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The Runningback By Committee

In NFL offensive systems, the running game is represented by two separate but equally important groups: The lead runners that carry the team, and the backups that steal from them. These are their stories. (Thunk thunk!)


Opening Arguments

This geekly court will come to order on the matter of The People vs. The Runningback By Committee (RBBC), first with a myth to debunk: Runningback Committees in the NFL are not on the rise.


Travel with me back to the year 1978, when

Walter Payton roamed the earth as titans in cleats, I crawled the earth as an infant in diapers, and everyone else hustled as goofballs in leisure suits. Back then, and for most of the 80s and 90s, being the third-string runningback wasn’t the waiting game it is today, but an important and ever-present role.


Percentages shown as rushes per game, with a minimum of 12 games for all backs to exclude long-term injury replacements. Stacked categories partially overlap.


As you can see in the green bars above, the number of RB3s seeing significant time was strong in the early Superbowl Era, but gradually faded over time. Like the leisure suit, the third-stringer has fallen out of style, probably a result of better physical conditioning: The best guys are playing harder, longer. It’s true that the second back is getting more carries than ever, which is probably what created the illusion of RBBCs being on the rise, but so are the starters, both clearly at the expense of the third guy on the depth chart.


The Victims

RBBCs have declined, but a handful of teams continue to delegate 35% or more of the work to the second guy, even when the lead is healthy. In most cases, the top guy has a history of injury, is unproven, or is proven as an underachiever in a lead role. Very often, a season of sharing is a time for grooming the next featured starter as you may have read in my article on rookie runningbacks, Opportunity Knocks.


The Suspects

The second-string backs of recent years have been consistently inconsistent, their touches and their effectiveness generally varying widely from week to week. In some cases, like last year’s


tandem of

Justin Fargas and

Lamont Jordan, we see stat lines working against each other when they both took the field. In others, the second man brings something different to the table, which makes him good for some points in many or most weeks, like

Maurice Jones-Drew found himself a nice niche in the passing game for PPR League owners who took the plunge last season.

In situations where the second guy has something different to offer, he has the most success when the starter also succeeds, whether it’s clock management or just health management. A starter just being on the injury report and playing can lead to time for the lead backup, as well as just being in the final weeks of the season when teams are coasting or breaking in new talent.

These are all pretty good indicators, but there’s no universal rule of when the second fiddle will rack up the numbers. Before you draft a guy sharing carries, take a look at the relationship of the platoon. Do they work together, complementing each other, or against each other? Does he take mop-up duty? Who gets the goal-line carries? Is the share likely to continue, or were they just breaking in the new rookie? Look at the game logs, consider their ages, performances, and roles, and use your best judgement.


The Convicted (a.k.a.


Star Wars: Attack of the Droughns)

I couldn’t do an article on RBBCs without a word on the Emperor Palpatine of NFL coaches,

Mike Shanahan, who in recent years has shown he doesn’t care if it’s the Master or the Apprentice who gets the job done. He’s had a long career in the NFL, spanning 23 years. Until

Clinton Portis left


after 2003, he rode his top backs and rode them hard both in



San Francisco

. He did juggle the oft-injured pair of

Marcus Allen and

Bo Jackson out in

Los Angeles

(88-89), but there’s nothing in his work history that explains the fantasy lottery that has been the


backfield for the last four years.



When you look at the table above, which was what my database happened to spit out (less the colors and notes), a story jumps out. Guys work their way up, then they leave or go down. Could it be that the Denver Committee of the 21st century has just been a string of bad luck? Is there hope yet for

Selvin Young to take a featured role in the


backfield? Is

Mike Shanahan serving a wrongful sentence in the minds of disgruntled fantasy owners?


The Verdict

As to the defendant

Mike Shanahan, the sentence for conspiring against fantasy owners is hereby reduced to that of a lesser charge, as an accessory, with further review pending this season’s evidence. While he doesn’t have a long history of sharing the ball, we’ll treat he and

Selvin Young (Link to Discussion) with caution.


As to the defendants sharing carries, there is insufficient evidence to sustain a charge. Each backfield should be considered carefully on it’s own merits. Those situations where the members complement each other should be preferred, and those where they’re fighting each other should be avoided.


Finally, as to the charge of Runningback Committees being on the rise, the case against the National Football League is dismissed. Perpetrators of this myth will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, which is to say you should cancel your magazine subscriptions and instead get ready for your fantasy season in the Shark Tank at

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