Why running backs are overrated.

The stadium scene.
Sept. 1 2004 5:00 PM

Empty Backfield

Why running backs are overrated.

It's guys like you, Ricky, who are overrated
It's guys like you, Ricky, who are overrated

When Ricky Williams retired last month, it was thought to be a massive blow to the Miami Dolphins. After all, in his two years with the team, Williams ran for 3,225 yards and carried the ball more times than an NFL running back ever had in a two-year period. Even so, Miami should consider itself lucky to be rid of him. If the Dolphins can get over the emotional hurdle of losing their workhorse, they'll soon figure out that he wasn't as important as they thought. That's because the star running back is the most overrated player in football.

Everywhere you look, the running back is exalted. Coaches and announcers talk about the importance of giving the ball to a star runner early and late in the game. Fantasy football, typically structured to make running backs far and away the most important players, leaves fans obsessed with identifying the next "stud back."

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But in reality, a good passing game is always more important than a good running game.

The statistical relationship between wins and net yards per pass attempt is more than twice as strong as the relationship between wins and rushing yards per carry. The conventional wisdom about the need to "establish the run" is nonsense. Six of last year's playoff teams were among the 10 teams that ran the ball the least in the first quarter. In general, winning teams pile up rushing yards by running out the clock after they have the lead—teams run when they win rather than win when they run.

The one situation where teams must run the ball to win is on third or fourth down with a few yards to go. You need a star running back to get these important, hard-fought yards, right? Actually, highly paid runners aren't any better in these scenarios than more pedestrian backs. Some of the NFL's biggest stars—Edgerrin James, Jamal Lewis, and Eddie George—were among the league's worst at getting critical first downs last season. Among the five teams that had the most success running the ball in short yardage last year, only one, Green Bay, featured a dominant single running back. The other teams—Minnesota, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and (seriously) Detroit—all featured what can be called running back committees.

So, passing is almost always more important than running, and in the most important running situations, star running backs don't perform exceptionally well. What that means is that most well-known, highly paid running backs don't have a significant impact on their teams' success. Some, like Ricky Williams, actually hurt their teams. While NFL running backs averaged 4.2 yards on first down last year, Williams averaged an abysmal 3.0 yards, the worst figure for any back with more than 100 carries. At Football Outsiders, we ranked the total value of last year's top 53 running backs. Williams came in 47th.

There are great running backs, and several of them, like Priest Holmes and Ahman Green, lead their teams to the playoffs. But a winning team is just as likely to feature a running back by committee as a single star. Over the past three seasons, the 10 teams with the biggest drop-off in yards gained between their first and second running backs went a combined 76-84 and made the playoffs twice. The 10 teams with the smallest drop-off went 85-74-1 and made the playoffs five times. The most balanced rushing attack belonged to last year's Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots.

Splitting running back duties lets a coach combine players with different skills—say, a straight-ahead, between-the-tackles guy and a shifty outside runner with receiving skills—and use them in situations where they perform best. Three of last year's best rushing teams (Philadelphia, Minnesota, and Atlanta) used this model, as did three of the last four Super Bowl teams. And if a running back gets hurt, it's always better to have a committee to fall back on. When a star is injured, he's typically replaced by a backup with much less talent and experience—quick, name a San Diego running back besides LaDainian Tomlinson.

Teams with running back committees also have a big economic advantage. The 2003 Minnesota Vikings had one of the league's top five rushing attacks, but 14 other backs cost more by themselves ($3 million) than the combined salaries of Minnesota's top three rushers. Many of those highly paid backs were average, and some of them—Ricky Williams, Emmitt Smith, and Jerome Bettis—were among the worst in the league. With the money they've saved, the Vikings have been able to invest in the other component of a good rushing attack: the offensive line. Last year, the average salary-cap value of Minnesota's top five offensive linemen was the fourth highest in the league.

Many of the league's star running backs don't take up much salary cap space because they're still playing under rookie contracts. But these players don't remain cheap. Clinton Portis and LaDainian Tomlinson both signed contracts in the offseason that will pay them more than $6 million per season. Other young stars, like Edgerrin James and Deuce McAllister, will soon ask for big raises, too. But unlike Portis and Tomlinson, who both rank among the league's top players, James and McAllister perform no better than the average running back or running back tandem. While they pile up impressive yardage and touchdown totals, any number of other players would do the same if given the same amount of carries. Rather than break the bank, the Colts and Saints should dump their highly paid stars and sign a couple of replacements on the cheap.