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The Future of the Running Game

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While perusing the sports archives of the Gazette the other day, I came across this article on the Denver rushing attack. The information wasn't really new - nycbroncosfan and I came to much the same conclusions early this year in our Divining The McDaniels Way 4-part series and in other articles - but the point of the article was that Denver will almost certainly use some form of a committee system at running back. Josh McDaniels has said as much several times, so this isn't big news; but there is a growing stream in the collective football consciousness about this hot-button issue. As we move forward, will  the measure of a running back be established any longer only by the individual’s gross yardage per year? Or will we begin to see the team rushing totals as more important than that of the individual?

My sense is that the rushing totals of the team will begin to be seen as the more important of the two. One thing that would be worthwhile would be to view the individual's totals, the team's totals  and an increasing emphasis on the type of rushing scheme that the team uses. While I don’t expect this anytime soon, there would be a lot of value to it. It would not only emphasize the importance of the overall team production, it could also increasingly take into account the type of rushing offense that the player was in, much as we now talk about West Coast Offenses, Erhardt-Perkins and Run 'n Gun systems. Just as we are missing the boat when we compare quarterbacks if we don't look at the scheme, the offensive line and the receivers, comparisons of running backs are limited in value if they don't look at the team's O-line, their total rushing production and the specific scheme that is used in the running game.

There are a limited number of so-called "franchise" running backs in the league. Because of this fact, many teams won't have a player of that particular caliber, while some, like Oakland, seem to collect them much as Jon Gruden collected quarterbacks, thus reducing the overall availability even more. One solution for such teams is to establish a running attack that can use second- to fifth-round draft choices with similar effectiveness. Although few would argue that the Broncos' former system eventually took this to extremes, it is still true that a system such as the Denver zone-blocking, one-cut system can increase overall effectiveness of the rushing attack without moving to a 'star' or primary-back system. That doesn't suggest that such a system is 'better' or not, but only recognizes that it is an option since not every team can employ a dominant primary-back approach.

Options for the Rushing Attack

Even when such an approach is possible, is it optimal? Let's consider four possible examples: LaDainian Tomlinson with San Diego, Adrian Peterson with Minnesota, Matt Forte with the Bears and the New England Patriots.

Let's look at the Patriots first. We should note that the 2008 New England Patriots had less issues with injuries at running back than the Broncos did, but they saw plenty of injuries as well. Laurence Maroney suffered a shoulder injury that allowed him to play only three games last year. Kevin Faulk got most of the press, but he, too, had injury issues. Sammy Morris, who is probably most similar to Peyton Hillis in his skill set and overall production, also spent time out with injuries. As a result, Josh McDaniels came from one club with serious injury issues at the position to another with even worse problems. Although he was excoriated by the press for the hundreds of running backs that he supposedly had piling up in camp like cordwood, the fact is that there is a fairly normal level of competition for the 4 or 5 RB slots that McDaniels will keep going into the season. The rest are out due to injuries, which explains the process quite well.

In San Diego, LaDainian Tomlinson spent much of last year complaining that he was underused. The Chargers didn’t run enough plays for him, he said, and when they did the line play wasn’t to his liking. As far as the line play, I understood – they, too, were decimated by injuries, especially in the early season and they underperformed for much of the season. But LDT, as he’s often called, didn’t mention that he too was injured, had been at the end of the previous season and was during the first half of 2008. Not surprisingly, he was also fighting injuries at the end of the 2009 season. SD has responded in three ways.

First, head coach Norv Turner has been saying very publicly that they are going to ride the LDT train for about 330-350 carries next year. Given that LDT is 30, and we know that when a back goes over 28 years of age or 300 carries in a season, he’s liable to lose some degree of production and to increasingly deal with injuries. Therefore, San Diego's public stance is very unlikely, although it's certainly possible.

But the second way they dealt with the situation was to slap the franchise label on Darren Sproles and to consider increasing his carries. For the most part, SD seems to be thinking of Sproles as a special-teams specialist who can also be a good change-of-pace back. Sproles recently signed the tender but not before San Diego took the third step of adding big and talented Gartrell Johnson out of Colorado State to come in and start taking even more snaps.   Not being comfortable depending on a rookie 4th-round pick to dominate, the Chargers also picked up Michael Bennett. Still think that LDT is going to get 330+ carries this year?

This all came around because, like nearly every club, the Bolts struggled with injuries at the RB position. The Chargers put it out to the media that they expected LaDainian to get those 330 carries, but few in the league would give that any credence. From one perspective, the drafting of Johnson and the signing of Bennett were clear signs that they didn’t believe that LDT would survive that level of use to play in any playoffs and they were getting ready for that fact. That seems a sensible approach and covers them no matter the outcome.

Whatever their public stance, San Diego knows what Josh McDaniels knows and what others are finding out. In this day and age, in this league, you need at least three decent running backs to count on getting through a season. It really helps if they aren’t counting their carries and yards as much as the points and the wins. It’s just good coaching to have more options, to have certain players that you can count on for certain plays and to keep as many of them healthy as possible – and to have at least one or two in reserve, for the inevitable day when back number 1 and/or number 2 goes down.

Matt Forte did very well for a rookie running back. He's a tough player with good hands as a receiver, and he led the Bears in both rushing and receiving. But Forte's production could have been even better if the Bears had a better second option at running back. How about Minnesota? By the end of the season, Adrian Peterson's production was dropping off noticeably and his yards-per-carry numbers were heading south like New York retirees to Florida. Peterson spent the offseason trying to quickly gain 15+ lbs of muscle in order to protect himself from that kind of repetitive pounding. It rarely works to gain a lot of muscle weight in a single offseason - usually, that weight falls back off by the end of the following season - but you can see why AP would try to go that route. The primary-back system is fine in degree, but I have to wonder at the effect over the course of a person's career. Right now, AP is wondering the same thing.

What can a RBBC Approach Look Like?

I believe that we will see more teams go to the running-back-by-committee approach because it’s just good business on several levels. First, teams such as the New York Giants and the Carolina Panthers  have shown that a running-back-by-committee approach can be an invaluable tool in building a winning program. Both clubs have allocated a sizable share of the salary cap to multiple top-tier running backs. Both have good, but (in my opinion) not great quarterbacks. That isn't meant as a dig to the QBs, both of whom I highly respect,. I don't consider Jake Delhomme's single bad playoff game last season to take anything away from him, but neither QB is commonly considered a top-five player.

Yet, both clubs ran the ball over 500 times each, and they were numbers 1 (NY) and 3 (CAR) on the list of top rushing clubs. New York used a three-headed attack that included Brandon JacobsDerrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw, while Carolina added Jonathan Stewart to DeAngelo Williams. Both teams also put a lot of resources into their offensive lines, and the team production showed. Both teams made the playoffs, and both will be considered contenders for the NFC crown this season. The committee approach can work, and work well.

Medically, the RBBC model suggests to me that it can produce the same (or better) total production over the course of a season and that it will extend the careers of some of the backs. It will mean needing to draft a high-round running back a little less often. That means more picks available for other positions, which is good from a business perspective. If I'm correct as to the medical advantages, that could also improve the bottom line for the team, since they will be paying players to sit out with injuries somewhat less often.

Fiscally, using a RBBC approach can permit the team to permit the allocation of resources more effectively. If you tie up a substantial portion of your offensive dollars in a single back, you're betting that this back won't become injured over the course of the season. If he is, the season may fail based on that single issue, leaving you with very little production out of the RB position. If more players - very good quality players, but not quite the same level as, say, an Adrian Peterson - are in a RBBC system, one of them going down has less of an impact. The reality of the NFL is that almost every player will become injured in some degree over the course of a season. You need to plan in such a way as to minimize the negative effects of that potential situation.

1,000-Yard Rushers

The RBBC  also means that the 1,000-yard goal is going to be far less of a concern to most coaches ,and could become less important to more players. It just won’t be a statistical reality for a lot of teams.  It is interesting to note, however, that the Giants' RBBC approach did produce two 1,000-yard backs (Jacobs and Ward), so it won't be out of the question. In the end, it’s far better to have five 400-yard backs than one 1,500-yard back. Those 2,000- to 2,500-yard rushing totals will look very good at the end of the year in the only stat column that counts – the ‘wins’ column.

In the future, as the running back by committee or RBBC approach is made increasingly probable, the stats on RBs will probably tend to be seen differently. Not everyone agrees, of course. As a disclaimer, Mike Pizer of USA Today claims that this trend towards a RBBC is being reversed, but he bases that belief on the ‘fact’ that he thinks that Beanie Wells and Knowshon Moreno will not be platooned and on no other information. Others may have better frameworks for their assumptions.But as the teams use more of a committee approach, the contribution of the individual players will tend, more often, to be lower. That's fine - in fact, it has advantages in the opportunity for players to heal in between injuries and for teams to rotate in fresh legs consistently. The overall team rushing production can be higher in the end. But that will mean that team rushing should take on a somewhat higher importance, and that scheme will be increasingly important as well.

In the end, we could yet see an emphasis on the team aspects of rushing production. If the committee approach becomes common, the different systems of running the ball will tend to be discussed, analyzed and debated in head-to-head comparisons, which increases the enjoyment for the fans who choose to learn more about their chosen sport. The running-back-by-committee approach will become more common because it makes sense financially, from a drafting standpoint and as a function of the team's overall offensive strategy.

The Broncos' Sui Generis Rushing Attack

Does this mean that players can't be platooned based on specific skill sets and need? Not at all, and that's important. Just because the teams will commonly spread the carries to more players doesn't mean that each running back can't have 2 or 3 areas in which he excels. The Broncos, for example, have  a simple new philosophy. Each back is expected to carry the ball, block in pass protection and receiver well. They have a bruiser of a back in Hillis, but Peyton also has remarkable hands as a receiver and can pass protect at a high level.  He also can block and block well for other RBs.  Moreno has better abilities at eluding defensive players, but he doesn't have quite the foot-pounds of force that Hillis generates, simply as a matter of Hillis' superior weight. He, like all Broncos backs, has good pass-protect skills. Correll Buckhalter has certain runs at which he excels. I admit to being less optimistic about LaMont Jordan based on his performance in camp so far but with Ryan Torain being waived, his shot looks more and more likely. One change that will come about will be that offensive coordinators will have to know more about the specifics of their backs' skill sets than many of them do right now. The best of coordinators will get more out of their players, but that's nothing new. Between Josh McDaniels, Bobby Turner and Rick Dennison, as well as offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, I don't expect the Broncos to have any problems in that area. I'd argue that their running back program looks to be one of the best in football for the upcoming season, based on player quality, offensive line and coaching.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the 2009 Denver Broncos rushing attack. I don't remember the last time I was so excited about this team's chances in the rushing game. There is a Latin term, "sui generis', which means 'of its own kind/genus' or 'unique in its characteristics.' Head coach McDaniels has promised us that this year the Broncos will have a  sui generis rushing attack; one that does things we have never seen in professional football before. While he could be blowing smoke up our collective elimination chakra, he now, without question, has the tools to do so,in his O-line and in his RBs. Moreno and Hillis et al that can provide him with all of the skills that are needed for the running game to be their main attack, should they desire to do so, and their production will be limited only by the coach's own fertile imagination. Buckhalter is showing a tremendous argument for keeping him near the top of our list. LaMont Jordan has decided that he needs to put more effort into his work, and while it's about time, is also good to see. Darius Walker brings good skill levels to the table and he may still make the club. Someone will be the starter du jour, but in that is likely to have only a small value. Everyone will have to play their way onto the field, which is as it should be. And then?

Bring on the season!!