NFL Feature Back? Give me a Committee!

Cold Hard Football Facts had a nice article on the number of 400 touch seasons a running back had and the relation to his longevity.  The basic gist was that early in their career they might survive a 400 touch season or two, but as age wore on (27 being "old") 400 touch seasons were 'Back breakers.  

 

We don't like getting hit 400 times in a pillow fight with pink panty-clad college girls, let alone getting hit 400 times by a guy with cannon balls for biceps. Here's what happens:
  • A very, very young player (21 to 24) can exceed 400 touches once or twice early in his career, but the  statistical chinks in the career soon appear. 
  • A player in his mid 20s – fourth or fifth year in the league – will certainly see his career or productivity cut short soon, if not immediately, by a single 400-touch season.
  • And a player who exceeds 400 touches in his late 20s is all done.

The article also said the effective end to a player's career is around 2800 touches.  As Indiana Jones put it, "It's not the years, Honey, it's the mileage."

Looking at 400 touches, what does it mean?  It means the back has had the ball in his hands at least 25 times a game for a 16 games season.  Why at least?  It doesn't count incomplete passes that might also include hits.  So the guy gets hit 25 times a game?  Not exactly, good backs can "bounce off" tacklers, so while they get hit, they keep moving.  In fact a single touch may include 4 or more hits, and as I've already pointed out you can get hit without being credited for a touch. 

Twenty five touches may mean more than 100 hits in a game.  Then you try to heal up and do it all over again next week.  Of course the presence of a solid O-line, a lead-blocking fullback or tight-end might save the runner from some damage, but touches add up to serious damage over time. 

Here's an example using three older backs:

LaDainian Tomlinson, a 9 year veteran and feature back, has totaled 2880 rushes and 530 catches for a total of 3410 touches (well past the "career ending" 2800).  At the age of 30, he is burnt out.  He has three 400+ touch seasons AND three others with at least 390 touches.  His last 400+ touch season 2006, has been followed by a steady decline in production.  Average yards falling steadily from 5.2 in 2006 to 3.2 in 2009 (4.3 career average).  The last couple years, Darren Sproles has been around to keep his legs fresh.  Hasn't helped much as his "fresher legs" are getting two fewer yards per carry.

Brian Westbrook, an 8 year veteran and feature back / committee back, has totaled 1308 rushes and 426 catches for a total of 1734 touches.  He's also 30, and saw he's heaviest duty in 2007 as a feature back with 368 touches (4.7 yard average).  The next year, he dropped to 4.0 yard average (4.6 career average).  Now he's suffered multiple concussions, and one has to wonder if another hit might be career ending for him.

Our own Kevin Faulk, a 10 year veteran and committee back, has amassed 839 rushes and 418 catches for a total of 1257 touches.  Kevin's heaviest workload was in 2003, with 226 touches.  Even at the tender age of 33, there's still plenty of gas left in his tank.  In fact his average yards have improved the last couple years with 6.1 in 2008 and 5.4 in 2009 (4.2 career average). 

While your mileage may vary, there still may be something to the numbers.  Let's take a look at a beast of a running back:  Adrian Peterson.  He's fast, strong, breaks tackles and a "feature back" in a two man committee (where Adrian gets the lion's share of the load - around 72% last year).

2007: 238 rushes (5.6 yard average) + 19 passes for 257 touches.  He was injured two games.

2008: 336 rushes (4.8 yard average) + 21 passes for 357 touches.

2009: 314 rushes (4.4 yard average) + 43 passes for 357 touches.  Oh, and they actually had a passing game.

He's lost 1.2 yards per attempt since his rookie year.  While that doesn't mean Adrian is going to be done in the next couple years, it certainly doesn't look good for the long run.  In a game that eats players up, Adrian looks like prime beef.

What does the committee approach (over 3 backs) offer?

It depends on how it's used, but at bare minimum it gives you at least three knees that need to break before the running game is done.  That's the simplistic view to be sure.  The Giants were running two backs to wear defenses down, then switching to a third late in the game when the defense was tired out.  Fresh legs is one way to view it, but breaking the will of the defense might be more appropriate depending upon the back.  Also by spreading the work around, you limit touches and hits to your back.  While that may end up being a career extender for a work horse back, it could be a career maker for a younger back that wants many years of production.

Situationally, it is difficult to find the perfect back who can blitz block, run the draw, run the sweep, and catch out of the backfield.  When you have that guy you're going to have to pay him to keep him.  By comparison, there are loads of backs that are flawed in one part of the game or another.  There's the good blitz blocker and receiver who becomes your 3rd down back.  Add in sweep ability and you have a two down back.  Combine enough players that are lacking a dimension or two to their game, and you have every situation covered.  Is it optimum?  No, but in the salary cap world, it is cheap and effective.  Three or four backs for the same price as one.

The more I consider how much I'd like to have that explosive - do everything back, the more I keep coming back to the idea not making sense.  The only real advantage is that more roster spots are available for other players.  With the premium you'll pay for an elite back, though you can't spend much to fill that slot.  You can pick up a special teams player or wide receiver depth, but both of those roles can be filled from the running back stable.  No, the more I think about it, the more I like the extra legs.  Give me the role players, and you can keep the stars.

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