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The epidemic of NFL Journeymen Running Backs


The NFL appears to have a growing pool of running backs who are forced to find new homes every year.

The stock of running backs in the NFL appears to be on the decline and has been for years. That’s not a bold point to make but an one that deserves to be look at for a moment to realize how staggering that truth is.

There was a time in the past when the running back was considered on the most valuable positions in the league. They were the workhorses that teams relied to put up the offensive numbers needed to win games because they were some of the toughest guys on the field.

The days of legendary running backs like Emmit Smith, Eric Dickerson, and Terrell Davis are over. While there are great backs in the NFL today they seem to be disappearing as the years go on.

Not only are they going but their value in the league has also shown signs of declining. In the recent years the NFL has seen good to great running backs like New Orleans SaintsCJ Spiller, Indianapolis Colts’ Frank Gore, and Buffalo Bills’ LeSean McCoy all move to new homes through trades or free agency.

The stats can also tell the story according to Kevin Seifert of ESPN, the 2013 season had the lowest league wide total in six year with 57,795. This is just one of many sign of how “the shield” has turned away from the old school running and and has embraced the new game where passing is the norm and the fast paced no huddle offense is an acceptable standard.

In today’s NFL the rules and the new coaching styles has catered to rising value that receivers have gained at expense of their running counter parts. Why have the receiver’s stock risen in the last several years?

Seifert points to an ESPN stats and infographic which compares the productions versus the age of both running backs and receivers who have played since 2001.

The seasonal rushing yards of running backs who have played four seasons with at least 75 carries per season are compared to the recieving yards of receivers with similar experience with at least 50 receptions.

When compared side by side from the time they can enter the league at 21 to possible retirement at 35. The study found that both backs and receiver peak at age 27.

After 27 the running backs production declines by about 40 percent by age 30 and rarely ever recovers . Receivers can also see a decline after 27 but at 31 they can average a season that produces a similar number of yards to their season at 27.

NFL Elite Running Back prodcution after age 27 (source

Peterson and Tomilson both saw decreased rushing yard totals at 28 while Lynch proved to be the exception of the rule.

NFL Elite Running Back prodcution after age 27 (source

The study that ESPN did in Seifert’s article is similar to the study the NFL does when it evaluates player production. In short decision makers are looking at the numbers and they see the receivers as a much better investment than the running back in means of production.

The reasoning makes perfect sense. Why would a general manager spend millions of dollars on a running back that they might  get six good years out of. When they can pay a receiver who can give them 25 to 50 percent more production at the same price?

The answer in short is that the receiver is the better option the management of NFL teams know it. That’s why running backs who were held in high importance like Bradshaw, who scored the game winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLVI for the Giants will find themselves in another home in the next season or two.

Football and especially the NFL has evolved in the past decade it now a league that thrives on quarterback, receivers, and the passing game. The new rules and coaching schemes that help protect the quarterback encourage offenses to score higher scoring show that.

There is hope for the position with elites backs like Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson, and DeMarco Murray. The running back position is going to have to find a way to integrate itself into more pass happy offenses or it might one day face the threat of being obsolete.

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