Running backs don’t matter.
It’s a mantra that has been screamed from the rooftops by many fans who would rather spend eternity eating shards of broken glass than spend one more minute investing resources at the running back position. For those people, the Ezekiel Elliott situation has had them seething ever since the Dallas Cowboys used their fourth overall pick to draft him in 2016, only to turn around and sign him to a six-year, $90 million deal in 2019.
After repeated years of declining production, it’s possible the Cowboys finally part ways with the veteran running back. He’s only 27, but in running-back years, that’s borderline geriatric, and plus, it’s not the age, it’s the mileage. In Zeke’s seven years in the league, he’s already rushed the ball 1,881 times, putting him third all-time on the Cowboys’ franchise leaderboard, behind Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett.
The Cowboys have an out in Elliott’s contract this offseason that will come with an $11.8 million dead money hit. That stings a bit, but it’s better than tacking on another $10.9 million, which is what it would cost the team if they kept him around another year. Of course, there are rumblings that the team could do a pay reduction and cut down that cost, but even still, they have to ask themselves, how much is Elliott truly worth?
On top of that, the Cowboys' leading rusher for the season, Tony Pollard, is hitting free agency. After a Pro Bowl season that saw him once again run the ball with an efficiency of over five yards per carry, the table is set for him to get a bag of money this offseason. Would the Cowboys dare allow one of their most explosive offensive players to walk?
These are tough questions that the Cowboys’ front office will need to sort out, but the team might want to consider letting both Zeke and Pollard leave and just hitting the reset button at running back. Why would they do that, you ask? You already know the answer.
Running backs don’t matter.
Let’s look at a team with a proven track record over the last decade to make such a case. We all know that the Kansas City Chiefs have been to the AFC Championship game in each of the last five seasons as well as making it to the Super Bowl in three of the last four. Andy Reid’s team has made it to the playoffs in eight-straight seasons. That’s amazing.
What’s also amazing is that in that span they have cycled through running backs like it’s nobody’s business. Check out their leading rushers over the last nine seasons:
- 2022 Isiah Pacheco, 7th-round pick
- 2021 Darrel Williams, UDFA
- 2020 Clyde Edwards-Helaire, 1st-round pick
- 2019 Damien Williams, UDFA
- 2018 Kareem Hunt, 3rd-round pick
- 2017 Kareem Hunt, 3rd-round pick
- 2016 Spencer Ware, 6th-round pick
- 2015 Charcandrick West, UDFA
- 2014 Jamaal Charles, 3rd-round pick
Nine seasons, eight different rushing leaders. What’s astonishing about this list is not just the carousel of running backs, but how so many of them cost the Chiefs almost nothing as most of them are Day 3 selections or went undrafted. The Chiefs can essentially plug anyone at running back and their offense doesn’t skip a beat. Over the past six seasons, Kansas City has been ranked in the top six in both points scored and yards gained. And during that time, only one time did the Chiefs’ offense finish in the top 15 in rushing yards that year. The running game was secondary, but it didn’t stop the offense from humming.
And speaking of that one time they were one of the leading rushing teams, that was during Kareem Hunt’s rookie season in 2017 and he’s the only running back on that list that shows up twice. And he likely would’ve shown up even more if he wasn’t involved in that repulsive domestic abuse incident that caused the Chiefs to cut him loose after 11 games into his second season. Without hesitation, the Chiefs moved on from their most talented running back in years, and he wasn’t missed.
Running backs don’t matter to Andy Reid.
Moving on from one head coach to another, there was a time when Mike McCarthy didn’t seem to care who was toting the rock for him either. Over his last ten seasons with the Packers, his offense finished top 10 in scoring seven times. They made the playoffs in eight of those seasons, including a Super Bowl-winning year followed by a 15-1 season. And would you believe the Packers had eight different rushing leaders in that span?
- 2018 Aaron Jones, 5th-round pick
- 2017 Jamaal Williams, 4th-round pick
- 2016 Ty Montgomery, 3rd-round pick
- 2015 Eddie Lacy, 2nd-round pick
- 2014 Eddie Lacy, 2nd-round pick
- 2013 Eddie Lacy, 2nd-round pick
- 2012 Alex Green, 3rd-round pick
- 2011 James Starks, 6th-round pick
- 2010 Brandon Jackson, 2nd-round pick
- 2009 Ryan Grant, UDFA
Like the Chiefs, the Packers are getting most of their production from guys selected in round three or later. But rather than plugging in just anyone, the Packers targeted running backs in the draft often, but just not using a premium pick to get one. This way, they always had a viable back in line to handle whatever is asked of him. And similar to Kansas City, having high rushing yards wasn’t a part of their success. Only once did the Packers finish inside the top 10 in rushing during that span and most of the time they finished 20th or worse. McCarthy’s team was 24th in rushing yards in 2010 when they won the Super Bowl and finished 27th the following season when they went 15-1.
Running backs didn’t matter to Mike McCarthy.
Those are just two teams that didn’t resort to having big-name running backs, and they don’t speak for the entire NFL, so let’s look at one more thing... Super Bowl winners. If we were to examine the running backs for each of the last six teams that hoisted the Lombardi trophy, we would again see a common theme.
- 2021 Los Angeles Rams - Sony Michel (acquired by trading two Day 3 picks) + Darrell Henderson (3rd-round pick)
- 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Ronald Jones (2nd-round pick) + Leonard Fournette (signed one-year, $2 million deal)
- 2019 Kansas City Chiefs - Damien Williams (UDFA) + LeSean McCoy (signed one-year, $3 million deal)
- 2018 New England Patriots - Sony Michel (1st-round pick) + James White (4th-round pick)
- 2017 Philadelphia Eagles - LeGarrette Blount (signed one-year, $1.25 million deal) + Jay Ajayi (acquired with 4th-round pick)
- 2016 New England Patriots - LeGarrette Blount (signed one-year, $1 million deal) + Dion Lewis (5th-round pick)
Every one of these Super Bowl winners listed finished the year top 10 in points scored and yards gained. Every one. But not every one finished the year as one of the top rushing teams. In fact, the last three Super Bowl winners each finished 23rd or worse.
What is fascinating about the above players is that every team acquired a proven veteran back at a low cost and paired them with another low-cost back. In short, Super Bowl winners aren’t spending a lot of money on running backs.
Not only do running backs not matter but looking at all this information, running the ball in general doesn’t matter. That’s not to say a team shouldn’t have a rushing attack, they most definitely should. They just shouldn’t look to make it the focal point of their offense.
For the Cowboys, this running game identity needs to go. Instead of continuing to invest in running backs, re-direct those resources to find better pass catchers and better pass protectors. And sprinkle in some low-cost pass-catching backs like Jerick McKinnon, Boston Scott, and Kenneth Gainwell.
Would it be nice to have Elliott and Pollard on this team? Sure. But is it necessary? No, it’s not. The team would be better served to find a low-cost proven veteran in free agency and throw a dart at a rookie in the draft. That way, they can use their cap space and premium draft capital on more influencing pieces to the puzzle.
Running backs don’t matter. The blueprint is there, the Cowboys just need to follow it.