The Future of the NFL, Today: A look at 2016’s most important game

By Aaron Weiss

On Thursday night the Green Bay Packers faced off against the Chicago Bears, and came away with a pretty dominant win. After a slow first half, Aaron Rodgers came into form, and the Bears couldn’t hang on with Matt Barkley at the helm. While this was a mostly ugly game, it also was, most likely, the most significant game of this NFL season, primarily because of Randall Cobb and Ty Montgomery.

I single out these two because they were the primary “running backs” for the Packers with Eddie Lacy heading to the injured reserve, and James Starks out with a knee injury. Yet, in spite of the Pack resorting to these WRs to carry the rock on 61% of the running plays on the night, the pair managed to outrun Chicago’s legitimate running backs, accounting for 79% of Green Bay’s rushing yards on the night (the pair had 81 of 103). The two WRs averaged 5.78 yards per rush, which would rank 8th highest this year among RB’s who have had at least 14 carries, again, as many as the Packers duo had. These were the 7 “backs” with higher averages per rush:

  1. QB Marcus Mariota – 7.3 yard avg on 27 carries
  2. RB Mike Gillislee – 6.9 yard avg on 17 carries
  3. QB Tyrod Taylor – 6.9 yard avg on 34 carries
  4. RB Jalen Richard – 6.3 yard avg on 29 carries
  5. RB Danny Woodhead – 6.1 yard avg on 19 carries
  6. QB Andrew Luck – 6.0 yard avg on 22 carries
  7. RB Bilal Powell – 6.0 yard avg on 20 carries

Half of that list is quarterbacks. All four RB’s are backups, one of whom is currently on IR, and none of whom have over 50 carries (the top 24 backs this year have over 50 carries) . There is no question that if these backs had more carries their averages would go down (the highest average from a “starting” running back is LeSean McCoy’s 5.4 yards), and while the same probably can be said for the Packers’ dynamic duo, there is something to be said for the versatility Cobb and Montgomery provide. In addition to their work on the ground, the duo combined for 21 receptions for 161 yards and a TD. And while we can question their ability to produce on the ground, their ability as receivers is well known, especially in the case of Cobb.

While we are a long way away from this, I believe this game was the first indication of an NFL where traditional running backs no longer exist. There will always be a need to run the ball, but the running back is no longer a player worthwhile in his own right. Of the top ten RB’s last year, 6 have played 4 games or less this year, due to injury (AP, Doug Martin, Chris Ivory, Latavius Murray, Darren McFadden, & Jonathan Stewart, half of whom are struggling with more severe injuries). Of the remaining four, only two (Devonta Freeman and Frank Gore) are current top 10 RBs. Todd Gurley is struggling in LA, and DeAngelo Williams is a backup in Pittsburgh (and hurting).

The top ten RB’s of 2014 are remarkably doing a little better than last year’s crew, with 6 playing 5 games or more this year (although one of the 4 that hasn’t, Le’Veon, will far outplay on of the ones that has, the now IR’d Lacy). 4 of 2014’s top 10 are currently in this year’s top ten (DeMarco Murray, McCoy, Lamar Miller, and Gore). 3 from 2013 (DeMarco, McCoy, Gore) and 1 from 2012’s top 10 backs (Gore) are in this year’s top 10. On the other side, less than half of the top 10 paid RB’s this year (by yearly average) are current top 10 backs, with 5 backs coming off of or currently having an injury. Clearly, unless your Frank Gore, dependability is not common amongst top NFL running backs.

While there are some organizations that are basing their offensive attack through premier running backs, such as Dallas (the only team to run more rushing plays than passing), Tennessee, San Francisco, and others, in most cases teams can make do with just average backs. In the case of the Cowboys, the NFL’s most dominant rushing team with Ezekiel Elliott, they have had a top 5 back each of the past 4 years (including this year) with 3 different backs (DeMarco twice, McFadden once, and now Zeke). So while Ezekiel is a stud, there is no doubt that the success of that running game comes more from the men in the trenches than the man holding the rock.

While I have all of these numbers to make my case, it still remains unclear if WR’s or hybrid athletes can really replace running backs, as it’d never really been done until this past Thursday, and it’ll be interesting going forward if the Packers continue to predominantly use the WR duo, or instead turn the ball over to the newly acquired Knile Davis. In the end, I suspect that somewhere down the line, 10 to 15 years from now, high profile running backs will be ancient history. Whether I’m right or wrong, it should be fun to watch the Green Bay backfield in the upcoming weeks against Atlanta (11th ranked run D), Indianapolis (25th ranked run D) and Tennessee (7th ranked run D).

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