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PFT Daily: The death of the workhorse tailback

With the Chargers cutting running back LaDainian Tomlinson a year after they likely wanted to, a strong message has been sent to teams who find themselves feeding the ball over and over again to a young tailback.

You’re asking for trouble.

Tomlinson’s departure validates the trend away from using one primary guy in the running game.  (The success of the Saints and their three-headed attack helps put the workhorse concept out of its misery, too.)

But enough writing.  Time for talking.  So spend a couple of minutes of your lunch break hearing what we have to say about the future of one of the most glamorous — and most fungible — positions in all of sports.

 
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34 Responses to “PFT Daily: The death of the workhorse tailback”
  1. djn21 says: Feb 23, 2010 12:05 PM

    At the end of the day, a tailback is one of the 2-3 most important playmakers on an offense. Tailbacks are not all created equal. For teams who have the luxury, a little variety/pacing is great. But some teams don’t have that luxury. Some teams have 1 clear-cut best guy, and their best chance to win is to have the ball in his hands as often as possible.
    There will always be a place for the “workhorse” tailback. There may be some ebb/flow to how many there are, but there will always be some number greater than 0.
    Don’t mistake a cyclical trend for a secular trend.

  2. CapsLockKey says: Feb 23, 2010 12:09 PM

    This changes nothing. SD got 8 fantastic seasons out of LT. A RB by committe and imiting carries doesn’t magically pro-long a RB’s effectiveness. Otherwise, how do you explain guys like Brandon Jacobs?

  3. Mean D says: Feb 23, 2010 12:16 PM

    Florio, you are a Monday morning quarterback. And an idiot.

  4. ☻☼CBS, FOX, ESPN, NFLN nbc says: Feb 23, 2010 12:21 PM

    Toby Gerhart will change all of that

  5. NinersRule! says: Feb 23, 2010 12:22 PM

    Well put djn21

  6. jzimmpa says: Feb 23, 2010 12:27 PM

    I can explain Brandon Jacobs VERY easily, CapsLockKey.
    Brandon Jacobs-
    6ft 4in-above average height for a RB. (Taller runners have a hard time getting low and end up taking tons of body hits, that could have been given to the legs if the runner was a little shorter.)
    264 Pounds- (and I think that is an under-estimate of his weight) He is overweight when considering his position. He is one of the biggest backs in NFL history, Literally.
    Given his height and weight and amount of carries(729 career carries, 38 TD’s). His longevity is gonna be shorter than the typical power running back.
    Think about the difference between Jacobs and Jerome Bettis.
    Bettis 5ft 11in and 250 pounds.
    Most of the video you see of Jerome, pads are low to the ground, legs moving, ball tucked tight, and people falling over. Most of his hits went to his legs. (also why he walks with a slight limp and has trouble walking down stairs).
    Jacobs biggest weakness is his height, also Running back by committee worked for Bettis to stay in the league 3 years after he was a lead back and a Superbowl ring. So IMO, Running back by committee works to make a career last longer. Is it magic? no, just great coaching :D

  7. JGAGNON10 says: Feb 23, 2010 12:28 PM

    have you ever heard of a guy named chris johnson? why the hell would we bother giving the ball to anyone else…..if you think we would then florio, you sir are not that smart at all

  8. IISaiNtII says: Feb 23, 2010 12:29 PM

    I thought his name was Copspeed Johnson?

  9. _ROCKSTAR_ says: Feb 23, 2010 12:30 PM

    Glad you mentioned New Orleans in this article because I seriously think the ground work was laid for him to go to NEW ORLEANS. Drew Brees has his ear!

  10. Deb says: Feb 23, 2010 12:39 PM

    @Mean D …
    So should we assume you’re a Sunday-afternoon quarterback? Then why hide your light under a bushel? Surely an experienced QB like yourself can offer something more insightful on this issue than Florio is an idiot.

  11. stefanovich says: Feb 23, 2010 12:42 PM

    Wait, so a Hall of Fame running back who recorded 8 1,000 yard seasons in a row, at least ten touchdowns every year, plus an average of over 50 receptions every season, and who has missed 3 regular season games in his entire career “validates” the criticism of a one-back system?
    You’ve got to be kidding. If anything, it proves that a one-back system can still be tremendously successful with the right guy, maybe even more successful then any committee-attack could possibly be. Would the Chargers have had such a great rushing game if they had given half of LT’s carries to a lesser back?
    Florio, this article is just plain stupid. And this is coming from a Pats fan.

  12. Fan of Football says: Feb 23, 2010 12:42 PM

    RBs are nowhere near as important in this league as they were even 5 years ago. This has become a pass first league and you had two pass first teams in the SB. So many teams are passing now then running even douchebags like Erin Rodgers can rack up the stats.

  13. Atlanta Love says: Feb 23, 2010 12:46 PM

    There will always be room for a workhorse back. If you want your RB to last try giving him a decent o-line to block for him.

  14. lawdjayee says: Feb 23, 2010 12:51 PM

    Teams look for rbs that can shoulder most of the load, pass block, and catch passes out of the backfield for the same reason why they look for huge o-linemen–it translates to an effective passing game. The era of teams sharing carries between different backs (which teams do now if they have to) was an era when passing was more difficult and the NFL was a running league.
    That said, SD did everything right with LT; they minimized and eventually eliminated preseason play and they drafted backups to get the late-game carries to kill the clock. Unlike, say, Larry Johnson, whom the Chiefs were content to run into the ground…

  15. Deb says: Feb 23, 2010 12:54 PM

    I’m a football traditionalist–which means I enjoy hard-hitting, low-scoring games that emphasize the workhorse tailback. But I agree that “the” workhorse tailback may evolve into a tag team or even a trifecta. Can’t remember the exact stat, but if a RB goes over a certain number of carries in a season, it just about guarantees an early end to the career. It happened to Earl Campbell back in the day and more recently to Shaun Alexander and Willie Parker. As Tomlin said, they ran the wheels off him. It’s becoming more and more difficult for one person to take that kind of punishment in a 16-game season–and will be almost impossible if we go to an 18-game season.
    As a Steelers fan, I know we once had a tag team named Harris and Bleier. If we trade the workhorse tailback for another duo like that … I can live with that.

  16. Rdowb says: Feb 23, 2010 12:56 PM

    He makes a valid and perfect point. I think he’s right. There will be 3-4 workhorse guys out there year-to-year but for the most part it’s a dying breed. Teams would be stupid to do so. You get involved in big contract situations, injuries, etc.
    Not to mention, look how many quality backs come out of college. Teams can wait until rounds 3-6 to find guys who have specific skills that can contribute for cheap and be productive. Darren Sproles wasn’t a high pick, Choice wasn’t, Michael Turner wasn’t, Ryan Grant, Jamaal Charles, Pierre Thomas, Bradshaw, Hightower, even Jacobs. That isn’t to say teams shouldn’t grab a top tier guy. But it isn’t that hard to find backs who can play anymore and if a guy can play he gets on the field.
    Everyone knows the NFL is about match ups. You create better matchups with a variety of skill sets. So it’s right when you say not all backs are created equal. Just wrong in the logic.

  17. It puts the lotion on the skin says: Feb 23, 2010 1:07 PM

    jzimmpa,
    I agree with alot of what you are saying, but Eddie George was just as big as Jacobs, not as heavy, but 6’4′.
    Anyways, the other thing, is that wouldnt a taller running back take more hits to the legs, and a shorter one take more hits to the body?
    By your assessment, you are saying that tackles choose to hit Jacobs high, but chose to hit Bettis low. Wouldt it be easier to hit Jacobs low, since his legs are longer, and his waist is higher off the ground?
    To further illustrate my argument, using a non football player. If LeBron James was running with the football (6’8″, 250 lbs) are you going to try to hit him in the chest, or are you going to five at his thigh? I would hit his thighs….. Now the other extreme is a player like Maurice Jones Drew (5’7″ with his shoes on). By your logic, MJD takes more shots to his legs, and less shots to his chest. I disagree, MJD rarely takes shots to his legs, because he is simply to low for you to aim at them……
    Perhaps I am misreading you point, or looking too far into it, but my theory is you tackle big guys low, and little guys high. But your theory is you tackle big guys high, and little guys low

  18. ChefsSpecial says: Feb 23, 2010 1:10 PM

    Seriously, “Death of the workhorse tailback” is the most ridiculous post ever on PFT. While I might concede that LT is not his 26 year old jump cutting self, I refuse to believe his decline is 100% physical.
    Norv Turner is a retarded coach and does not utilize a premier back as they are best suited. Look at his history as HC in Washington. The reason for LT’s major drop off in production is his OLine. Only one starter remains on the OLine from when Schottenheimer was the HC and LT rushed for 1800+ yards. How can anyone be expected to run behind his current OLine when it is designed for Rivers protection.
    Has Manning, Brady, or any other current pass happy offense had a workhorse back? NO! But dont say the day of the workhorse back is dead; look at Benson in Cinci, Johnson in Tennessee, Gore in SF, Jacobs in NY, Westbrook in Phily, Peterson in MN, Jackson in STL and Rice in Baltimore… are they not workhorse backs? Let’s be honest there is a need for a good #2 back, but when Sanders, Smith, and Thomas were work horses they were served up from an I Forn or ProSet formation where the full back was in the game as the #2 threat, but you dont hear anyone talking about the death of the NFL fullback.
    Let’s read about something that makes sense… not this silly conjecture.

  19. ChefsSpecial says: Feb 23, 2010 1:11 PM

    Seriously, “Death of the workhorse tailback” is the most ridiculous post ever on PFT. While I might concede that LT is not his 26 year old jump cutting self, I refuse to believe his decline is 100% physical.
    Norv Turner is a retarded coach and does not utilize a premier back as they are best suited. Look at his history as HC in Washington. The reason for LT’s major drop off in production is his OLine. Only one starter remains on the OLine from when Schottenheimer was the HC and LT rushed for 1800+ yards. How can anyone be expected to run behind his current OLine when it is designed for Rivers protection.
    Has Manning, Brady, or any other current pass happy offense had a workhorse back? NO! But dont say the day of the workhorse back is dead; look at Benson in Cinci, Johnson in Tennessee, Gore in SF, Jacobs in NY, Westbrook in Phily, Peterson in MN, Jackson in STL and Rice in Baltimore… are they not workhorse backs? Let’s be honest there is a need for a good #2 back, but when Sanders, Smith, and Thomas were work horses they were served up from an I Forn or ProSet formation where the full back was in the game as the #2 threat, but you dont hear anyone talking about the death of the NFL fullback.
    Let’s read about something that makes sense… not this silly conjecture.

  20. JayBot says: Feb 23, 2010 1:13 PM

    As long as the clock continues to run when players are tackled in bounds and stops on incomplete passes, there will be a place in the NFL for workhorse tailbacks.

  21. hublife says: Feb 23, 2010 1:28 PM

    Great article Florio…but if you actually believe the bullshit you just wrote then I’ll trade you Mike Bell, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush for Chris Johnson. Should be a no brainer right? That’s three average backs at best for one “workhorse” which doesn’t have much value anymore.
    Idiot.

  22. Popeye says: Feb 23, 2010 1:33 PM

    only 4 years behind on recognizing this trend

  23. 8man says: Feb 23, 2010 1:37 PM

    The use of tandem running backs is here to stay.
    Most teams use multiple runners now with different styles and strengths.
    I don’t believe it keeps them from giving the rock to the hot hand. But guys get dinged up and can’t go on every play of every game, so you need multiple guys who can run the ball. Look for more teams to hide decent backs on special teams and use them in the offense when necessary or when matchups present the opportunity.

  24. jan van flac says: Feb 23, 2010 1:47 PM

    it’s effective to have a workhorse RB but they don’t last very long in the NFL. Plus you need more than one good RB anyway in case your workhorse gets dinged up.

  25. JimmyY says: Feb 23, 2010 1:57 PM

    Sharing the load would be great in an ideal world, but that’s not the way it works when it comes to contract time. Michael Turner worked for and deserved the big contract but then could not be re-signed due to the money he was going to make. LT still at the end of his prime so no way would they have cut him and kept Turner, that would have been the wise thing to do but the fans would have KILLED AJ Smith. Except for QB, too much money would have been spent on one position, can’t spend 10 mill+ on a QB, then another 10-15 mill for two RB’s, let alone WR’s, LB’s, down the line. Money rules.

  26. realitypolice says: Feb 23, 2010 2:06 PM

    Speaking of RB’s, the Eagles have just released Brian Westbrook.. Just scooped PFT on their own site.

  27. zoinks says: Feb 23, 2010 2:10 PM

    I suppose it depends on how one defines “workhorse”. Personally, when I think of a workhorse RB, I think of a guy who gets 300+ carries in a season…or darned close to it.
    I decided to go back and see how many guys had 300+ carries for each season. Interestingly enough, while the past couple years haven’t had as many “workhorse” runners as there were from 1996-2006, there are still a lot more guys getting 300+ carries than there were in the late 80′s and early 90′s.
    Here’s a year-by-year breakdown of the past couple decades:
    year/ number of 300-carry runners
    2009 – 6
    2008 – 5
    2007 – 6
    2006 – 10*
    2005 – 10
    2004 – 9
    2003 – 13
    2002 – 9
    2001 – 10
    2000 – 8*
    1999 – 6
    1998 – 11*
    1997 – 6
    1996 – 11
    1995 – 9
    1994 – 7
    1993 – 2
    1992 – 5
    1991 – 2
    1990 – 0
    1989 – 4
    1988 – 0
    1987 – 1
    1984 – 6
    Death of the workhorse runner? Hardly.
    As with most things in life, the NFL operates in cycles. Right now we’re seeing a downward trend in the running game…..but I hardly think it spells the death of power running football. I expect the downward trend will continue for a couple more years…but eventually it will come back around, and suddenly the “workhorse” back will once again be in vogue.

  28. Greener95 says: Feb 23, 2010 2:36 PM

    Hmmm…..
    LT, workhorse = Hall of Famer
    AP, workhorse = maybe the best in the business and Vikings have success
    Westbrook, workhorse = great career and Eagles success
    Steven Jackson, workhorse = amazing back, granted bad team but it works
    Thomas Jones, workhorse = solid years even into his late 20′s early 30′s
    Ryan Grant, worhorse = 1000 yards and 10TD’s every year and Green Bay Loves it
    Chris Johnson, workhorse = The best in the game right now
    MJD, total workhorse = I dont even know who the other RB is there.
    I can keep going…..We all get that taking less hits equals a longer career, but it does not equate to a greater or more effective career.
    I dont like to disagree with the articles on here for the sake of disagreeing but when they are wrong they are wrong.

  29. Ilovefoolsball says: Feb 23, 2010 2:41 PM

    At the end of the day, the workhorse runningback role severely cuts down the years a runningback can be effective. The Saints showed this year that you can have one of the best running games in the league with a 3 headed attack, it just requires a little more effort in your game plan and not tipping your hand.
    In other words when the Saints had Pierre Thomas in the game it didn’t necessarily always tip the defense that there would be a run and conversely when Reggie Bush was in there it didn’t always signal run. You have to make the defense respect every runningback thinking that they could either be passing or running on any particular play.

  30. Ambrose says: Feb 23, 2010 3:58 PM

    Fan of Foosball says:
    February 23, 2010 12:42 PM
    RBs are nowhere near as important in this league as they were even 5 years ago. This has become a pass first league…..
    __________________________________
    The future of the NFL is geared around effective passing. And defenses are getting better at preventing it. Knowing this, keep in mind that this new era and breed of talent is being led by Aaron Rodgers, who has produced more and performed more effectively in his first two years, THAN ANYONE ELSE HAS IN THE HISTORY OF THE NFL. Repeat: IN THE HISTORY OF THE NFL! Mix that in with your crap sandwich and eat it.

  31. Fan of Football says: Feb 23, 2010 5:42 PM

    Ambrose,
    Exactly, Rodgers benefited from playing for a coach who now runs a pass first offense (which he did not with Favre, even when they didn’t have a running game in the first half of 2007, he still forced the run). Now the Packers may go several series without running the ball. THAT is why AR has racked up those GARBAGE stats. Still, Favre still beat AR in every category this year despite being on a team that passed less and ran more then the Packers.
    You want to talk about a QB who has been amazing in his first two years (his REAL first two years, without the benefit of ‘redshirting’ for three seasons before starting in the NFL), look no further then Joe Flacco. Despite having far less talent on offense to work with, he has more regular season wins than Rodgers. He also has an amazing THREE post season wins, where as Rodgers has NONE in one attempt mainly because of this play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foVp8i86Z_Y

  32. sand0 says: Feb 23, 2010 5:46 PM

    People view the passing game as being more important now. In the past people viewed the run game as more important. Nothing has changed in terms of workhorse tailbacks and the stats of total carries and how much the backup is used. Only the opinion of it.
    This article is based on nothing other than rhetoric and popular opinions. People talk about the Saints three headed attack as a strength and signal of the future. That is how flippin’ stupid people are. As if the Saints wouldn’t have been better off with one super star like CJ or AP or Steven Jackson or Jones Drew when they could use 3 off the shelf waiver wire type backs.
    That is the problem with NFL “debate”. It is like debating pro wrestling or something. Nobody has a clue about what is actually going on and they just point to a few examples that support some theory and then ignore any evidence against it. Nothing is black and white. Look at teams that win playoff games and superbowls every year for the last 20 seasons. You will see teams that did it many different ways. It is the sum of the entire team and a lot of luck that gets it done.
    I really need to find a good baseball board…

  33. MasterShake says: Feb 24, 2010 11:50 PM

    It’s cyclical and determined by the rules set. The NFL wanted more passing and scoring, so they “adjusted” the rules to allow that. It got a little out of whack so now they are starting to sway it the other way. The smart and SB winning teams try to play within the rules set before them and the trends the NFL is trying to implement.

  34. PervySharstainharvin says: Feb 25, 2010 7:36 AM

    Adrian Petersen has butter on his fingers.
    LA viqueens 2011!

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