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Has the way running backs are used in the NFL changed since Terrell Davis played?

a look at the numbers and some conclusions from them

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So last week we studied how much use is too much use for an NFL running back. This week we are going to look at how running backs were used then and how they are used now.

So I had an error in my last article. Terrell Davis should have been mentioned because he had 531 combined touches in the 1997 season (regular season and playoffs) which was one of the highest totals ever. During that same season Jerome Bettis (440) and Dorsey Levens (467) would both get more than 400 total touches including post-season. This was near the middle of the NFL’s “Bellcow” running back era which started in the early 90s and lasted until the mid aughts.

From 1992 to 2006 there were 28 instances of a running back getting 400 or more regular season touches. There have only been 44 total instances of this since the merger.

One key difference from then to now is that running backs are a much larger part of the passing game. If we look at every running back in the league we can tally their total number of touches, carries and catches. We can also look at the total number of offensive plays to see how often a running backs get the ball during the regular season.

From 2000 until 2011 running backs across the league averaged about six runs for every catch. That dropped to about four and a half fairy suddenly in 2013. Which happens to be the year that Peyton Manning and the Bronco offense set the league ablaze mostly by passing the ball. 2017 was the nadir for this stat with running backs across the league getting only 4.17 runs per catch, this is down from a high of 6.57 in 2005.

We can also look at how the utilization of running backs overall has changed. With the caveat that I didn’t look back into the last century (other than the 2000 season), 2003 was the peak for running back utilization with running backs getting the ball on 44.2 percent of all offensive plays. We appear to be in a “valley” currently with running backs only getting the ball on 39 percent of plays during the last three seasons.

We can also look at how effective running backs have been when the got the ball by looking at yards per touch. This is a little tricky though as yards per catch is always going to be higher than yards per carry and running backs with more catches are going to have higher yards for touch because of that. So I came up with a way to measure how efficient running backs are overall by dividing yards per touch by touch percentage. As you can see below, while running backs have been getting the ball less recently than they did twenty years ago, they have been doing more with less.

Both yards per touch and efficiency have been gradually going up since the turn of the century with yards per touch peaking in 2018 (5.08) and efficiency peaking in 2019 (12.66).

One possible explanation for this increase in effectiveness and efficiency is that running backs are generally fresher, because fewer backs are getting really heavy workloads.

You can see above that 400 touch regular seasons are extremely rare and the occurrence of both 300 touch and 200 touch regular seasons from running backs has also been decreasing slowly over time while 100 touch regular seasons have been gradually going up. In other words, the touches are being more evenly distributed among backs across the league than they were during the height of the “Bellcow” era. During the 2020 regular season, 72 different backs had 100 or more touches. Compare this to 2004 when only 52 backs had 100 or more regular season touches.

This all makes sense when we realize that the NFL general continues to move away from running the ball. Since about 1980 when about half of all plays were running plays, the league has gradually moved to about 60 percent passing, 40 percent running. The percentage of plays that are running plays has levelled off around 41 percent over the last five seasons or so.

So while running backs are getting more catches for every run they have, they are also seeing fewer runs in general. This is due in part to a wave of athletic quarterbacks who are in a new golden era for running QBs. In 2020 quarterbacks accounted for about one of every four rushing touchdowns and one of every seven rushing yards. While the percentage of rushing touchdowns from quarterbacks dropped a little in 2021 (down to 19.4 from 23.7 percent) the percentage of rushing yards from QBs went up to 15.1 percent from 14.3 percent.

To put in another way, there were 3634 rushing first downs in the 2021 regular season; running backs accounted for 2524 of them (69.4 percent) while quarterbacks accounted for 742 of them (20.4 percent).

So despite having only 15.1 percent of the rushing attempts, QBs had 19.4 percent of the rushing touchdowns and 20.4 of the rushing first downs. Over the last two seasons quarterbacks have gotten a historically large piece of the overall NFL rushing pie meaning that running backs have been losing some of their “market share.”