The De-emphasis of the NFL Running Back
In this article, The Wizard analyzes the 3 major ways that the NFL Running Back has been de-emphasized - % of rushing plays, rushing attempts per back and salary.
The easiest statistic to look at to determine whether running backs are being de-emphasized in the NFL is the % of plays that are run plays vs pass plays.
Based on the analysis below you can draw two conclusions. First, at all levels (run heavy, balanced, pass heavy teams) the percentage of plays that are rushing plays has decreased significantly over the past decade plus. This is particularly apparent in the top rushing teams (the blue line in the graph below) where at times the amount of rushing plays were up to an even exceeding 60% of all offensive plays, whereas in 2016 no team had over 50% of their plays as rush plays.
Another thing that is becoming apparent is that most teams are multi-dimensional these days with a split of roughly 60% pass - 40% rush. And any unbalanced teams are unbalanced in favor of passing, i.e. the teams that are pass heavy are passing approximately 65% of the time and rushing only 35% of the time.
The second area that you can measure the de-emphasis of the running back is through salary.
Here you can see that over the past 5 years there has been almost no change not only for the highest salary running back (Adrian Peterson), but also at the next tiers of running back (the 10th highest paid running back or solid starter is stuck at about $5.5M, the 20th highest paid running back is stuck at just under $4M and the 50th highest paid running back or change of pace back is making under $1M per year).
However, during that same time period, while the highest paid WR and lower end receiver (50th highest paid) are making the same amount in 2016 as 2011, the mid range receiver 1's (the 10th and 20th highest paid) have seen increases of 30 - 60% in salary per year.
The final area to look at in terms of running back de-emphasis is how many times per year each layer of running back is expected to rush the football.
Here the data is a bit more mixed, you can see the 10th, 20th and 50th most rushes per year are roughly the same over a 7 year period. However, one thing that you certainly don't see based on this graph are the generational running backs that essentially carried their teams for years at a time, i.e. Jim Brown in the early 60's, Walter Payton in the late 70's, OJ Simpson in the mid 70's, Eric Dickerson in the mid 80's, Emmitt Smith in the early 90's. Each of these backs led the league for multiple seasons in rushing attempts at a high rate of rushes per year. In the 2010's all that can be claimed is the outlier year of 2014 for Demarco Murray. Once again, you can see over time that the power back is also being de-emphasized.
The Wizard believes, that in today's day and age of sports analytics, that the quantitative analysis may favor a pass heavy offense, but that this could be the prime opportunity for modernization and renewed focus on the rush attack in a time and era when defenses are being prepped more so for pass protection than run stopping.