The Colts, though they had the NFL’s worst ground game, split carries between Joseph Addai and rookie Donald Brown. How important did Indianapolis president Bill Polian feel it was to have another running back sharing the load with Addai? He spent a first-round pick on Brown in last year’s draft.
The Saints? The average fan might think their offense is all about Drew Brees and his 4,388 passing yards. While Brees is the most important part of the attack, it’s important to note that New Orleans ranked sixth in rushing a year ago, and only two teams scored more rushing touchdowns.
Last season, Sean Payton actually split carries between three backs – Mike Bell, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. Surprisingly, it was Bush receiving the short end of the stick with only 70 carries. When a former Heisman Trophy Winner is giving up carries to two undrafted free agents, one thing becomes clear – sometimes the system is more important than any individual.
That was the case with five of the NFL’s top seven rushing teams a year ago. The Dolphins, Panthers, Ravens, Saints and Cowboys all split carries between backs. Not one of those teams handed the ball to their starter more than 254 times, with every backup receiving at least 109 carries. Perhaps it was no coincidence three of those teams made the playoffs
Fun fact: The NFL’s top individual rushers, Chris Johnson and Steven Jackson, watched the postseason from home.
Do you sense a trend here?
There’s no question the NFL landscape is changing when it comes to running games. Last year, there were only six running backs with more than 300 carries, and one of those (Chris Johnson) was overfed carries in pursuit of a 2,000-yard season. In 2008, there were only five runners with more than 300 totes.
Compare to three years earlier, when there were 10 300-carry backs. Go back another two years, and there were 13, or almost half the starting running backs in the entire league.
With Larry Johnson (and his NFL record 416-carry season) long gone, the emergence of Jamaal Charles and the signing of Thomas Jones, we have to ask the question – will the Chiefs now follow this trend? Will Charles and Jones share the load, neither approaching the 300-carry barrier, as Todd Haley seeks to replicate the success the Ravens, Saints and Cowboys found last season? There’s plenty of evidence that it’s coming.
First, we have to look at the history of general manager Scott Pioli. Consider that during his entire career in New England, the Patriots only handed the ball to a running back more than 300 times once – Corey Dillon, in 2004. Even with Dillon still on the team, the Patriots chose to employ him in tandem with Laurence Maroney. A year prior, the carries were split almost 50-50 between Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk.
In eight years, Pioli’s drafts only produced two running backs before the fourth round – Maroney and J.R. Redmond. The conclusion is that Pioli comes from a school of thought that doesn’t put a huge premium on running backs. Because if you’re not going to feature one over the other, why spend too much in pursuit of one?
Haley’s history follows suit. Whether it was the Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys or the Arizona Cardinals, he was heavily involved in offenses that split carries between two backs. Between Anthony Thomas and James Allen, Julius Jones and Eddie George, and Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower, Haley’s been around two backs the majority of the time, not one.
Bottom line – for the better part of a decade, the men now running the Chiefs have been steeped in the two-back system. Because all he did was share carries for the first five years of his career, Jones is ideally suited to complement Charles in such a system. The conclusion is that Kansas City is certainly about to follow the NFL’s latest trend.