Running back is debatably the most under-appreciated position in professional football.
It’s ironic when you think about how many popular backs there are in the NFL. In 2019, the third-highest selling NFL jersey belongs to Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. The sixth-highest is New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley. Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffery was a hot name for the MVP award earlier this season — and Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley can frequently be seen on television doing advertisements for Hulu.
There are two things all these backs have in common: They are considered elite, and their teams are underperforming. None of it is their fault — but it is a simplistic way of showing how insignificant an elite running back is to the success of a season. In fact, there is an interesting theme among the top tier of the league this year.
The six highest-scoring teams in the NFL all use a multiple-running back approach.
- Baltimore Ravens: Mark Ingram has 37% of the team’s attempts and Gus Edwards has 20%.
- San Francisco 49ers: Tevin Coleman has 30% of the team’s attempts, Matt Breida has 27% and Raheem Mostert has 23%.
- Kansas City Chiefs: LeSean McCoy and Damien Williams each have 31% of the team’s attempts.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ronald Jones has 40% of the team’s attempts and Peyton Barber has 39%.
- Seattle Seahawks: While Chris Carson does have 61% of the team’s attempts this season, his backfield partner Rashaad Penny has been used frequently when healthy and has gotten 42% of the rushes in the last two games.
- New England Patriots: Their lead back Sony Michel does have 55% of the team’s attempts, but we all know how much they interchange that position with James White, Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden.
Five of these teams have eight wins or more — and four of them own the NFL’s best record at 10-2. Does the mere fact that these franchises use more than one running back cause their success? Obviously not — but the successful teams are usually the smartest, and the smartest teams have a reason for everything they do.
It may be a pain for your fantasy football team — but the running back-by-committee approach can be a big advantage for a contender.
The Chiefs are in position to reap the benefits of this strategy.
First of all, the Chiefs have talent in their backfield — McCoy is a proven commodity, Damien Williams can make plays, Darrel Williams runs hard, rookie Darwin Thompson has shown glimpses and recently-signed veteran back Spencer Ware is a similar back to Darrel Williams. With Williams suffering a hamstring injury in Week 13, the Ware signing makes sense.
Wear-and-tear for a running back is a legitimate concern. The more attempts a back gets, the more likely he is to collect bruises, aches and other nagging issues that can linger throughout a season. When a back is touted as the bell cow, he rarely gets rest for the minor pains because it’s natural for that position. It can add up and lead to fatigue and less effectiveness at the end of seasons — like Gurley’s situation with the Rams last year.
The committee approach eliminates long-term and short-term overwork. Damien Williams’ 19 carries against the Tennessee Titans was the only instance of a Chiefs running back getting more than 13 carries in a game this season. This balanced distribution of reps is important because it keeps each player rested play to play, so each can be at full-speed for each snap.
It’s also important in an injury scenario like the Chiefs are currently facing. The absence of running backs Damien and Darrel Williams can be made up for by McCoy, Thompson and Ware. They all should be familiar enough with the offense. The ability to trust the rest of the backs creates minimal pressure to rush either Williams back. Let them get healthy. The rest of the backfield is capable of similar production — mainly because the unit isn’t consistently productive anyways.
Nor does it need to be.
Early-down pass rates pending MNF pic.twitter.com/QW9HjCT5et— new-age analytical (@benbbaldwin) December 2, 2019
As much as it seems like Chiefs head coach Andy Reid runs on every second down-and-long, his offense has by far the most throws on the first two downs in the league. If a team throws that much on run downs, it’s important to have running backs that can catch out of the backfield. Different types of receivers in one unit can be hard to game plan for — especially if the backs can do a little bit of everything.
Damien Williams has the straight-ahead speed and the ability to succeed on vertical routes up the field. McCoy’s shiftiness in space makes him great for screen passes and other quick hitters. Darrel Williams gets downhill on the designed swing pass to the flat and makes plays. Thompson seems to be athletic enough to win in open space. The only evidence we have of that is his receiving touchdown from preseason Week 1.
2019 Receiving stats for Chiefs running backs
LeSean McCoy - 31 targets, 27 catches, 177 yards, 1 TD
Damien Williams - 27 targets, 23 catches, 156 yards, 1 TD
Darrel Williams - 19 targets, 15 catches, 167 yards, 1 TD
That balance comes from Reid knowing how to utilize each back’s skill set to exploit particular matchups.
The most significant advantage of this strategy is the fresh legs the backs will have when the postseason arrives. Last season, we saw how effective it could be. Damien Williams was thrust into action towards the end of the season with seldom playing time beforehand. He became impressively dynamic — especially during his three-touchdown performance in the AFC championship game.
While the absences are hopefully temporary, Thompson has a similar opportunity. If he does catch fire, Reid would be smart to ride the hot hand. If everyone’s healthy, there will be four useful running backs and a tough decision to make. The Chiefs usually only activate three.
In December and January, that’s a good problem to have.