How much do running backs really matter these days? An interesting question to answer this Chiefs season.
Before you start yelling at me and telling me why I am wrong, please try and listen. I am not opposed to running backs, and I am not here to tell you that there isn’t a difference between Christian McCaffrey and Wayne Gallman. Obviously you need somewhat of a run game and you need players who can pick up tough yards.
The question I am raising is about what you pay compared to what you get—whether it’s worth the value. Furthermore, the offensive line and scheme have more to do with running back numbers than the back itself. While obviously the running game to an extent matters, this is why you don’t overpay backs.
Let’s begin with Christian McCaffrey. We can all agree he’s a top 3 running back in the NFL. I would even go as far to say he’s the best. He was injured on Sunday and the Carolina Panthers run game grounded to a halt against the Kansas City Chiefs. Wait, no it didn’t. Instead, Mike Davis, a 27-year-old former fourth round pick I would assume 95 percent of casual fans wouldn’t recognize put up some very solid numbers before McCaffrey returned. Given McCaffrey’s health questions he might be getting more snaps soon.
Obviously McCaffrey is much better—we saw some ridiculous plays first hand, as Chiefs fans—but is he $13 million per year better? With McCaffrey out, Bridgewater had to throw the ball more often and it paid off. D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Robby Anderson stepped up and the offense looked even more efficient. Again, McCaffrey is a stud and his best attribute is catching the ball, but if you are a Panthers fan, wouldn’t you rather see more deep balls to the trio of receivers than the 3.8 yards per carry McCaffrey is putting up this year?
Moving on to the San Francisco 49ers shows that scheme means more than the actual back. The 49ers have a plethora of backs they have used both last year and this present season, and all of them have been at least somewhat effective. Jerrick McKinnon. Tevin Coleman. Raheem Mostert. Matt Breida. Jeff Wilson, Jr. Do we really think all of those guys are studs? Hell, Breida can’t even find playing time in Miami over Myles Gaskin. Scheme is what helps turn undrafted guys like Mostert into effective NFL players. If you are a team like the Niners, why would you ever spend big money or high draft picks on a running back when you know you can get production from anyone in your system?
I get it, running backs want to be paid and they do take a beating. I honestly feel bad for them to an extent, but the market just isn’t there. How many good running backs are there in the NFL? There are so many guys you can make a case for that it’s not worth the effort. James Robinson is an undrafted rookie for Jacksonville with over 800 scrimmage yards and is 6th in total rushing yards this season. When Dalvin Cook goes down, Alexander Mattison picks right up with 112 yards on 20 carries. When Nick Chubb is out, Kareem Hunt is waiting there while D’Ernest Johnson has 127 yards on 21 carries. It’s fairly easy to find a running back who can put up good numbers. It depends on the system and scheme.
It’s why Saquon Barkley struggles in New York even getting a ton of touches. He had 15 carries for 6 yards against the Steelers, which is brutal, yet we probably all agree he’s at least a top 5 back. He has no offensive line to work with and the boxes are stacked. Backs can also fall off at any moment—just ask David Johnson, Peyton Hillis, or DeMarco Murray. As much as I want Le’Veon Bell to succeed for the Chiefs, even he looks a little different than his highly productive years in Pittsburgh. Father Time comes for everyone and a running back’s shelf life is the shortest.
This brings me to the Chiefs. We all know Clyde Edwards-Helaire is talented—heck, he was my top running back coming into the draft. He has shown great contact balance, an ability to churn out tough yards, and he’s extremely effective as a pass catcher. Even as solid as he’s been, 4th in the NFL in total rushing yards, aren’t we still a little disappointed in the effectiveness so far? With this talented passing offense and all of these weapons with the light boxes he’s up against, weren’t we expecting a little more? I am not blaming him, since a lot of that is on the offensive line. My point is wouldn’t a lot of running backs in this system put up similar numbers given the large role he has?
Edwards-Helaire is going to be in the running for Offensive Rookie of the Year and his numbers will be pretty darn good. The main point I’m making is the Chiefs won a Super Bowl with Damien Williams at running back, a guy who never averaged over 4 yards per carry until he came to the Chiefs. Scheme and talent around you matters more than anything, and running back isn’t as big of a factor as most people think. It is why Derrick Henry took off after Ryan Tannehill took over. Tannehill makes the Titans offense go—not Henry. It is why Zeke Elliott has done nothing since Dak Prescott went down. It is the way the NFL is trending. The passing game is the most effective way to move the ball and teams are leaning into the statistics more and more.
It is almost like baseball leaning into the 3 true outcomes model; it might not be as pleasing as the old ways but it is the most effective way to score. Would you rather see Patrick Mahomes throw three times or see the Chiefs run three times? What do you think will be more effective?
Now I understand balance, but the numbers show that “establishing the run” has questionable effect at best on how play-action will work or not. It is instinctual, and running the ball five times or one time will have a similar effect. For those who would say that numbers aren’t the ones playing on the field, I get that, but the numbers come from the players on the field. Using analytics and statistics only boosts your chances of winning. They don’t hinder, they help.
As far as time of possession matters, well that one is proven to not be as effective as you think. When the Chiefs lose the TOP battle, as they did on Sunday against the Panthers, they still win. You can keep the ball out of Mahomes’ hands for one minute or eight minutes, but he is still getting the ball. Just because you hold the ball longer doesn’t mean you’ll be scoring more points or not be giving the Chiefs offense the ball. The true indicator of this is the amount of possessions and what you do with them.
If this seems like a scathing review of running backs and how I never want the Chiefs to run the ball, please don’t take it that way. There is a time and place for everything and the Chiefs are a better team with a balanced, to an extent, attack. I just want to question the effectiveness and trends of football and use analytics to help paint the picture of where the NFL is heading. I would love 2nd and 10 runs to be thrown out of the playbook when the numbers show giving Mahomes more chances to move the chains in the passing game.
Watching Jamaal Charles run was a thing of beauty for Chiefs fans. He was also an outlier, one of the few running backs who truly added value that other backs do not. With questionable quarterback play and a weak offensive line, he was still averaging over 5 yards per carry and adding expected points to the Chiefs like none other in history.
I understand if you still love seeing a good run between the tackles or if you straight up just like good old-school football and want numbers to take a backseat. That’s the way I was, too. I just want analytics and the old-school mindset to try to become more understanding of the other. At the end of the day, when Edwards-Helaire breaks open a 40-yard touchdown run on 2nd and 10 or when Mahomes connects with Travis Kelce on 4th-and-3 from the opponent’s 40 yard line, I’ll be cheering like the rest of Chiefs Kingdom.