Working through player and team write-ups in recent weeks, I notice that there have been more successful running backs. There are a lot more guys averaging over 5 yards per carry or at least in the high 4 range. Fewer players, meanwhile, have been mired down the 3-yards-per-attempt territory.

Checking into the numbers further, I see that this is, in fact, correct.

To look at this, I figured I’d leave jet sweeps and quarterback scrambles out. There are a lot of really mobile quarterbacks in the league right now – with Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson the latest additions – and I wanted to make sure they we’re polluting what I think I’m seeing. So I’m looking just at running backs.

The average running back last year averaged 4.35 yards per carry. That’s the highest in the least 10 years.


What’s going on here?

Luck, of course, could play some role. Maybe just by chances, we had a few more successful backs and coaches who were better at drawing up running plays. But I don’t think that was a big factor.

I think it is tied more to the direction of the game in general. The league’s about passing now, with teams attacking through the air like never before. And as teams pass more often and with more success, I think opposing defenses are spending less time and resources trying to figure out how to stop running backs. That’s more of an afterthought now.

Notice in the chart above that running backs (per team) averaged only 343 carries last year. That’s 29 fewer than the average for the previous nine years. And as fewer runs are called, more of them will be draws and delays out of passing formations – plays that tend to average more yards.

There are also limitations nowadays on how often teams can practice. That could be having an impact on the quality of tackling and run defenses in general.

Whatever the reasons, we saw 10 different running backs last year average at least 5.0 yards per carry. (That’s among players with at least 100 attempts). In the previous six seasons, there were never more than 6 of those backs. All but one of the backs running for at least 5 yards per attempt last year, by the way, were players in their first or second year. Aaron Jones of Green Bay has been the leader in this area, averaging 5.5 yards per carry in each of his first two seasons.

YearPlayer AttYards AvgTD
2010Jamaal Charles, K.C.2301,4676.405
2017Alvin Kamara, N.O.1207286.078
2009Jamaal Charles, K.C.1901,1205.907
2012Adrian Peterson, Minn.3482,0976.0012
2012C.J. Spiller, Buff.2071,2446.006
2009Felix Jones, Dall.1166855.903
2016Mike Gillislee, Buff.1015775.708
2015Thomas Rawls, Sea.1478305.654
2010Brandon Jacobs, NYG1478235.609
2009Chris Johnson, Tenn.3582,0065.6014
2013Andre Ellington, Ariz.1186525.533
2016Bilal Powell, NYJ1317225.503
2011Fred Jackson, Buff.1709345.506
2011DeMarco Murray, Dall.1648975.502
2018Aaron Jones, G.B.1337285.478
2018Kerryon Johnson, Det.1186415.433
2018Phillip Lindsay, Den.1921,0375.409
2016LeSean McCoy, Buff.2341,2675.4013
2014Justin Forsett, Balt.2351,2665.408
2011Ben Tate, Hou.1759425.404
2011DeAngelo Williams, Car.1558365.407
2011Jonathan Stewart, Car.1427615.404
2011Darren McFadden, Oak.1136145.404
2009Pierre Thomas, N.O.1477935.406
2009Correll Buckhalter, Den.1206425.401
2009Justin Forsett, Sea.1146195.404
2018Matt Breida, S.F.1538145.323
2012Jamaal Charles, K.C.2851,5095.305
2009Ray Rice, Balt.2541,3395.307
2013Donald Brown, Ind.1025375.266
2018Gus Edwards, Balt.1377185.242
2018Austin Ekeler, LAC1065545.233
2016Jordan Howard, Chi.2521,3135.206
2011C.J. Spiller, Buff.1075615.204
2010Darren McFadden, Oak.2231,1575.207
2010LeSean McCoy, Phil.2071,0805.207
2010Chris Ivory, N.O.1377165.205
2009DeAngelo Williams, Car.2161,1175.207
2018Nick Chubb, Cle.1929965.198
2013DeMarco Murray, Dall.2171,1215.179
2013LeSean McCoy, Phil.3141,6075.129
2016Ezekiel Elliott, Dall.3221,6315.1015
2016Mark Ingram, N.O.2051,0435.106
2014Jeremy Hill, Cin.2221,1245.109
2014Lamar Miller, Mia.2161,0995.108
2011Pierre Thomas, N.O.1105625.105
2009Jonathan Stewart, Car.2211,1335.1010
2018Melvin Gordon, LAC1758855.0610
2013LeGarrette Blount, N.E.1537725.057
2015Ryan Mathews, Phil.1075395.046
2018Saquon Barkley, NYG2611,3075.0111
2018Christian McCaffrey, Car.2191,0985.017
2014Jamaal Charles, K.C.2061,0335.009
2012Marshawn Lynch, Sea.3151,5905.0011
2011Reggie Bush, Mia.2161,0865.006
2010LeGarrette Blount, T.B.2011,0075.006
2009Willis McGahee, Balt.1095445.0012
2009Shonn Greene, NYJ1085405.002

—Ian Allan