Do running backs matter in the modern NFL?
When it comes to heated debates with two sides staunchly opposing one another, this topic ranks up there with other existential questions such as "Is climate change real?" or "Does God exist?" Every football fan - and even those who don't watch much football - seems to have an opinion on the subject.
For decades, NFL teams placed a premium on acquiring top-tier running backs through free agency, trades, and the draft. Back in 1989, the Cowboys fetched three first-round picks and additional draft capital from the Vikings for star Herschel Walker. Then a decade later, the Saints traded away their entire draft to move up to the No. 5 overall selection of the 1999 NFL Draft to select Texas star Ricky Williams.
But as the league has transitioned to becoming more pass heavy since the turn of the century, the way teams value running backs has undergone a dramatic transformation. While there are exceptions to the rule such as Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry, few big name running backs receive lucrative second contracts and many teams have found success employing a by-committee approach in the backfield.
What explains this seismic shift in the NFL? As analytics continue to become a more prominent component of how franchises conduct business, there's compelling data that suggests the value of running backs pales in comparison to other offensive skill position players, including statistical evidence indicating running games have little bearing on the effectiveness of play action passing.
While the analytics revolution has and will keep changing the way the game is played between the lines, however, the true value of running backs can't be fully stated through numbers. This is more true for some teams than others, and given coach Pete Carroll's preference for running the football and maintaining a balanced offense, the Seahawks have certainly been one of them over the years.
Coming off two subpar games by his standards in losses to the Bills and Rams where he was under constant siege with opponents not respecting the Seahawks run game and thus bringing the blitz with high frequency, Russell Wilson believes the position still holds great importance for NFL offenses and having elite players such as Chris Carson in the backfield still matters.
"I think anytime you have a great player - no matter what position it is - you always want to have those guys," Wilson said on Tuesday. "Obviously, Chris Carson is one of the best players in the game. He's phenomenal when he's in there and anytime you have a guy like that who can make plays, catch the ball, run the ball, physical in protection and all that kind of stuff, all the things he can do, you want a guy like that on your team."
After posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Carson's overall numbers had been down prior to suffering a mid-foot sprain during a Week 7 loss in Arizona. In six games, he has rushed for just 323 yards and three touchdowns, but he's still averaged nearly five yards per carry and has also caught 22 receptions for 147 yards and a trio of touchdowns as a receiver, once again showing his all-around value for Seattle.
Since exiting in the second quarter against the Cardinals, Carson has been sidelined the past three games and the Seahawks have absolutely missed his physical presence. Simply being in the backfield presents a conundrum for defenses, as he's capable of powering through defenses for 100-plus rushing yards any given Sunday and adds another dimension to the offensive attack.
Without him or veteran backup Carlos Hyde healthy, however, defenses haven't had to respect Seattle's ground game at all. As a result, coordinators have been dialing up blitzes from all levels of the field with the primary goal to rattle Wilson and the strategy has worked beautifully with the quarterback throwing four interceptions and getting sacked 11 times in the past two weeks alone.
As the coordinator calling the plays up in the skybox, Brian Schottenheimer has felt the effects of not having an impact player of Carson or Hyde's caliber available.
"I've never underestimated the value of not only one good running back, but multiple good running backs," Schottenheimer said, citing past standout backs he coached including LaDainian Tomlinson and Thomas Jones. "We're a little thin at that spot right now, but Chris can impact the game in so many ways. He can beat you running the football, he can beat you catching the football, he's excellent in pass protection."
From a play caller's perspective, Schottenheimer has absolutely seen a change in how defenses approach game planning against the Seahawks with Carson out, though it may not necessarily be in the way expected.
"Teams are trying to just test us with pressures," Schottenheimer explained. "When you have new backs, they want to throw a bunch of stuff at you because ultimately your backs are going to get caught in one-on-one pass protection when they're bringing a lot of pressure... it's a tough spot to be in when your a running back and they're bringing a lot of blitzes cause they're big, powerful guys running at you and they're good athletes."
Statistically, the slash lines for Wilson with Carson behind him and without him are staggering. In the five and half games where Carson has been available, the star quarterback threw 21 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. Per Pro Football Focus, he was the highest-graded quarterback during that span and posted a league-best 125.6 passer rating on play action passes.
In the last 14 quarters of play, however, Wilson has thrown seven touchdowns and six interceptions, doubling his pick total for the entire 2019 season. Largely due to his poor outing against the Rams, his passer rating on play action passes the past two weeks has dropped to 91.2 and he's thrown three of his four interceptions in those situations.
Digging deeper, in the six games where Carson played, Wilson has completed over 71 percent of his passes with a passer rating of 119.5 and been sacked only 17 times. In the past three with him sidelined, his completion rate has dipped five percent, his passer rating has dropped nearly 40 points, and he's been sacked a whopping 13 times.
Obviously, those dramatic shifts aren't directly correlated to Carson being out. The offensive line has struggled at times with communication against exotic blitz schemes and the typically calm and collected Wilson hasn't been consistently hitting his hot route with heat coming. When he does escape the pocket or avoid pressure, he's been forcing the issue with the football trying to make something happen, a far cry from his normally sound decision-making.
But Schottenheimer's response was telling when asked about how Carson's absence has impacted his play calling from a run-game standpoint. Though he didn't offer specifics, it's clear some of the concepts the Seahawks enjoy running are taken off the table when he's not available, which may be having a profound effect on how opponents defend them.
"There's certain things we like to do with Chris that maybe we don't carry in the same game plan with the other guys - I'm talking about play concepts - that maybe we do with Chris that we haven't done or that we do with Carlos that we haven't done and a lot that is because you've seen those guys," Schottenheimer elaborated. "It's not that I'm not comfortable calling plays with these other backs - they're doing well, they're playing fine - it's just that there's certain concepts that maybe you don't carry into a game because you're like 'eh, I like that play,' but maybe it doesn't fit this type of runner."
When it comes to how important elite running backs are compared to mid-level replacements or by-committee approaches, each team views the position a bit differently within the confines of their scheme and offensive philosophy. Different teams will also put different price tags on top backs when it's time to discuss a contract, which the Seahawks will have to address with Carson before he becomes a free agent in March.
In terms of how much value a running back truly offers to an NFL offense, the debate will continue to wage on between analytics junkies, film enthusiasts, and football purists. And there may never truly be a consensus reached on this touchy subject in the war between data and Xs and Os.
But while the other aforementioned variables have certainly influenced Wilson's recent performance and the passing game has taken precedent in today's game, there's no question Carson's injury has been a significant factor in the Seahawks recent funk. As the team tries to right the ship starting on Thursday, his return remains vital to the offense returning to pre-Week 7 form.