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How Many Good Running Backs Are Too Many?

I'll admit it. I'm such a big fan of the running game, I wish we'd bring back the wishbone. Rushing is what put us on the map. Names like Frederickson, Jackson, Fullwood, Andrews, Brooks, James, Cribbs, Agee, Davis, Johnson, Williams, and Brown serve as the backdrop for Auburn rushing glory. Needless to say, with the advent of the spread offense on the Plains, I was more than a little nervous about what lay in store for the run. But so far, it seems that although my fears of abandoning a rushing attack were off base, we still have the same problem we've had the last few years: too much talent in the backfield and not enough carries to go around. What are we to do?

The poll in Monday's thread was very telling. Who should be the featured backs? Who among Ben Tate, Brad Lester, Tristan Davis, and Eric Smith (not to mention banged-up Mario Fannin) should be showcased? The most surprising is that most of you voted Davis, who hasn't carried  much since his freshman year, the number two guy. That tells us how talented we think these guys are. But how many mouths can we afford to feed, especially when you figure that QB Kodi Burns will get quite a few carries, too?

I guess it's a problem that you don't mind having, but a problem it is. No other team in the SEC has as many talented backs as we do. They feature one, maybe two at the most, who get 85% of the carries. Heck, some don't even seem to have one good back--Florida comes to mind (if you don't count the QB). We've seemed to have spent the last few years auditioning a wide variety of RBs to start the season, then having them rush by committee, using three or more to carry the weight, without any single back or tandem of backs being allowed to gain any momentum. Before we start to analyze, let's look at some raw rushing stats:

1999: 748 yards, 1.9 YPR, 68 YPG

2000: 2052 yards, 4.1 YPR, 158 YPG, Johnson-1642, Evans-276

2001: 1696 yards, 3.6 YPR, 141 YPG, Williams-614, Moore-547, Brown-358

2002: 2648 yards, 4.7 YPR, 204 YPG, Brown-1008, Williams-745, Smith-454

2003: 2392 yards, 4.4 YPR, 184 YPG, Williams-1307, Jacobs-446, Brown-446

2004: 2383 yards, 4.3 YPR, 183 YPG, Williams-1165, Brown-913, Stewart-184

2005: 2329 yards, 4.8 YPR, 194 YPG, Irons-1293, Lester-347, Smith-311

2006: 1927 yards, 4.1 YPR, 148 YPG, Irons-893, Lester-510, Tate-392

2007: 2040 yards, 3.8 YPR, 157 YPG, Tate-903, Lester-530, Fannin-448

Everyone was concerned that offensive production was sub-par in 2006 and took a nose-dive last year, but what do the rushing stats from the Tuberville era tell us about that? Unfortunately, not much. There just aren't enough tea leaves here to be able to identify any statistical patterns with ANY credible certainty, especially since there's so many variables that factor into offensive production other than rushing. So what am I trying to prove? I'm trying to see if we are better off featuring two primary running backs, or if we might keep platooning them in order to get as many guys as much playing time as possible.

Most fans will agree that the Cadillac and Ronnie Brown years were the golden ones of our rushing attack this decade. If you look at the stats, the term from the 2002-2005 seasons (including and just outside their tenure) were the most productive, with the run averaging 2438 yards per season. What do those years have in common with the featuring of backs? Actually, they're split. 2002 featured virtually even production from Brown and a sidelined Williams, while 2004 was almost the same, with the positions reversed. 2003 had Williams head and shoulders above both Brown and Brandon Jacobs, while 2005 had Kenny Irons distancing himself from Brad Lester and Tre Smith. See? Hard to get a handle on...

But look at the last two years, 2006-2007. The average rushing yards from those two seasons fell by almost 500 yards per year from the average of the previous four. The per game average dropped from 191 during 2002-2005 all the way to 153 for 2006-2007. That's a decline of 20%. What do those two years have in common? A platoon of RBs. The three top backs for the season put up real similar numbers. Is a decline in rushing yards the culprit for a lackluster offense? You can't say definitively, but I think it's at least a symptom. And is rush by committee necessarily what's fueling a diminished rushing attack? Again, hard to say. It calls for much speculation.

My gut feeling is that although it's perfectly fine to audition as many backs as possible during the beginning of the season, it would be best to settle on two as the primaries before you get too far down the road. Like most people think that platooning QBs is a cancer, I think that handing off too many balls to too many backs can be derisive to the guys who ARE your workhorses. They're never allowed to get that momentum, that swagger that running full speed into a wall of lineman on a consistent basis requires. Sure, if they get banged up you have competent replacements, but your starters have to know that they're the go-to guys.

Most teams only feature one of these types of backs--we have the ability to have two--and then some.  It's been a very long time since we had two 1000-yard rushers in the same season, but it's perfectly within our grasp. That stat probably doesn't carry much weight with Tubs, but it could be a consequence of a devoted rushing attack that showcases no more than two guys. For my money, that's Tate and Lester. Brad needs to step up and show some senior leadership, and Ben needs to keep being the two-legged wrecking ball that he is. The yards WILL come, and so will the wins.
9/11/08 GBA!!!