In his weekly press conference, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley confirmed that he wants to get DeAngelo Williams the ball more. That is a refreshing sign because DeAngelo Williams needs more carries.
- That might seem odd given that Le’Veon Bell has close to 300 yards from scrimmage in just two games.
But in this case counter intuition wins the day. DeAngelo Williams needs more carries precisely because Le’Veon Bell is such a dynamic playmaker. The Steelers need to keep him that way. Le’Veon Bell is entering his third year as a starter. While that doesn’t sound like much, the truth is that he he’s already reaching the point where most NFL running backs are done.
Depending on whether you believe the NFLPA or the NFL owners, the average length of an NFL career is 3.3 years or about 6 years. But the average running back only plays for 3.1 years, by far the shortest in of any NFL position group.
Those statistics are not encouraging.
The Myth of the Durable Steelers Running Back
While the short self-life of NFL running backs is nothing new, the rise of saber metrics and fantasy football has brought the issue into much closer focus. Art Rooney II once declared that running the football was “the foundation of the franchise.” No team has rushed for more yards since the NFL-AFL merger than the Pittsburgh Steelers.
- At first glance, it might seem that Pittsburgh bucks the tradition and durable Steelers running backs are the norm.
After all, Hall of Famers Franco Harris played for 12 years and Jerome Bettis played for 10 years in Pittsburgh. Rocky Bleier played for 11 years, Dick Hoak played for 10 years, Frank Pollard played for 9 years and Merril Hoge played for 7 years.
- Alas, Pittsburgh Steelers running backs are no more durable than the rest of the NFL’s.
In 1992 when Cowher Power was taking the NFL by storm on the back of Barry Foster’s franchise record breaking season, Bill Cowher once joked that they’d run Foster until “parts of his body came falling off.” That’s pretty close to what happened. After rushing for over 2000 yards from scrimmage in 1992, Foster’s productivity dramatically dropped off in 1993 and by 1994 he was done.
- Willie Parker was a little more durable, rushing for 3 straight 1000 yard seasons before injuries began to take their toll.
One of the differences between the other running backs mentioned here and Willie Parker, is that Harris, Bleier, Hoak, Pollard, Hoge and, to some extent, Bettis, all had strong number two backs to help them split the load.
The Case for Giving DeAngelo Williams 5 Carries a game
The nature of the running back position in the NFL has twisted in turned since the NFL merger. Most people fail to realize that Franco Harris was listed as a fullback on Chuck Noll’s depth chart. The position hardly exists today, but it thrived in Harris day in part because most NFL teams field twin backfield sets where both backs got carries.
- The trend continued in one form or another during the 80’s, but began to change in the 1990’s.
While this dates me, during the 1990’s it became common to look at the Monday morning box scores and see a single running back getting the lion’s share if not all of a team’s carries. Running back by committee seems to be more in vogue these days as the concept of a “franchise running back” is all but extinct.
- A player of Le’Veon Bell’s caliber could change that, however.
But to change that, Bell must prove to be durable. And even though he missed the first two games of the season, Bell’s work load for the 2015 season projects out 385 touches of the ball. That puts him over the magic number of 350, which number crunchers have pegged as point of no return for most NFL running backs. (You can find a full, albeit flawed, discussion of running back’s durability here.)
- The Steelers can reduce that load by giving DeAngelo Williams 5 carries a game.
This of course sounds nice in theory, but it can be difficult to implement in practice. Last year against the Titans, Bell showed he was capable of taking over a game, and you don’t sit a running back when he’s in the zone.
And there’s no assurance it will work even if the Steelers can find a way to get Williams on the field. Mike Tomlin used Isaac Redman to spell Rashard Mendenhall in 2010 and 2011, but Mendenhall was essentially done after 2012. But the Steelers were right to try then, and they’d be right to ensure DeAngelo gets his carries in 2015.