Running backs don’t matter.
If you are on the internet reading football takes, you’ve probably heard this one floated out there plenty of times. The idea is that running the football is a less-efficient way of playing offense, and that spending early draft capital on a seemingly replaceable position is a poor way of building a roster.
In some cases, this bears out. There is no statistically significant correlation between rushing success and play action success, nor is there any connection between teams who rush for the most yards in a season and number of wins in that same season. Passing has become more important than running for a plethora of reasons, and many of the numbers back this assumption up.
But then there are truly special running backs. Guys like the two starters in this week’s divisional match up between the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams. Guys who are out to prove that running backs do matter to an offense, and are/will be looking to be paid like it.
Guys like Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley.
Two of the league’s leading rushers in 2018, and the All Pro running backs for this season, Elliott and Gurley look to be a different breed of back. Old school runners with a new school pass catching twist, both Elliott and Gurley can provide value for their respective offenses in a variety of ways.
Both Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley caught upwards of 75 passes this season, with Gurley even surpassing the 80 catch mark. Both went well over 1,000 rushing yards this season as well, with both players even doing it in less than 16 games.
There’s no question these are two of the best running backs in all football, and are expected to be catalysts of their respective offenses for a long time.
Still, more advanced numbers show even these two great backs may be “replaceable.”
Not only did CJ Anderson replicate much of Gurley’s production in his absence over the final two regular season games, but expected points added per touch suggests that Ezekiel Elliott is actually one of the Cowboys’ least efficient targets on their offense. Of course, this has less to do with Elliott’s ability and more to do with the type of targets and carries he gets throughout the game, but it is an interesting point nonetheless.
When you also consider how effective the Pittsburgh Steelers were at getting production out of backup running backs during Le’veon Bell’s holdout, and how quickly DeMarco Murray fell off after leaving the Cowboys’ offense and aging a bit, it’s fair to wonder what the market price for a RB1 should be.
If any running backs are going to change the perception around the league that the position is replaceable, or that they shouldn’t be paid like the top skill players at other positions on the offense, Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley are the ones to do it.
Saturday night provides yet another gigantic, national stage for both these young stars to prove they’re worth earn every penny they will be paid during their careers. Even if some continue to question the overall value of the position.
After all when you watch either of these offenses, especially that of the Dallas Cowboys, it begins to feel like running backs matter a lot.