The Curse of 370
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On their current roster, the Washington Redskins have one running back on pace to fall victim to a specific curse, and another back who can tell him all about it. Clinton Portis currently leads the NFL in carries (163), yards (818), and rushing touchdowns (7). If Portis continues as he has, he'll end the 2008 regular season with 373 carries, which puts him just over a line of demarcation that has helped end the most productive phases of many great backs before him.
In 2005, current Washington backup Shaun Alexander rushed 370 times for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground for the Seattle Seahawks. He won the NFL MVP award and helped the Seahawks get to their first Super Bowl. After two more seasons of injuries and ineffectiveness with Seattle, he was out of the league, waiting for a team like the Redskins to make a call and offer him a job as an injury replacement. What happened to Alexander, and many before him, was the Curse of 370 -- the phenomenon discovered by Football Outsiders founder Aaron Schatz in 2004. It goes a little something like this:
On 27 different occasions in NFL history, a running back has carried the ball 370 or more times in the regular season. You can sort those backs into three groups: backs that got hurt and were never the same, backs whose productivity just fell off, and Eric Dickerson.
Dickerson went over 370 carries four different times -- in 1983, 1984, 1986, and 1988. Ricky Williams (2002 and 2003) and Emmitt Smith (1992 and 1995) are the only other exceptions, and both backs saw a serious downturn in overall productivity after the second time for various reasons. Other than that, you're looking at a couple of backs who got out of the fire just in time, and a bunch of cautionary tales.
Here are the top 10 backs in single-season carries, and the results that followed:
After running at least one back into the ground every season from 2002 through 2006, the league seemed to smarten up. 2007 was the first time since 2001 that no back broke the 370 barrier. Portis led the league in carries with 325, and you now hear more about running back committees -- with workload issues specifically mentioned -- than at any other time in recent memory.
Jim Zorn was Seattle's quarterbacks coach when Shaun Alexander went over that wall and never came back. If Alexander does nothing more in Washington than serve as a reminder of the price paid by the running back as workhorse, he'll be worth whatever the Redskins paid for his services: He could save Clinton Portis' career by his example.
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