If this offseason has taught the public anything, it’s that it is good to be an NFL Running Back. Teams have been doling out millions to the load barrers of some of the best offenses in the NFL. LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster, Matt Forte, Fred Jackson, Adrian Peterson, D’Angelo Williams, Marshawn Lynch and of course, Ray Rice here in Baltimore, have received contract extensions within the past 24 months. Rice’s $40 million over the next five years is one of the biggest in the league and well deserved so.
Flashback to a couple seasons ago, as many analysts believed the age of the feature back was slowly fading away. Teams were deploying the 2-Back System more and more often, including the Ravens, who split carries between LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee. But those analysts couldn’t be further from the truth. Even though Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams and the Wildcat were a craze across the league, things have returned back to normal.
There have always be teams that deployed the 2-Back System; some of the greatest teams went on to win Super Bowls while splitting carries in the backfield (Franco Harris and Rocky Blier for the Steelers in the 70’s, Mercury Morris and Larry Csonka with the Dolphins undefeated season and Tom Rathman and Roger Craig with Bill Walsh’s 49ers just to name a few). But these teams have never been the standard for the NFL; they simply utilized the tools they had to succeed.
Why do you think the Lions never brought in another high profile back to pair with Barry Sanders? Why didn’t Terrell Davis split carries with one of the other 1000 yard backs that followed him in Denver? Simply put, if you have an elite Running Back, you don’t take the ball out of his hands. When Adrian Peterson was drafted, the Vikings already had Chester Taylor; a back Baltimore is familiar with, who led the league in carries the season before. Does anyone even remember his production after Peterson’s breakout rookie campaign?
GM’s and Head Coaches don’t just wake up one morning thinking “I think we should use two running backs today.” The fact is, there is two basic reasons why a team would use two Running Backs in 2012; either the combination of both would produce more than their starter (basically accepting they do not have one elite running back on the team), or they have a young, in most cases rookie, Running Back, who needs time to develop without added pressure of carrying the workload. The Houston Texans had Ben Tate on a pace to be one of the league leaders in rushing last season, but as soon as their stud work horse, Arian Foster, returned to full strength, Tate’s numbers fell off drastically. On the other hand, the Saints limited the carries of the top Running Back in the draft, Mark Ingram, so he can be acclimated to the rigors of the 16 game season; expect much more out of him this season.
So even though the Ravens spent a high draft pick on Bernard Pierce, do not expect Ray Rice’s touches to drop. Baltimore, like the rest of the league, already knows to not limit the elite. A true number one Running Back is a luxury the select few in the league can enjoy. Though Rice, McCoy, Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew all split carries early on in their careers, look at their production now.