Now I will not spend too much time looking at those numbers, because there is truth that passing numbers are inflated, and passing yards can be an over valued statistic. But the point remains that the NFL is a passing league. A perfect example is this graphic that charts the evolution of the game by monitoring the change in the pass to run ratio in the league.
|chart by Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats|
According to Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics, that trend continued through the past two seasons, with a rise to 34.3 pass plays and down to only 26.9 runs per game. So how could 2012 be any different?
It won't. Ok, wait a minute, I just told you that 2012 could be the best season for running backs since the great season of 2006, but nothings going to change? What gives? And what was so special about 2006?
I will explain, but let's talk about 2006 first. In 2006 LaDanian Tomlinson was with the San Diego Chargers, and he was at his peak. That season he ran for 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns. He averaged a gaudy 5.2 yards per carry. He reigned supreme among running backs that year, as only the Chiefs' Larry Johnson even came close to his totals, with 1,789 yards of his own. Despite their dominant seasons, those guys were not alone. In fact, that season a remarkable 22 backs toppled over the 1,000 yard barrier, which stands as the 2nd most in league history. Yet there is something else that stands out about that season as particularly interesting.
I looked at the top ten running backs in terms of receptions for each of the last six seasons. I then averaged their reception total. Likewise, among the top ten for each season (still based on receptions), I averaged their receiving yards. It was then to my surprise that I found out that the best year was 2006 as well. In 2006 the top ten "receiving-backs" averaged 63.7 receptions and 544.8 yards over the course of the season. That is 6 receptions and 50 yards more on average than 2011.
Now this does not suggest a trend, but rather it shows why, at a glance, 2006 was such a special year for backs. Since this caught me off guard, I wanted to look a little more at the top ten "receiving backs" of 2011.
Chris Johnson held out last year and it not only hurt him, but his team as well. It took about two months before he really hit his stride and became the dangerous player that everyone knows he can be. This year with the contract issues behind him and a year in Mike Munchak's offense, CJ1k should return to his dominant form in both phases of the game.
Arian Foster has emerged out of nowhere to become one of the league's elite backs. Last season he had some major hurdles with his lingering hamstring injury and the loss of Matt Schaub down the stretch. Both of those severely impacted him and he still put up great numbers. Expect him to have a monster year, especially if he can continue to average over 10 yards per reception.
Matt Forte continues to grab headlines because of the lack of a long term contract. I was never a huge Forte fan, but he has won me over as he continues to produce and show his dedication and toughness. I don't expect a holdout this year, as the Bears simply cannot afford it. Put his knee injury behind him and add Brandon Marshall to the offense and you can count on increased production from this work horse.
Ryan Matthews has been labeled as a breakout player for both of his first two years and we have yet to see it. What we have seen from Matthews is the rare explosiveness that helped him get drafted in the 1st round. What we haven't seen is durability and the intangibles that would keep him on the field more than his counterparts. However he appears healthy. Going into his 3rd year he should be much improved in pass protection as well. Add to that the fact the Mike Tolbert is now in Carolina, and Matthews' production could and should soar to new heights.
The Redskins grabbed a young stud running back out of Nebraska last year, but almost refused to use him even when they were decimated with injuries and lack of production. However when Hightower was lost for the year and Torrain proved he couldn't produce on a consistent basis, the Shanahan's finally caved and gave the reigns to Roy Helu. All he did was put up over 100 all-purpose yards in 4 of the 5 games in which he touched the ball over 15 times. Another year to master the nuances of an NFL system should do wonders for the 2nd year back. Additionally do not under estimate the impact that an athletic QB like RG3 has on the run game. Like we have seen with Vick and Young, a QB with the ability to make plays with his feet forces the backside to play honest. If they don't play honest, the boot game that Shanahan loves, will destroy opposing defenses. I expect Helu to be the starter and to have a huge year.
The Eagles had a dream last season that turned into a nightmare. However despite the chaos that surrounded the team, Shady McCoy turned out a spectacular season in which he was an early season MVP candidate. With much of the drama from '11 behind them you can expect the Eagles to be an elite team this season on both sides of the ball. Vick and DeSean will rebound from a down year and it will only open up the offense that much more. Shady will continue to produce, with more production in the passing game this year.
I particularly like Bush and McCluster because I can see both being used more in a passing role on their offenses. Bush will be pushed by Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller, so I expect Philbin to find a home for him flexed out and in the slot in his wide open west coast system.
Kansas City already has a crowded backfield with Jamal Charles and Peyton Hillis looking to share reps, so wisely, Romeo Crennel has already said that the team will look for more ways to get the ball to McCluster. He is a player that excels in the open field, whether on special teams or in the passing game. Expect McCluster to be used a lot like the Saints have used Bush and Sproles with a combination of him in the slot and as a flanker. Additionally we should expect a lot of two back sets that will allow him to chip and release.
Other notable backs that will shine, especially in the passing game this year include Maurice Jones-Drew, Fred Jackson, Ray Rice and Tampa's rookie running back Doug Martin. Last but not least, if they can stay healthy (which seems unlikely), Darren McFadden and Jahvid Best can move their names into the conversation as the top producing backs of 2012.