The Rapid Ascension and Sudden Decline of NFL Running Backs

By Sammy Bovitz

I remember watching Todd Gurley in 2017. He was incredible, consistently putting up a brilliant performance and making defenses across the league fearful of his talent. He was a legitimate candidate for the 2017 MVP, and some still believe he should’ve won it. His expertise was rewarded in July of 2018 with a 4 year, $57.5 million extension, and many commended the deal as well worth the price tag. 

Just a year and a half after the extension, Gurley is no longer considered in the elite tier of running backs. So what happened? Gurley developed arthritis in his knee before the 2018 season ended. This injury derailed perhaps his entire career, as this year he is no longer the dominant, feared player  as he was for the last two years. Sadly, this is not a unique story. Running backs only average about 2.57 years in their career, the shortest average span of any position in the physically taxing NFL. This means the running backs considered to be the best in the league are rapidly changing. 

Rushing yards, which measures the yards a player gains when running the football, isn’t exactly the most telling stat, but it can be used here to illustrate this point. From 2010 to 2018, there were 7 different rushing yard leaders. The only ones to have multiple crowns were Adrian Peterson and Ezekiel Elliott. In 2019, it looks like we’ll have a new champion again, with Nick Chubb, Christian McCaffrey, and Derrick Henry in the top 3, none of whom have ever won a rushing yards title. In fact, only 3 people have won multiple titles this century: Peterson, Elliott, and LaDainian Tomlinson. This is a very telling sign that the title of best running back varies greatly from year to year, or minute by minute if you go by the name of Skip Bayless. 

Let’s look at a stat that’s a bit more subjective. Fantasy football is a hugely popular game in which no one knows what they are doing no matter how many 1,000-page guides they read. This isn’t an attack on fantasy “experts”, but there are injuries and so many unpredictable factors that you simply are not able to predict before the season starts and the games begin. No one predicts accurately when the 6th round guy out of Purdue rushes for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns. However, it is usually very clear who the best football player for fantasy is each year, and they thus are always taken with the first overall pick. I looked at the average first overall pick from each year of the 2010s, and here is that list: 

2010- Chris Johnson, running back, Tennessee

2011- Adrian Peterson, running back, Minnesota

2012- Arian Foster, running back, Houston

2013- Peterson

2014- LeSean McCoy, running back, Philadelphia

2015- Peterson

2016- Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh

2017- David Johnson, running back, Arizona

2018- Todd Gurley, running back, Los Angeles

2019- Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Dallas

Obviously Peterson is the exception, not the rule. All of these no.1 picks’ status have changed. Chris Johnson, Arian Foster, and Antonio Brown are all out of the league. Gurley had the aforementioned arthritis in his knees. David Johnson got knocked out with an injury minutes into his no.1 fantasy pick season, and is no longer even a top-5 running back. Even Peterson is now bouncing around the league, now playing for the lowly Washington. Elliott is still a great running back but it appears Saquon Barkley will take the top fantasy spot next year after his dominance continued without the sophomore slump some predicted. 

The pattern I’m noticing here tells me my theory is correct: Injuries, retirements, and improvements of younger running backs make the position of top running back hard to hold for a long time. But I don’t just want to sit back and pretend that I’m a football genius, so I wanted to do two more things first. I went back and looked at the rushing yards leaders by season again, and when I looked beyond the 21st century, I noticed that guys like Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, OJ Simpson, and Emmitt Smith won the rushing yards crown many times. Is there something I’m missing? Was it somehow easier to get yards back then as opposed to now, or were there simply less good running backs? I wasn’t sure, so I wanted to look at one last stat: how many running backs are in the league at a time, and graphed 35 years of NFL running backs. Maybe the secret of Barry Sanders and Jim Brown was simply a process of elimination. Perhaps they were the only good running backs of their time. It took a long time, but I did it. 

Chart by Sammy Bovitz

Two things here. One, it is heavily apparent that I have too much time on my hands. Two, look at this graph! It’s fascinating. It mostly flatlines for the entire graph except for two jumps. I thought there was some complicated reason for this involving running backs, but it was much simpler than I thought. 

The first year in the graph is 1969. The AFL-NFL merger took place in 1970, leading to more teams in the NFL. This of course means a gigantic jump in running backs, from 95 to 158. The graph mostly hovers around there until 1987, where it jumps to 300. This was only because of the large-scale NFL strike, causing the league to find and play many replacement players, including running backs. Other than that, the number of running backs hover from around 160 to 190, without many years with more or less running backs. 

But that still doesn’t answer my question of why running backs like Jim Brown and Barry Sanders were able to sustain their rushing crowns for so long. Why were they able to continue to dominate then when now, in an age of prime athletic health and medical achievement, no one can keep a rushing yards crown for longer than two years? That’s a question I could not figure out. This mission has not succeeded, but that honestly wasn’t too far from unexpected. NFL running backs are not an exact science, and will likely stay that way as the NFL continues to evolve and change.