date on running backs isn't much longer than a gallon of milk. Recently Rashard Mendenhallretired after just six seasons at the age of 26 which seems really young, but his six seasons in the league are actually almost double that of the average NFL running back. At just 3.11 years, the average career of an NFL running back is nearly half a year shorter than any other position.
Every non kicker or punter position in the NFL is grueling, but running backs take a bigger beating than most as they are hit nearly every play on either on a carry, reception, or blocking assignment. Teams should start approaching running back carries like baseball teams do with a pitcher's pitch count. There are exceptions to every rule of course, but to me it makes sense that each NFL running back only has so many carries in his body before he starts to break down. Each running back is different so that number will vary from player to player and freak injuries will decrease the number, but sand starts trickling down from the top to the bottom of the hour glass the moment a running back first steps on the field. Don't mistake what I'm saying, there's no way to know exactly what carry number any back is capable of over their career and some backs hold up to bigger workloads better than others, but I think more attention and focus should be given to extending their career. I don't mean that from a player safety position, but instead with the intention of getting the most value from their playing time. The goal is to take some of the unnecessary work load off the starting running back game to game and year to year, and potentially get 5 to 6 big years of production from a guy like Arian Foster instead of only 3 or 4 big years.
Achieving that goal shouldn't be difficult. If your team is up multiple touchdowns late in the 4th quarter, put in the backup running back to carry the ball while they drain the clock. If your team is coached by Gary Kubiak and they decide to call for a draw play on 3rd and 15, put in the back up running back to take that hit, not like your planning on picking up that first down. I don't expect a team with Adrian Peterson to adopt a full running back by committee philosophy, but smartly giving your backup an extra five carries a game in the right situations as described above won't negatively impact your chance to win, but will help keep that star a little more fresh and lessen his chance for injury.
One blatant example of running back misuse was in the Texans week four game against the Titans during the 2012 season. With the Texans holding a 28-7 fourth quarter lead, Arian Foster inexplicably carried the ball seven times during the fourth quarter; what purpose did that serve? Why didn't those carries go to Ben Tate or Justin Forsett? The two backup running backs finished that game with a combined 5 carries; a waste of their assets on top of unnecessarily taxing their star back. They weren't looking to break a big play, their only goal was to run clock; Forsett and Tate could have accomplished the same thing. Time and situation have to be considered when talking about the carries running backs receive. It was a week four game that the Texans had locked up; those carries have to go to the backups in that situation. The Texans offense under Kubiak revolved around the success of Foster, they were going to need him fresh for 12 more regular season games plus the playoffs; why have him take unnecessary hits in a game they controlled? Seven extra carries from one game isn't a big deal by itself, but it adds up quickly if the coach continues to misuse his running back. Seven extra carries every week adds up to 112 unnecessary hits over a full season. That same misuse over three seasons adds up to 336 unnecessary carries; Foster averaged 319 carries between 2010-2012. In three years time the unnecessary carries have taken a year off your running backs career. Over six seasons that same misuse would cost the running back two years off his career. That's the price of extra, unnecessary carries.
It can't be denied that there's a link between unnecessarily high carry totals and performance drop off and a shorter prime part of a player's career. Around 320 carries per season (20 per game) is where I start to draw the line when I talk about running back misuse. Anything over 350 is irresponsible but the target goal for carries should be lower. Ideally if I have a capable backup like Ben Tate, I'd like to keep my starting running back at or under 300 carries (18.75 per game) per year. If you cut carries for your back from 350 per year to 300, over six seasons you would save him 300 carries; adding an extra year on to his career. By the way if you take my target of 18 carries a game at the average yards per carry of a good back (4.5) like Adrian Peterson or Jamaal Charles, that comes out to 1,296 yards for a full season; still a great total. That total would have ranked 3rd in rushing yards last season, so limiting carries doesn't limit production.
Look at some of the players who have led the league in carries and what happened to them during the next season:
- In 2000 Eddie George carried the ball 403 times. Next year during the 2001 season his per carry average dropped off by .7 yards (3.7 to 3.0 per carry) and his yardage total dropped off nearly 600 yards (1,509 to 939 yards).
- In 2001 Stephen Davis led the league with 356 carries. Next year during the 2002 season he missed four games and his yardage total dropped by over 600 yards (1,432 to 820 yards).
- In 2002 Ricky Williams led the league with 383 carries. Next year during the 2003 season his per carry average dropped off by over a full yard (4.8 to 3.5 per carry).
- In 2004 Curtis Martin led the league with 371 carries. Next year during the 2005 season his per carry average dropped off by over a full yard (4.6 to 3.3 yards per carry).
- In 2005 Shaun Alexander led the league with 370 carries. Next year during the 2006 season he missed six games and his per carry average dropped off by a yard and a half (5.1 to 3.6 yards per carry). Alexander played three more seasons after he led the league in carries during the 2005 season, he averaged 3.5 yards per carry and 545 rushing yards during those final seasons.
- In 2006 Larry Johnson led the league with 416 carries. Next year during the 2007 season he missed 8 games, his per carry average dropped off by nearly a full yard (4.3 to 3.5 per carry), and his yardage total dropped off by over 1,200 yards (1,789 to 559 yards). Johnson also carried the ball 336 times in 2005, a total of 752 carries over the 2005-2006 seasons, along with 1,700+ yards each season (3,539 total) and 40 total touchdowns during those two seasons. Over the next three seasons (2007-2009), Johnson totaled 529 carries, 2,014 rushing yards, and nine total touchdowns. Johnson broke down under the workload.
- In 2009 Chris Johnson led the league with 358 carries. Next year during the 2010 season his per carry average dropped off by over a full yard (5.6 to 4.3 per carry). Over the next four seasons after his 358 carry year, Johnson hasn't come close to his 5.6 yards per carry average in 2009; his highest average since was 4.5 in 2012.
- In 2011 Maurice Jones-Drew led the league with 343 carries. Next year during the 2012 season he missed 10 games and his rushing yards total dropped from 1,606 yards to 414 yards. The next year after that in 2013, Jones-Drew again failed to reach 1,000 yards rushing and averaged just 3.4 yards per carry; his career average coming into that season was 4.6 yards per carry.
- In 2012 Arian Foster led the league with 351 carries. Next year during the 2013 season he missed 8 games, rushed for under 600 yards, and had to have back surgery.
Have I made my point?
Too many carries aren't the only reason why a running back would break down and have a drop off in performance, but it's undeniably a huge factor. I'm not saying that a star running back shouldn't receive over 20 carries in the Super Bowl. I'm not saying if a running back has already passed the "carry count" that you can't give him the ball on 4th and goal from the 1 yard line when trailing by six in the 4th quarter. What I am saying is NFL coaches should get smarter about the amount of carries they're giving their star running back. There's no reason to give Adrian Peterson carries when his team either leads or trails by a big margin in the fourth quarter; the backup can handle that. There's no reason to give Arian Foster the ball on a draw play on 3rd and long when you're not genuinely trying to pick up the first down; the backup can handle that. There's no reason to give Jamaal Charles carries during the last game of the year if the team has already locked up a bye and has nothing to gain with a win; the backup can handle that.
Arian Foster will be 28 years old when the 2014 regular season starts in September. At best Foster has a year or two left of his prime but considering what happened last season, his prime may already be over. Either way one thing is for sure, the misuse and extra carries have taken time off his career. Foster isn't the only running back to lose part of their career to unnecessary extra carries and won't be the last, but the evidence of its impact is there for anyone open to a new way of thinking. Time is a flat circle. Everything we've ever done or will do, we're gonna do over and over and over again. Time to learn from our mistakes.