Why Do Running Backs "Slow Down" After Productive Seasons?
Written by Ben Riad
Over the past decade, there have been many talented running backs, but have you ever noticed that only a few of them seem to have long, consistent careers? In this article, I am going to take you through the careers of 10 players, some who have years left and some who are out of the league. Let's try to figure out why these guys can not seem to sustain long, productive careers like other skill players and many defensive positions.
First, we will look at Adrian Peterson. He is one of the outliers in terms of guys who were able to sustain success over a long period of time. Peterson had 8 seasons where he had over 235 carries. That means he averaged at least 14.5 carries a game over those seasons. That is a lot of work for a running back considering that they take so many hits every game. He had a stretch from 2008-2013 where he played at least 12 games. That is pretty impressive considering so many players get hurt, but even Peterson could not break out of the running back curse. From 2014-2017, he missed a whopping 37 games! Clearly all the hits he took early on in his career took a toll on him. To his credit, he bounced back and has had 2 productive seasons over the last 2 years.
Next we will check out LeSean McCoy. McCoy has been in the league for 11 years, and has been on 3 different teams. In 2011, he was named 1st team All Pro, but in 2012 he ended up missing 4 games and had 840 yards and 2 touchdowns. For a guy who was an All Pro, that is a big loss. Following a rough 2012, McCoy had his best year with 1607 yards and 8 touchdowns. Then just two seasons later, McCoy went back to roughly 800 yards rushing and only 3 touchdowns. He still played double digit games, but his production just was not there. Coincidentally, that was his first year with a new team. When he transitioned from the Eagles to the Bills, it seemed like he lost a step. He was never able to return to form and was no longer an elite back.
After McCoy, let's talk about Marshawn Lynch also known as Beast Mode. He has been in the league for 13 seasons and his career has been a roller coaster. His first 2 years in Buffalo were pretty productive, posting 1,000 yard seasons and 7 and 8 touchdowns respectively. In his third season, he was injured and only played 6 games. He was promptly traded to the Seahawks after playing 4 games for the Bills in 2010. He had a decent amount of touches, but his yardage output was lower than expected for a player playing 16 games. Are you starting to notice a common theme? I will expand on this later, but it seems like when a trade is made, the first few seasons are rough for the rusher. After a shaky first 12 games, Beast Mode had 4 really productive seasons with 1,000 yards rushing and double digit touchdowns. By that point he was 28 years old. In 2015 he had another lackluster season and only played 7 games due to an injury. He then signed with Oakland (now Las Vegas) and had an okay season, but couldn’t gain over 1,000 yards or double digits touchdowns. In his second season with the Raiders he only played 6 games.
Following Beast Mode, we have DeMarco Murray. He played a mere 7 seasons in the league for 3 different teams. The pattern remains consistent. When Murray went from the Cowboys to the Eagles, he underperformed. Coming off a 1,800 yard season with 13 touchdowns, he had only 702 yards and 6 touchdowns. His usage went way down, but again, when a running back switches teams, his production goes down. Oddly enough, when Murray went to the Titans, he had a 1,200 yard season with 9 touchdowns. This goes against the trend, but in his last year in the NFL, Murray played 15 games but only had 659 yards with 6 touchdowns. Derrick Henry definitely played a role in Murray’s numbers being so low. Overall though, Murray had a pretty good career, but 7 seasons is quite short for a player of his caliber.
Finally, we have Jamaal Charles. He played for 11 years and 3 different teams. After getting 230 carries in his 3rd season, Charles only played 2 games in the following season due to injury. It looks like the workload got to him and kept him off of the field. He followed that up with 3 productive seasons, but then he followed that by playing 8 games in 2 seasons. After his time with the Chiefs was done, his career was basically over. He played 16 games in his final 2 seasons and was not very successful with the Broncos and Jaguars respectively. While playing 14 games with the Broncos, Charles only had 69 carries, significantly less than what he is used to. He was 31 and nearing the end of his career which is probably the best explanation for him falling off a cliff statistically speaking.
Here is the big question: Why can’t these top rushers keep pace more many years in a row? One big reason is that a lot of these guys left a system and had to learn a whole new system. Fitting into a new system is not easy, and most of these guys learned that quickly by having low production seasons when they joined new teams. Many people underestimate how hard it is to learn a new system and to build a chemistry with the offensive line to really get the most out of the touches that they get. Also, many of these backs are getting 200-350 touches a season. Behind quarterbacks, these rushers are touching the ball very often. Unlike quarterbacks, these running backs finish runs by getting tackled or taking many hits throughout a running play. These hits clearly take a toll on rushers because very few stayed healthy for a long periods of time. The final reason is age. Many of these guys play past their prime so they end up taking backup roles or splitting the backfield with younger guys. This hurts their stats and overall production because they are getting less touches and their bodies are pretty worn down. While there is probably no solution to this, running backs should do their best to get paid fast because they peak early in their careers and only a few can sustain that level of play for their entire career.
**All the stats are from Pro Football Reference**