As the 2000s roll on and we begin to notice changes in NFL paradigm, one claim that stands out is how the modern saying holds true: The NFL is a passing league. Gone are the days when teams would integrate a run heavy or run first gameplan. Passing the ball downfield is where it’s at!
With the exception of Ezekiel Elliot, who is on pace to rush for 1,747 yards, no starting running back is likely to reach 1,500 yards. Just ten years ago there were five running backs who eclipsed that milestone (LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, Frank Gore, Tiki Barber, and Steven Jackson).
Last season alone seemed to be particularly dismal for rushing with Adrian Peterson leading the league with 1,485 yards, the third lowest for a league-leading rusher since 1990. Interestingly enough, from 1990 to 1997, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith each lead the NFL in rushing yards four times. Eric Dickerson dominated most of the 1980s as the leading rusher, passing 1,600 yards for three seasons.
Stats aside, the NFL simply feels increasingly more like a passing league year after year. When you think of the most talented running backs in the NFL in 2016, who comes to mind? Le’Veon Bell? If he can stay healthy and prove he’s an every down back, he’s a sure talent. David Johnson? He’s playing very well this season and is definitely a contender, even if it’s still early in his career. LeSean McCoy? As shifty and multi-faceted as they come. Then of course, it would appear that Ezekiel Elliot is turning into a stud. What about when you think of the most talented quarterbacks? Your selections to choose from may seem obvious, but they’re also more up for debate. Some might say Tom Brady, Aaron Rogers, Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, or Matthew Stafford to name a few. Gosh, take your pick.
I have a couple of theories of why this shift in football culture and play-calling has finally arrived. First and foremost, NFL players are bigger, heavier, and in some cases, fatter, than they were 10, 20, and 30 years ago. The following graphs tell the whole story. While defensive players have gained more weight, running backs have not shown as drastic an increase and are actually smaller in height.
If defensive players have gotten larger over the years, running through tackles will inflict more of a physical toll on an offensive player’s body. According to www.livestrong.com, running backs have the shortest life spans in the NFL, averaging just 2.57 years. This makes sense since workhorse running backs can be hit 20, even 30 times a game. Wide Receivers usually don’t make 20 or 30 catches a game, and linebackers usually don’t record 20 or 30 tackles a game. This realization goes hand in hand with the progression towards a balanced offensive attack that became more popular after the 1970s. Teams began throwing the ball more, and nowadays, it’s the favorable play-calling option.
My other theory as to why teams are rushing the ball less is the evolution of the quarterback position. Some quarterbacks are pocket passers, some prefer the three step drop, some are scramblers and throw on the run, and some even like to run the ball themselves. The quarterbacks has evolved into such a dynamic position that defenses must account for various types of plays. Running quarterbacks are, in essence, stealing what could be potential running plays from running backs.
And if nothing else, passing the ball is just more exciting than running the ball. Teams like to employ the deep pass as well as brainstorm different route possibilities. A long pass play fires up the team and few running plays go for long gains. Coming up with new plays will always be an option at the coach’s disposal. Football schematics is an art after all.