Pass-first mentality means NFL's bell cows have been put out to pasture for now

by: Christopher Price on Fri, 11/15/2013 - 11:55pm

Where have all the bell cows gone?

Ten seasons ago, 13 different running backs finished the year with at least 300 carries — almost half the league had backs who could hit that 300-carry plateau. That included four with 350 or more: Miami’s Ricky Williams led the league with an astounding 392 carries, while Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis (387), Green Bay’s Ahman Green (355), Deuce McAllister of New Orleans and Jacksonville’s Fred Taylor (345) rounded out the top five. 

Fast forward 10 years. With more than half of the season in the books, just four backs are on pace to hit 300 carries this year, none of them more than 310.

• Philly’s LeSean McCoy: 10 games, 193 carries, 19.3 carries per game (309 carries over a 16-game season)

• Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson: 9 games, 173 carries, 19.2 carries per game (308)

• Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch: 10 games, 191 carries, 19.1 carries per game (306)

• Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles: 9 games, 170 carries, 18.9 carries per game (302)

Two guys who might have had a shot at reaching the plateau in 2013 -- Houston’s Arian Foster and Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin -- saw their seasons come to an end after landing on injured reserve. But even if they had made it, that would still represent a significant dip from 10 years ago.

So when and where did things change? On the surface, it appears the tipping point came between the 2006 and 2007 seasons. In 2006, there were 10 backs who had 300 or more carries, with seven of them hitting at least 325 carries. Kansas City’s Larry Johnson, who had an almost criminal 416 carries, topped that list. (No surprise that the wheels came off for Johnson shortly after that -- he never topped 200 carries or 1,000 yards after that season. In fact, he had two more years where he topped 150 carries and 500 rushing yards following that year.) That was a stretch that saw LaDainian Tomlinson open his career with seven straight seasons of 300-plus carries, a period that ran from 2001 to 2007.

In 2007, that number started to drop, falling to six, with just one back (Clinton Portis) hitting 325 rushing attempts. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of 300-carry backs has been between two and seven, with the list bottoming out in 2011 with just Maurice Jones-Drew (343) and Michael Turner (301). 

Part of the downturn can be seen in the overall offensive evolution of the league. The NFL has become pass-first: In the last 10 seasons, leaguewide rushing attempts have dropped by roughly 1,000, while passing attempts have risen by roughly the same amount. In 2012, there were 13,925 rushing attempts in the regular season. That’s a decrease of 583 rushing attempts from 2003, when there were 14,508 rushing attempts. Similarly, passing attempts went from 16,493 in 2003 to 17,788 in 2012, an increase of 1,295.

In addition, the backfield has become more specialized. Different teams do it for different reasons -- to save snaps for later in the year, to maximize strengths, whatever the case may be, but it has given rise in some part to the running back by committee approach that has been in vogue for the last several years. That committee approach has also helped usher in the rise of the third-down back, as players like Darren Sproles, Reggie Bush, McCoy and Matt Forte have all seen their workloads increase over the last five to 10 years because of their pass-catching abilities. 

In New England, it’s likely been a combination of the two. When you’re gifted with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, it only makes sense to lean on him. Quarterback Tom Brady has had less than 450 passing attempts in a season only once in his career (2001), and more than 600 in 2011 and 2012. In a pass-happy league, Brady has always been New England’s trump card. Even when the passing game is struggling (as it was earlier in the season), the Patriots have always been a pass-first team.

Last August, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked about whether or not a 320-carry back could succeed in the NFL, and he responded that it all came down to the player and his ability to produce. In truth, when it comes to the New England backfield -- perhaps in part because he’s always had Brady to fall back on, at least in his time with the Patriots -- Belichick has favored some interesting combinations. He’s always had an affinity for lead backs, but in his 18 years as a head coach (that includes his time in Cleveland) he’s never had one rusher go for more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. Antowain Smith came the closest, rushing for 1,157 yards in 2001 and 982 in 2002 in New England. He’s also only had a running back top 300 carries once (Dillon in 2004) and 250 carries four times in his coaching career -- Smith did it twice (2001 and 2002), while Dillon did it once (2004) and Ridley also did it once (2012). 

To a large extent, Belichick has embraced the feature back, but at the same time, he’s leaned heavily on dependable, complementary backs like Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, Sammy Morris and Heath Evans in New England and Tommy Vardell and Earnest Byner in Cleveland to provide plenty of support. That appears to be the course of action this season, as Ridley has gone from a 290-carry back to someone on pace for 210 carries in 2013. In his place, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden have worked in complementary roles, cutting into Ridley’s reps. Those offensive opportunities could decrease even more with the return of Shane Vereen, who is eligible to return from IR this week after a wrist injury in Week 1 left him on the sidelines. 

In the end, while history tells us that the offensive pendulum will eventually swing back in the other direction, the presence of Brady under center is a sign that when the (bell) cows do come home to the NFL, it might take a few years before they ultimately reach New England.