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Should NFL Teams Care About the Running Back Position?

Introduction to Super Bowl Stats

With the NFL season well and done, it is of course time to reflect on the past months of football. The Kansas City Chiefs have reminded us all yet again why they are the team to beat by adding a third ring in just the past five seasons, and consequently are the first team since 2005 to win back-to-back Super Bowls. It is certainly not easy to do what they have been doing for the past half-decade, which brings up many questions regarding their strategies. How do they do it? How have they been so dominant? What makes them able to experience so much success?

While so much goes into these questions and a team like this, one thing is for sure: it’s definitely not by running the ball. Historically, it has never been.

Tight End Noah Gray (83), Cornerback Joshua Williams (2), and the rest of the Chiefs make their way onto the field (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It seems like a pattern amongst those who have taken home the Lombardi. This vital position on the offensive side is seemingly completely absent. In fact, since the year 2000, only 7 rushers total, including both running backs and quarterbacks, have breached 100 yards on the ground in the big game. This includes:

  • Jamal Lewis 102 rushing yards SB XXXV 2001 Win
  • Michael Pittman 124 rushing yards SB XXXVII 2003 Win
  • Dominic Rhodes 113 rushing yards SB XLI 2007 Loss
  • Thomas Jones 112 rushing yards SB XLI 2007 Loss
  • Frank Gore 110 rushing yards SB XLVII 2013 Loss
  • Marshawn Lynch 102 rushing yards SB XLIX 2015 Loss
  • Damien Williams 104 rushing yards SB LIV 2020 Win

This makes this milestone rather rare, considering there have been almost 50 opportunities for teams to accomplish this in that span, yet few have achieved it. However, of these players, over half still lost despite the feat. This poses the question of whether rushing matters at all in the Super Bowl with respect to outcome if these are the results. To explore this, let’s look at more of the polarizing stats that surround the relationship between running backs and the Super Bowl.

Good Backs Good for Winning?

In 2019, Tennessee Titans back Derrick Henry led the league in rushing yards, with 1,540. The team made a strong push in the playoffs, all the way to the AFC Championship, but fell to none other than the Kansas City Chiefs, who would go on to win the Super Bowl that season. The next year, Henry led the league yet again, this time beating his record from the previous season by almost 500 additional yards. Where did the Titans land? They fell short in the very first round, with Henry averaging only 2.2 yards per carry, and his QB throwing for a mere 158 yards, a single touchdown, and an interception. And even just this past season, Henry finished second in rushing despite his age of 30. Once again, however, his team could not produce the same success, falling to last in the division with a record of 6-11 and missing the playoffs completely.

Take Ladanian Tomlinson, or Adrian Peterson, or many of the other, extremely dominant ball-carriers of the 2000’s and 2010’s, and you’ll find similar results. They can hold off for a while, but eventually, their team will give out, usually in the first round of the playoffs if they can even make, but seemingly always before the Super Bowl. It sometimes feels that teams with these star players are simply depending on them too much, and may not have the resources to add more weapons on the offensive side of the ball. Therefore, if the back gets shut down for a game, or they are playing against a good defense, the whole team might be in a bundle.

It is clear that the top rushers in the league are not the ones winning it all. Oftentimes, this is because their team knows their worth as a top-tier player, and thus may invest a fortune in keeping them, leaving the organization broke when it comes to selecting a quarterback or other dynamic players (take, for example, Christian McCaffrey in Carolina).

Christian McCaffrey (22) (leader of yards for the past season) on the
Carolina Panthers in 2022 before being traded to the San Francisco 49ers.

Christian McCaffrey (22) (leader of yards for the past season) on the

Carolina Panthers in 2022 before being traded to the San Francisco 49ers.

Is Running Still Effective?

Below is a comparison of both the rushing and passing yard outcomes for Super Bowls since 2000:

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There is no consistent pattern. That’s right, the winners tend to only barely get more yards than the losers, and sometimes they will flat-out get outgained in both departments. Coincidentally, the team who had more passing yards has won only 52% of the time, an almost negligible increase in odds. However, it seems that 64% of winners ended up having more rushing yards than the other team. So does rushing matter? Of course! It’s a large part of the sport that encapsulates so much strategy and dictates the management of every game. Aren’t teams investing in it? Well, another pattern lies in the salaries.

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As seen above, Super Bowl winners of the past decade are barely investing in their running backs, at least compensation-wise. So they are still running the ball, they seem to just place more emphasis on their passing game, and deal with cheap rushers that are efficient enough, especially having built a good enough team around them.

In fact, their rushers don’t even have to be the best either: not a single team to win the bowl in the past 19 years had a running back that ranked top 5 in rushing yards. Most often their running back hovers in the 12-25 range. There have been a couple of runner-up teams that included them, including all of the past three actually:

  • Joe Mixon Rank: 3 Cincinnati Bengals SB LVI
  • Miles Sanders Rank: 5 Philadelphia Eagles SB LVII
  • Christian McCaffrey Rank: 1 San Francisco 49ers SB LVIII

These teams who have some of the best runners just don’t seem to be able to pull through the entire way.

Contributions Through the Air

With all of this being said, how much does passing contribute to the Super Bowl? We now know that the top performing rushers are mostly not how you get there, and definitely not how you win it, so is passing where it lies? Simply put, yes.

First, we need to define QBR, the system we are going to use to compare players. Total Quarterback Rating is a general rating system that measures one’s performance, either for a specific game, or averaged throughout a season. It takes into account such variables as passes, turnovers, and rushes, and uses them to sum up a Quarterback’s performance.

Since 2006, 75% of all quarterbacks who made it to the Super Bowl had a QBR that was top 10 in the league, proving it takes a good passing game to even get to the Super Bowl, let alone win it. Once you have 2 passers of this level though, there is really no telling which one could win, as only 55.5% of the time did the higher-rated passer win, a statistic with little practical value, as it is slightly more than flipping a coin.

But it still stands that teams who make it to the big stage almost always get there by throwing the football, and doing it well, meaning most other teams are going to have to do the same. So while there is little influence from rushing yards on the ability for a team to compete for the Lombardi trophy, we can see that passers make a large impact.

A Potential Answer

In conclusion, what most Super-Bowl-winning teams seem to be doing is trying to find that diamond in the rough: a relatively cheap but efficient running back, or duo of them, to be serviceable, and pairing them with a talented quarterback who can now afford to be paid the big bucks, along with other key offensive and defensive pieces.

Their success is not built off of a single good rusher, but of an entire system that an average or above-average rusher could experience victory in. The team knows how to adapt and implement their running backs in conjunction with their other systems. They want to find the perfect combination of a cheap price and a young head full of steam. It will not be singlehanded won by a top running back, nor will it be the lone work of the best QB. Sometimes, you just need to work smarter, and not harder.

The Kansas City Chiefs have certainly followed this pattern over the past few years, and have experienced perhaps the most success of any team in history in such a time frame. They are going to continue to be a dangerous franchise down the line.

The question now remains: who is going to dethrone them?