Why Your NFL Team Has a Three-Headed Running Back - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Why Your NFL Team Has a Three-Headed Running Back

Why Your NFL Team Has a Three-Headed Running Back

By Meghan Walsh


Even if you’re not a fantasy geek, the game has changed. 

By Meghan Walsh

Running back by committee. Its acronym, RBBC, haunts the dreams of many fantasy football geeks. The ones who pine for the old days of the NFL — say, 2012 — when most teams had that one workhorse running back you could start, sure he’d pick up enough yards to help win that week’s matchup against Brad in IT. Instead, now you’re faced with trying to guess which of the three or maybe four backs on a team might get enough work each week to help the cause at all. It’s the spreading curse of RBBC: 

This season, only 2 of the 32 NFL teams are relying primarily on a single star running back.

So says Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of FootballOutsiders.com, pointing to Pittsburgh and Chicago. That number might be debated. But there’s no arguing that most NFL teams have migrated, for reasons both philosophical and economic, to the RBBC approach, employing an arsenal of lower-cost, multiskilled, interchangeable running backs instead. Undrafted free agents and lower-round picks are taking over what used to be a marquee job and proving just as productive, if not as sexy. In today’s NFL, Schatz says, “Running backs are fungible.”

With a bevy of backs with complementary skills – some specialize in pass catching or blocking – teams can keep their offensive engine from breaking down entirely when the top runner almost inevitably gets injured. NFL rushers have a notably shorter shelf life than other positions. Yet even as these guys are required to be more multidimensional, their individual value has taken a nosedive. These days, running backs often get paid less than punters.

A few numbers to consider: From 1998 to 2012, an average of eight running backs carried the ball 300 times or more, according to NFL.com. Since then, just two have reached that mark annually. A recent RBBC convert, the San Diego Chargers, exemplifies the trend. LaDainian Tomlinson, its one-time All-Pro rusher, averaged a salary of $7.5 million a year and as many as 23 carries a game before retiring in 2012. Today, San Diego’s backfield trio makes a combined $6 million and together average 25 carries a game.

It’s not that the single star back can’t be successful. Through the eighth week of the 2015 season, Chicago’s Matt Forte, for instance, ranked eighth in rushing and fourth among backs in total yards. But together, Arizona’s lesser-known tandem of David Johnson and Chris Johnson beat him in both categories — and the former gave the Cardinals another 390 yards in kick returns.

Forlorn fantasy-team owners shouldn’t give up on the single-back theory yet, says Scott Kennedy, managing editor at sports media network Scout.com. Three years ago, the backs coming out of high school were the best crop of recruits he’d ever seen. Next year, they’ll be entering the NFL draft. “That,” he says, “will be the litmus test.”


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