Running Backs and the 400 Club

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]It has been perceived as the scarlet number for running backs. Once they reach that number they were deemed tainted.

Walter Payton became the first running back to eclipse at least 400 rushes and receptions combined in the regular season when he did it in 1979. Quite impressive when you think about given the rigors of the game at the time and the fact that now rules are being tweaked to make the game safer. If a running back hits that number now, some consider it the beginning of the end for his career. What does that mean for the latest member of the 400 club, Le’Veon Bell? Let’s look at some of the history behind the feat.

Rarity

From 1979 – 2017, a running back has eclipsed 400 touches only 43 times, and those instances come from 27 different players. Only 27. If you count one lead back for every team since 1979 that’s nearly 1,200 starting backs with the opportunity. The number of times accomplished by decade was pretty consistent. 10 times in the 80’s, 14 in the 90’s and 16 in the ’00 decade. This decade it has really dropped off, though, with so many more teams using multiple backs and the running back by committee approach. Demarco Murray in his last year in Dallas (2014) and Bell last year (2017) are the only two since 2010.

More than once

So right off the bat we see from those numbers that it can be done multiple times. There are 9 players in fact that have done it more than once. Emmitt Smith and Eric Dickerson did it 4 times; Curtis Martin, Edgerrin James and LaDainian Tomlinson did it three times each and James Wilder, Ricky Williams, Terrell Davis and Payton did it twice. 8 players did it in back to back seasons. The most impressive of the bunch was Smith who went back to back twice and 4 times in 5 years.  He followed those up with 6 more consecutive 1,000 yards seasons.

Age

James was the youngest (21) and the Colts used him early and often with 881 touches in his first 2 seasons. He tore his ACL in 2001 but came back to play 8 season after that, with 5 seasons of more than 1,100 yards. Three players did it over the age of 30: Payton in 1984 and Tiki Barber in 2005 were both 30, while Martin was 31 in 2004. Interestingly, 19 of 43 occurrences happen in the age 25 or 26 season, just about when that first contract is ending.

Size

There were some variances when looking at the build of these backs. Some were known for speed, others for power. Some relied mostly on carries, while others caught up to 100 balls. Heights ranged from 5’9” to 6’3” and weights varied from 195 pounds (Chris Johnson) to 240 pounds (Jamal Lewis). When averaging these numbers it came out to 5’11” and 219 pounds. Looking through the ITP draft guide you can see the running back section is littered with guys within these ranges.

The Downside

Yards per carry are one area that seems to see a significant dip in the season following a grind like a 400 touch year. In 17 of the 23 cases since 2000, the runner’s average yards per carry went down after the 400 touch season. The average for those 23 seasons was about a half a yard drop.

Yards per reception showed somewhat similar but less drastic results, with 14 of 23 showing a decrease with an average of just over .3 yards per reception.

With those decreases, total yards from scrimmage per game numbers take a significant hit to the tune of an average dip of about 22%.

Missed games is another issue with 11 backs missing at least one game the following season with 7 missing at least a quarter of the regular season. Lower body injuries were the main culprit behind backs missing games, led by mostly knee injuries, but also some foot, ankle and groin injuries. Williams retired for a year in 2004 after back to back 430 plus touch seasons.

Answer the Bell

So what does this all mean for Bell? The positives are that players have had productive seasons and long careers after reaching 400 touches. The negatives could include a decrease in yards per carry and total yards from scrimmage or an increase in injuries.

But it is by no means a certainty that this will lead to a negative campaign in 2018. Even with the 22% average drop from his 2017 numbers (1,946 yards from scrimmage) he would still average over 100 yards from scrimmage per game which would still put him in the top 5 in the NFL last season. He got the exclusive rights franchise tag this year and is evidently currently still in negotiations with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Set to make over $14.5 million this year, nearly $5.6 million more than the next highest paid back, you can bet Pittsburgh will get their money’s worth.

Candidates to Join the Club

Based on size, age, production, contract situation and roster depth, here are some players who could reach the 400 mark in 2018.

Le’Veon Bell (age 26) – He is already a member but can he join those who did it back to back?

Todd Gurley (24) – His touches have increased from 250 to 321 to 343 over the last three years. He’ll be in the fourth year of his rookie deal and his receptions numbers have tripled since his rookie year.

David Johnson (27) – Coming off a season lost to a dislocated wrist he’ll be in the last year of his contract. He was coming off of 373 touches in 2016 and will be due a big payday considering his cap number is just over $2 million.

Melvin Gordon (25) – Will be in the 4th year of his rookie deal. Was finally able to stay healthy in 2017. Has seen his touches increase from 217 to 295 to 342.

Follow Tom on Twitter @THMead3. Check out his other work here, such as his recap of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2018 NFL Draft or his look at how paying a high salary veteran QB may hurt your chances of winning.

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