Committee Makes Sense
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Growing awareness of the effects of running back overuse and the value of those backs over time has contributed to a change in thinking regarding the "feature back" concept. At Football Outsiders, we have a well-known concept of our own, called the "Curse of 370". The simplistic version: Backs who carry the ball 370 times or more in a season will generally fall off in health and production from then on. The more involved version stipulates that backs who carry the ball that often generally don't do so more than once (Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith, and Ricky Williams are the only exceptions) and this could be due to the "career year" factor. We also know that backs with 370 or more touches, whose touches comprise at least 15 percent of their activity, tend to do so more often with longer and more productive careers. Makes sense, really. It generally hurts a lot less to take a swing pass and bang into a cornerback than it does to run up the middle over and over again, trading blows with 330-pound behemoths.
Going back to the late 1970s, when the feature-back idea really grew legs, I tabulated the number of backs per season with 200 or more carries. I figured that all things being relatively equal, more 200-carry backs per season would indicate an increase in running back tandems. Given that theory, the league has definitely trended to more committees. Below, you'll find the five-year averages from 1978 to the present, minus the 1982 strike year and understanding the slight dip from the 1987 strike year.
The only back to go over 370 in the last two years was Atlanta's Michael Turner in 2008, with 376 carries. My impression was that the Falcons used Turner as the pointman for a new offense that had to be simple with so many personnel changes. When I asked Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith about their awareness of the workload at the 2009 Scouting Combine, they both told me that it's a concern, and I think it's more of a concern than it's been in years for NFL franchises. Teams are starting to realize that running backs are valuable assets, and that running them into the ground makes little sense.
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