We’ve all been hearing it for a while now. “Running backs don’t matter, stop paying running backs, running backs are replaceable.” Yet, teams keep dishing out big contracts to arguably the least important position on the field.
Let’s take a look at the top-five highest paid running backs in the league right now and how their teams are doing:
1. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys (5-4)
2. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams (5-4)
3. Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets (2-7)
4. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals (3-6-1)
5. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons (2-7)
Three of these teams are just flat-out bad, and the other two have significantly underperformed. There is a real possibility that none of these five teams will make the playoffs this season. It sure doesn’t seem like paying an elite running back is the formula to winning.
Now, there are a lot of analytics out there that will tell you that the running back is the most replaceable position in football, that the running game is based more on offensive line play than the running back itself and in the grand scheme of modern football, running backs are an added bonus, but not something to base your offense around.
However, if you’re not an analytics person, none of that means anything. So I’m here to provide hard evidence based on history that running backs do not fuel winning.
Every NFL team’s goal is to win a Super Bowl. Championships are the name of the game in every sport. If the season ends and your team isn’t holding a trophy, then you didn’t reach your ultimate goal. To show how unimportant running backs are in the quest for championships, I’m going to list the leading rushers for every Super-Bowl-winning team since the start of this century.
Jamal Lewis, Antowain Smith, Michael Pittman, Antowain Smith (2), Corey Dillon, Willie Parker, Joseph Addai, Brandon Jacobs, Willie Parker (2), Pierre Thomas, Brandon Jackson, Ahmad Bradshaw, Ray Rice, Marshawn Lynch, Jonas Gray, Ronnie Hillman, LeGarrette Blount, LeGarrette Blount (2) and Sony Michel.
Read that list again. With the exception of Lynch, there is no hall-of-fame caliber player on this list. In fact, even though there are a few quality running backs on the list, I wouldn’t call any of them elite other than Lynch, Dillon and maybe Rice.
Exactly zero of these guys led the league in rushing the year their teams won the Super Bowl. None of them were named to the All-Pro team in those seasons either. Only Lynch, Rice and Lewis ever made an All-Pro team in their careers.
The only players on this list that were even Pro Bowlers in the seasons their teams hoisted the Lombardi Trophy were Dillon, Rice and Lynch, and only Lewis, Parker and Addai additionally ever made a Pro Bowl. That means that in 12 out of the last 19 years, the Super Bowl champion featured a lead running back that never played at even a Pro-Bowl level in their careers, much less an elite level.
If that’s not evidence that running backs don’t win titles, then I don’t know what is.
Like I said, most of these guys were fine running backs, but barely any of them altered an offense. Heck, some of them aren’t even good at all. I mean, Jonas Gray is on this list.
Half these guys didn’t even run for 1,000 yards in these seasons, as many of the teams featured running backs by committee, namely the Patriots teams in this decade.
The bottom line is you don’t need a Zeke, Gurley or Saquon-level guy in your backfield. All you need is a decent back who can complement the passing game and pick up some yards.
Championships aren’t built on great running backs. They are built on great quarterbacks and great defenses. If you cheer for a team that is trying to win a Super Bowl by paying an elite running back, I’m sorry. History is not on your side.