The incredible shrinking running back

Much was made during the offseason about the running back’s diminished importance in today’s pass-first offenses. For the second year in a row — an NFL first — no runner was taken in Round 1 of the draft. So I thought I’d work up some charts that showed exactly why.

As you can see below, 10 of the 14 Super Bowl winners in the 2000s have had a quarterback who ranked in the Top 10 in the league in passer rating, but only three have had a back that ranked in the Top 10 in rushing (one of them being the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch last year).

For that matter, just four of the champs had a Top 10 receiver, and five of them (including Seattle) didn’t even have a 1,000-yard guy. It’s more about Spreading the Ball Around now. (So how come nobody’s talking about the Incredible Shrinking Wideout?)

It wasn’t like this in the early years of the free agency (1993-99). Elite runners and elite receivers were very much a part of winning titles. Five of the seven championship clubs had Top 10 rushers and just as many had Top 10 pass-catchers. The specifics:

Year Champion QB, Rating (Rank) Top Rusher, Yds (Rank) Top Receiver, Yds (Rank)
2013 Seahawks Russell Wilson, 101.2 (7) Marshawn Lynch, 1,257 (6) Golden Tate, 898 (31)
2012 Ravens Joe Flacco, 87.7 (14) Ray Rice, 1,143 (11) Anquan Boldin, 921 (27)
2011 Giants Eli Manning, 92.9 (7) Ahmad Bradshaw, 659 (29) Victor Cruz, 1,536 (3)
2010 Packers Aaron Rodgers, 101.2 (3) Brandon Jackson, 703 (33) Greg Jennings, 1,265 (4)
2009 Saints Drew Brees, 109.6 (1) Pierre Thomas, 793 (T24) Marques Colston, 1,074 (18)
2008 Steelers B.Roethlisberger, 80.1 (24) Willie Parker, 791 (26) Hines Ward, 1,043 (15)
2007 Giants Eli Manning, 73.9 (25) B. Jacobs, 1,009 (T15) Plaxico Burress, 1,025 (21)
2006 Colts P. Manning, 101.0 (1) Joseph Addai, 1,081 (18) Marvin Harrison, 1,366 (2)
2005 Steelers B.Roethlisberger, 98.6 (3) Willie Parker, 1,202 (12) Hines Ward, 975 (22)
2004 Patriots Tom Brady, 92.9 (9) Corey Dillon, 1,635 (3) David Givens, 874 (32)
2003 Patriots Tom Brady, 85.9 (10) Antowain Smith, 642 (30) Deion Branch, 803 (32)
2002 Bucs Brad Johnson, 92.9 (3) Michael Pittman, 718 (32) K. Johnson, 1,088 (16)
2001 Patriots Tom Brady, 86.5 (6) Antowain Smith, 1,157 (12) Troy Brown, 1,199 (10)
2000 Ravens Trent Dilfer, 76.6 (21) Jamal Lewis, 1,364 (7) Shannon Sharpe, 810 (32)

Now look at the 1993-to-1999 period:

Year Champion QB, Rating (Rank) Top Rusher, Yards (Rank) Top Receiver, Yards (Rank)
1999 Rams Kurt Warner, 109.2 (1) Marshall Faulk, 1,381 (5) Isaac Bruce, 1,165 (12)
1998 Broncos John Elway, 93.0 (5) Terrell Davis, 2,008 (1) Rod Smith, 1,222 (4)
1997 Broncos John Elway, 87.5 (7) Terrell Davis, 1,750 (2) Rod Smith, 1,180 (T8)
1996 Packers Brett Favre, 95.8 (2) Edgar Bennett, 899 (14) Antonio Freeman, 933 (24)
1995 Cowboys Troy Aikman, 93.6 (3) Emmitt Smith, 1,773 (1) Michael Irvin, 1,603 (4)
1994 49ers Steve Young, 112.8 (1) Ricky Watters, 877 (15) Jerry Rice, 1,499 (1)
1993 Cowboys Troy Aikman, 99.0 (2) Emmitt Smith, 1,486 (1) Michael Irvin, 1,330 (2)

This gives us the following breakdown:

Period (Seasons) Top 10 QBs Top 10 RBs Top 10 Receivers
2000-13 (14) 10 3 4
1993-99 (7) 7 5 5

Another indication of the position’s decline: None of the Top 10 postseasons by a Super Bowl-winning running back have come in this century. The party pretty much ended with the Broncos’ Terrell Davis in 1997 and ’98.

Year RB, Team Games Yards Per Game
1998 Terrell Davis, Broncos 3 468 156.0
1983 Marcus Allen, Raiders 3 466 155.3
1982 John Riggins, Redskins 4 610 152.5
1997 Terrell Davis, Broncos 4 581 145.3
1974 Franco Harris, Steelers 3 343 114.3
1987 Timmy Smith, Redskins 3 342 114.0
1992 Emmitt Smith, Cowboys 3 336 112.0
1973 Larry Csonka, Dolphins 3 333 111.0
1975 Franco Harris, Steelers 3 314 104.7
1986 Joe Morris, Giants 3 313 104.3

Top three postseasons by running backs on Super Bowl losers: Thurman Thomas with the 1990 Bills (3/309/130), Frank Gore with the 2012 49ers (3/319/106.3) and Marshall Faulk with the 2001 Rams (3/317/105.7).

Sources: pro-football-reference.com, nfl.com