It’s not a new trend, but a continuing one, that NFL teams are relying less on the concept of a featured running back, many opting for specialization and backfields-by-committee in today’s NFL.
Plenty of evidence suggests that we’re seeing offenses go other directions as the game evolves. Doing some quick math, I count nine teams last season where one running back had more than 60 percent of the team’s rushing attempts, although injuries certainly factor in.
Here’s an area where the trend is making an impact: Super Bowl winners. The NFL Network research crew has compiled some interesting numbers on the last 10 Super Bowl winners and who started at running back, something I thought was worth sharing.
Here’s the list:
Year — Player, team: Round drafted
2010 — James Starks, GB: 6th round
2009 — Pierre Thomas, NO: Undrafted
2008 — Willie Parker, PIT: Undrafted
2007 — Brandon Jacobs, NYG: 4th round
2006 — Joseph Addai, IND: 1st round
2005 — Willie Parker, PIT: Undrafted
2004 — Corey Dillon, NE: 2nd round
2003 — Antowain Smith, NE: 1st round
2002 — Michael Pittman, TB: 4th round
2001 — Antowain Smith, NE: 1st round
It’s an interesting list, and noticeably lacking the star power of elite backs like Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson or LaDainian Tomlinson. Of the eight players on the list, only three were taken in the first two rounds of the draft. Note that none of these backs made the Pro Bowl during the same season they reached the Super Bowl; the last to do that was Marshall Faulk in 1999.
It’s not difficult to discern the trend taking place.
Of the last 10 Super Bowl winners, only two (the 2005 Steelers and 2004 Patriots) had backs that rushed for more than 1,200 yards that season. Parker rushed for 1,202 yards in 15 games (80.1 ypg) in 2005. Dillon had a monster season in 2004, rushing for 1,635 yards in 15 games (109.0 ypg). Although, we might have exclude the Packers, who used various backs after the Week 1 injury to Ryan Grant.
But that’s not to say all the Super Bowl winners weren’t successful running the ball. Four teams — the 2009 Saints (6th), 2007 Giants (4th), 2005 Steelers (5th) and 2004 Patriots (7th) — finished in the top 10 those seasons in rushing.
But a featured back wasn’t always a part of that equation. Thomas led the Saints with 793 yards in 2009 splitting carries with Mike Bell and Reggie Bush. Jacobs shared carries with Derrick Ward while rushing for 1,009 yards in 2007. So it can be argued the last team with a true feature back to win the Super Bowl were the 2005 Steelers, with Fast Willie leading the way.
Meanwhile, eight of the last 10 Super Bowl winners were quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger or Tom Brady, arguably the league’s top echelon of quarterbacks along with Philip Rivers.
It helps put into context that the Packers and Steelers set the Super Bowl record for fewest rushing attempts, a record has been set each of the last several seasons.
On paper, it’s a stark contrast, and a source for some interesting correlations.