The NFL game takes a toll on the athlete’s body. There is no position that is more physically demanding and holds such importance to the success of a team, like the running back position. In the ever changing landscape of the NFL, teams have to adapt with the times. While the league has transitioned into more of a pass first attack, the running game is still a major factor in the equation of an offense’s fluidity. More so, several NFL teams have stuck by the run first philosophy. Despite which side of the fence an offensive scheme falls on, teams have to be able to run the ball (unless you’re the Giants).
Understanding this, teams have changed their thinking in recent years when it comes to how to effectively move the ball on the ground. The NFL used to pound NFL defenses with an “every down” back. These backs would take the extreme majority of the workload and rarely come off the field. Even now, there are several teams that still use this technique. But, for the most part, the NFL has slowly changed over to a two back or even a running back by committee approach.
This philosophy protects the players and the teams. The players are allowed to have a lengthened career and stay fresh throughout the game. The offenses have more versatility to their attack and if one of the two backs go down with an injury, they already have another an experienced player that can step in to take over the bulk of the carries. All that being said, the question arises. Who has the best duo of backs in the NFL? I’ll give you my top 5 and will also mention a couple of backfields that may be ready to jump on the list in a year or two.
1. Houston Texans: Arian Foster & Ben Tate are the perfect compliment for each other. Each of them have also proved that they can carry the load by themselves. Foster proved it throughout his 2010, eye-opening, namaste campaign. The Texans had planned to go the tandem route all along, but as a rookie, Ben Tate didn’t see the field due to an ankle injury. No problem, Foster just went out and ran for 1,616 yards at an impressive rate of 4.9 yards per carry and 16 rushing touchdowns. Oh, did I forget to mention that he had 66 receptions for 604 yards. Tate got his shot at the beginning of 2011, while Foster was battling a nagging hamstring injury due to some “anti-awesomeness.”
During a three game stretch in the spotlight in which Foster made a brief cameo before departing again, Tate ran for 301 yards by averaging 4.6 yards per carry. As impressive as that was, it would actually turn out to be a decline from his average of 5.4 yards per carry over the 2011 season. Out of all the NFL running backs that had over 100 carries in 2011, only Fred Jackson (170 carries – 5.5 ypc) and DeMarco Murray (164 carries – 5.5 ypc) had a higher yards per carry than Ben Tate’s 175 carries for 5.4. When people look back at the 2011 seasons of Murray and Jackson, they all speak about how they were stringing together monstrous years before their injuries.
No one mentions Tate in that same breath, although his season was on par with both of them. Tate gets lossed in the shadow of the best running back in the NFL and both Foster and Tate fall victim to the crowd that moronically says “they’re system backs”. These same voices in the crowd will spew about Foster not being one of the top backs because he benefits from the ZBS, but in the next breath praise Ray Rice above him despite Rice playing in the zone and the Ravens signing Foster’s former lead blocking fullback Vonta Leach away from Houston for the 2011 season.
In the last 12 games that Foster played in 2011, he ran for 1,191 yards at an average of 4.4 yards per carry and had 10 rushing touchdowns. He also had 51 catches for 610 yards in that same frame. All of that while splitting carries with Tate and coming back from a hamstring injury. What would he have done if he played the last regular season game against the Titans, who he had put up 234 total yards and 3 touchdowns against earlier in the season?
The Texans understand how to use each other as a compliment. Tate is much better as a secondary back, but will be effective if required to step in for Foster. The ideal situation is to keep both backs fresh for certain situations. In 2011, Tate averaged 6.9 ypc running up the middle. That’s 3 yards per carry better than Foster’s 3.9. Foster was also more subjective to the elements in 2011. He averaged 1.4 ypc less when playing outdoors as opposed to inside. He also averaged less than 3.0 ypc when playing in the cold. Tate doesn’t seem to be bothered by the weather conditions or the venue. This is the best set of backs in the NFL and the scary part is their ages. Foster will only be turning 26 on August 24th and Tate will turn 24 three days prior. The only two things that can hold this duo back are injuries and Tate’s urge to outgrow the shadow of Foster.
2. Carolina Panthers: DeAngelo Williams & Jonathan Stewart are the model of a tandem backfield. If you were to lay out a blueprint of what you would expect out of a tandem, then look no further than Charlotte. Despite having the talent to be one of the NFL’s top backs, DeAngelo hasn’t cracked 1,000 total carries for his career. He’s played 6 NFL seasons and has averaged over 5 ypc for his career. Out of those 6 seasons that he’s played, four of them he completed with a 5.0 ypc or higher. The other two were his rookie season and a season where he only played in 6 games due to injury. He showed what he could be if he was asked to carry the bulk of the work back in 2008.
That season he ran for 1,515 yards and still averaged 5.5 ypc and tacked on 18 rushing touchdowns. Jonathan has averaged 4.8 ypc for his four seasons in Carolina. For the last four seasons, the two have been the model 1-2 punch. Now, they become even more dangerous with a huge, mobile quarterback that can beat defenses with his arm. I don’t think we’ve seen the tip of how good this backfield can become. Defenses will be more focused on stopping Cam Newton in 2012 and won’t be able to place the attention needed on Williams and Stewart. That’s scary for defensive coordinators because there is zero falloff from one back to another. Williams had 155 carries last season and Stewart finished with 142. Both players finished with an insane 5.4 ypc average.
In any other situation I might be concerned with DeAngelo being 29 and look to switch over to the 25 year old Stewart, but in Carolina they’ve worked this tandem model for the last four years perfectly so that Williams and Stewart are far younger physically than their counterparts of the same age in the NFL. Jonathan actually added a new element to his game last season. When rookie quarterback, Cam Newton needed a security blanket in 2011, he found it in Stewart. Jonathan had only averaged 11 catches and 96 receiving yards a season, before 2011. Last year that number jumped to 47 receptions for 413 yards.
As DeAngelo continues to age, the Panthers will slowly work him more as an off-tackle runner. We saw shades of it last season. Williams averaged less than 4 ypc when rushing through any of the holes between the tackles. As a whole he had an average of 3.8 yards per carry when rushing through the line, but when he bounced outside he ran for 11.4 ypc. Jonathan Stewart also excelled when he ran the sidelines. He averaged 8.5 ypc on the outside, but his role will transition more into the between the tackles runner for the Panthers. In this area he ran for 4.5 ypc in 2011. Stewart is younger and bigger and the team will be able to lengthen Williams’ NFL life expectancy even further and the team will be better off because of it.
If this list was to name the top 5 proven NFL tandem running backs, then Williams and Stewart would be number one. They have combined to rush for 7,329 yards at a rate of 5.03 ypc, since Jonathan joined DeAngelo in Carolina back in 2008. But, this list is to name the top 5 tandems as of where we stand today so they get edged out by the young blood.
3. Buffalo Bills: Fred Jackson & CJ Spiller have taken polar opposite paths to get to the same backfield. Spiller caught the Bills eyes in a flash with his lightning speed and highlight plays. Buffalo selected him with the 9th pick in the 2010 NFL draft. Fred Jackson’s path to Buffalo took a lot more twists and turns. All the way from high school to the pros, no one saw anything special in Jackson. He was buried on the depth chart in high school, had to sign with a Division III college, and couldn’t make an NFL roster, so he had to play indoor football before going to NFL Europe and finally landed on the Bills. Even with Buffalo, he had to work himself up the roster and prove himself. Now he’s 31 years old, coming off an injury and the team still looks to replace him yearly. Regardless of their paths and trials, both of these backs rank up there with the best in the business.
Through October of last season, there were whispers of Fred Jackson as a serious MVP candidate. As Fred went, so did Buffalo. As mentioned earlier in this article, Jackson had the best ypc (5.5) for any back with more than a 100 rushes (170). Despite being 31, he has nearly 200 less NFL carries than the 29 year old, DeAngelo Williams. Jackson has averaged between 4.2 – 5.5 ypc all five seasons. He’s good for an additional 35 catches for 300 yards each season as well. Jackson still plays with a chip on his shoulder for always being doubted. Coming back from injury at the age of 31, you can expect there to be added motivation.
Spiller was highly touted coming out of Clemson, but he too had his doubters. Like most backs that weigh under 200 lbs and have a track background, he was hit by many with the “speciality back” label. Spiller finally got a chance to silence his critics after Jackson went down in 2011. He did just that by averaging 5.3 ypc when running into the line as opposed to 4.8 when kicking it outside. Truth be told, his speed did factor into his higher performing games. Spiller’s speed came out when he was playing on turf, averaging an amazing 2.5 yards more per rush than on grass.
CJ and Fred have both silenced the naysayers and showed that each can play at the level of a great NFL starting running back. 2012 will be more about time and situational playing time allotment. Fred Jackson should see more of the time on third downs. Spiller didn’t adapt well to the road crowds in 2011. He averaged 7.2 ypc at home, but less than half of that on the road (3.4). Oddly enough, Jackson increased his 5.2 ypc home average to 5.9 on the road. Both players were well used as pass catchers out of the backfield, each hauling in 39 catches for a total of 78 receptions and 711 yards. The Bills used CJ in some wide receiver formations last season to get more benefit from his hands and play making ability. They land at 3rd on this list due to Jackson coming back from injury.
4. Kansas City Chiefs: Jamaal Charles & Peyton Hillis may surprise a few by being on this list. To be honest, there are a few concerns that made me even doubt the decision. Both players are coming back from injuries and Hillis also acted like a petulant child to his teammates and the Cleveland fans last season. Another concern is with the zone scheme that the Chiefs are implementing. It usually takes a good three years to completely transition over to a well oiled zone scheme. Even with adding veteran, free agent offensive linemen, the scheme will have an adjustment period.
With all of that being said, the potential of a motivated Hillis and healthy Charles is too much to leave off. Hillis will have to earn that big contract that he cried for last season. That’s what KC wants. They need Peyton to fight for every yard again in the same manner he did in 2010 when he ran for 1,177 yards on 4.4 ypc for 11 touchdowns. He also had 61 receptions for 477 yards that year. Hillis is an old school, run the defense over type of power back. He’s athletic, but doesn’t have the lateral quickness. He won’t need that attribute in KC. Jamaal Charles will make all of the cuts this offense needs. Peyton can come in and bruise up the defense and make a quick shift before heading downhill.
When discussing Jamaal Charles, I always have to bring up the stat of 6.1. That’s how many yards per carry he’s averaging for his career. That’s based on almost 500 carries. The Chiefs are probably just hoping that Hillis and Charles can repeat their 2010 seasons. That year, Jamaal ran for 1,467 yards at a rate of 6.4 ypc and added another 45 catches for 468 yards. The fear for these two guys are obvious. When discussing their potential and what makes them great, you have to go back to 2010 for both of them. They’re the only team on this list that has both guys returning from injuries.
I thought about leaving these two players off the list, but there is too much potential and talent to do that. When gauging the value of Charles, don’t trick yourself into believing that he’s a track guy that just gets the edge. He’s a running back and has been successful running through every hole in the offense. He can run between the tackles or bounce it outside. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see this duo lead the rest of the NFL duos in combined rushing yards. When the risks weigh out with the rewards, I believe four is a very fair spot on this list.
5. Chicago Bears: Matt Forte & Michael Bush are a book that hasn’t got past the title yet, meaning that Bush is in a new city and offense and Forte is holding out for a new contract and coming off an injury shortened season. Unless Forte just refuses to play for the Bears or the injury has changed his abilities, then we all know what he should bring to the table in 2012. Forte has been good for about a 1,000 yards rushing combined with 55 receptions for 500 yards each year since entering the league. His carries have reduced every year, last year due to injury, but it’s time for him to get a compliment back.
Michael Bush is the perfect cross to Forte’s jab in this new Chicago 1-2 punch backfield. Bush played great for the Raiders last year after Darren McFadden went out with an injury, but as a 240+ pound running back, he’s best suited as the secondary back. Despite almost rushing for a 1,000 yards and having his best receiving season in what consisted of 37 receptions for 418 yards, the extra workload led to his first year of below 4.0 ypc. Injuries are what led to Bush sliding in the draft and what would be my major concern with him having more 250+ carry seasons.
Bush obviously isn’t as talented of a back as Forte, but he’s a good compliment to him. Bush will handle all the end zone duties and a bulk of the carries in the red zone and short yardage. He’ll also be used to keep Forte fresh. If Forte continues to hold out or injures himself again, Bush can take the bulk of the work. This wouldn’t be favorable for the Bears, as I don’t feel Bush is an every down back. The two players do take the last spot on the list though, based on the potential of a healthy Forte and Bush being used as a fresh, touchdown machine.
Honorable Mentions & Exceptions
- Arizona Cardinals - Beanie Wells & Ryan Williams have too many questions surrounding injuries and Ryan hasn’t had the chance to prove his worth yet.
- Tampa Bay Bucs - Doug Martin & LeGarrette Blount are a very tempting and intriguing duo. They could very well warrant a spot in the top 5. Martin is a special back and should pair nicely with Blount but I couldn’t place any rookie over the known commodities above.
- St Louis Rams - Steven Jackson & Isaiah Pead are another duo that I look forward to watching. I keep waiting for Jackson to fall apart but he keeps proving me wrong. Now he will finally get help in the backfield. Once again, I couldn’t put the rookies above the veteran duos.
- New Orleans Saints - Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, & Chris Ivory are one of the deepest, most talented backfields but they’re a running back by committee. They don’t have a duo that should rank in the top 5.
- San Francisco 49ers - Frank Gore, LaMichael James, Kendall Hunter, & Brandon Jacobs are the 49ers model of what the above listed Saints implemented for the 2010 season. My feelings are the same as the Saints. I don’t see any two of these four that I would take over the top 5 duos.
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Jayson Braddock is an NFL Scout / NFL Writer & On-Air Personality. Jayson is also a football insider for the Dylan Gwinn show on 790 AM in Houston, TX - Listeners NOT in the Houston metropolitan area can hear Jayson on iheart radio or sports790.com. You can also catch Jayson on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio with Scott Engel and the morning crew every Thursday at 10:30am ET. You may email Jayson directly @ firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @JaysonBraddock