It appears the National Football League has entered another stage in its evolution. The use of a single running back designed to receive dozens of touches per game has now developed into a committee of role playing, yet capable running backs.
The New York Jets, who had three backs surpass the 100 rush attempt mark in '06, implemented the committee approach after losing future Hall of Famer Curtis Martin to injury. Kevan Barlow scored a team-high six rushing touchdowns and rushed for 370 yards on his 131 attempts while Cedric Houston registered five rushing scores and 374 yards on 113 carries. Although rookie Leon Washington emerged as the team leader in both carries (151) and rush yards (650), the future of the Green and White ground game may remain a group effort.
"One thing I will say about our rushing game, we did have 1,700 yards and 15 touchdowns as a team," said first year GM Mike Tannenbaum in his season wrap-up address with the local media. "I know it was more of a running back by committee, but there still was a level of production. We are going to take a long hard look at it to see what we can do better, but some of the pieces are here."
If there is a sense of surprise or bewilderment by the Jets faithful at this idea, just look at the proof of the committee success throughout the rest of the NFL.
"One thing we've seen in the league over the past few years is running back-by-committee really has evolved. You could look at New England, Dallas, Atlanta, and all around the league. Jacksonville has a good running back in Fred Taylor, and then they went and drafted a guy like Maurice Jones-Drew, so I think that position is evolving to where it's more than just one person," Tannenbaum added following the Jets' 10-6 season. "We've been a little bit of the exception here with Curtis Martin for so many years, but I think from a macro-standpoint, what we've seen league-wide is more than one guy running the ball for each team."
If that is not convincing enough evidence, then examine the National Football League's "final four" heading into conference championship weekend. Each team has used a running back committee all season long.
In the AFC, the Colts balanced the workload with rookie Joseph Addai (226 carries, 40 receptions and eight total touchdowns) and Dominic Rhodes (187 carries, 36 receptions and five rush touchdowns). The Patriots almost evenly split the regular season ground workload between Corey Dillon (199 carries, 812 rushing yards) and rookie Laurence Maroney (175 carries, 745 rushing yards). That two-headed monster combined to collect 19 regular season rush touchdowns, but Kevin Faulk led all Pats' backs in receptions (43), receiving yards (356), and receiving touchdowns (2). The versatile Faulk paced the Patriots' rushing attack Sunday in San Diego, and his fourth quarter two-point conversion was one of the game's most critical plays.
In the NFC, the Bears have effectively used Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson all season, with each of them accounting for six rushing touchdowns apiece. They combined to gross 1,857 rush yards, but Jones was more of a threat in the pass game as he hauled in 36 catches.
The Bears' counterparts for the NFC Championship game however may possibly be the most interesting and effective story of the 2006 running back by committee tale. Veteran Deuce McAllister registered a team-high 1,057 rushing yards this season on 244 carries. Even though McAllister has four 1,000-yard rushing seasons in six years in the Big Easy, it was the addition of fellow running back Reggie Bush who provided the Saints' offensive backfield with another dimension.
Bush carried the ball 155 times for 565 yards and six touchdowns, but it wasn't necessarily his stats that led the Saints to their unparalleled offensive success (New Orleans ranked number one in total yards per game in 2006). Bush's athleticism gave head coach Sean Payton the flexibility to line him over the field and serve as not just a multi-talented threat but also a decoy on almost every snap. The former Heisman Trophy Award winner completed his first regular season in the NFL with 88 catches for 742 yards and forced opposing defenses to spread out, opening more holes for McAllister. (It didn't hurt that quarterback Drew Brees played out of his mind either.)
Just as Bush opened many doors for the Saints' offense, Washington opened some for the Jets' offense. The fourth round pick from Florida State had 25 catches out of the backfield, including a 64-yard reception against Miami in the Jets' must-win game on Christmas Night. Washington was always a threat because of his ability to break a long run or reception.
"How many reps he gets will ultimately be Eric's call," Tannenbaum said of Washington. "I am really impressed with specifically is he got better at the skill sets that we asked him to get better at in May. He took the coaching well and worked on skill development. By him doing that, he earned the right to play more.
"He earned the right to be there on third down. There are a lot of running backs in this league that aren't on the field on third down because they cannot protect the quarterback - he could. He is highly competitive. The game is not too big for him."
"Leon has done a lot of different things really well," head coach Eric Mangini said of Washington. "He has caught the ball out of the backfield effectively at times, even if it's not necessarily a designed route - if it's just a check down where he's the outlet. He can make things happen with the ball in his hands after he gets it in space. I think he's done some nice things on the perimeter runs and draws."
But Washington wasn't alone in the emergence of the Jets' widespread offensive production. In a system that thrives off of multiple looks and schemes, many players led the Green and White back to the postseason.
"It's guys like Brad Smith," added Mangini. "There are so many guys like that, where they go out there and do something really well and help the team. You want to give them the chance to do that again."
Smith made the conversion from prolific collegiate quarterback to the Jets' slash player on offense. After being selected in the fourth round, Smith was initially labeled a wide receiver in transition. Soon thereafter, the Jets' PR Department added him as the fourth string quarterback and running back on the depth chart. Even though Smith's stats weren't overwhelming (nine receptions, 18 rushes), it was his presence on the field that made defenders wary.
"I think you do need more than one guy at most positions from a cap standpoint, from a 53-man roster standpoint and from a 16-game standpoint," said Tannenbaum. "Regardless of the position, it's a long season and you need meaningful contributions from a lot of players."
The Jets will probably add to their backfield competition in the months to come, but they will continue to need contributions from more than just one workhorse in the offensive backfield.