Running Backs and Buggy Whips: The NFL's Changing


The Atlanta Falcons cut Michael Turner today. Since they're rumored to be interested in Steven Jackson, I thought I'd take a look at these two 'Class of 2004' running backs. Turner was selected by the San Diego Chargers in the 5th round (#154 overall) of the 2004 NFL draft, while Jackson was selected in the first round at #24.

While both of these running backs feature a bruising running style, Jackson leads in almost every category. Turner holds a slight edge in rushing touch downs with 66, versus 56 for the St. Louis Rams star. Let's take a peek at Turner and Jackson's career totals:

Michael Turner

Season Team Rushing Receiving Fumbles
G GS Att Yds Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Avg Lng TD FUM Lost
2012 Atlanta Falcons 16 16 222 800 3.6 43 10 19 128 6.7 60T 1 3 1
2011 Atlanta Falcons 16 15 301 1,340 4.5 81T 11 17 168 9.9 32 0 3 2
2010 Atlanta Falcons 16 15 334 1,371 4.1 55 12 12 85 7.1 19 0 2 2
2009 Atlanta Falcons 11 11 178 871 4.9 58T 10 5 35 7.0 10 0 4 2
2008 Atlanta Falcons 16 16 376 1,699 4.5 70 17 6 41 6.8 18 0 3 2
2007 San Diego Chargers 16 0 71 316 4.5 74T 1 4 16 4.0 12 0 1 1
2006 San Diego Chargers 13 0 80 502 6.3 73 2 3 47 15.7 30 0 -- --
2005 San Diego Chargers 16 0 57 335 5.9 83T 3 0 0 -- 0 0 -- --
2004 San Diego Chargers 14 1 20 104 5.2 30 0 4 8 2.0 7 0 1 1
TOTAL 1,639 7,338 4.5 83 66 70 528 7.5 60 1 17 11

Steven Jackson

Season Team Rushing Receiving Fumbles
G GS Att Yds Avg Lng TD Rec Yds Avg Lng TD FUM Lost
2012 St. Louis Rams 16 16 257 1,042 4.1 46 4 38 321 8.4 22 0 -- --
2011 St. Louis Rams 15 15 260 1,145 4.4 47T 5 42 333 7.9 50 1 2 1
2010 St. Louis Rams 16 16 330 1,241 3.8 42T 6 46 383 8.3 49 0 1 1
2009 St. Louis Rams 15 15 324 1,416 4.4 58 4 51 322 6.3 38 0 2 2
2008 St. Louis Rams 12 11 253 1,042 4.1 56T 7 40 379 9.5 53 1 5 3
2007 St. Louis Rams 12 12 237 1,002 4.2 54 5 38 271 7.1 37 1 5 2
2006 St. Louis Rams 16 16 346 1,528 4.4 59T 13 90 806 9.0 64T 3 4 2
2005 St. Louis Rams 15 15 254 1,046 4.1 51 8 43 320 7.4 27 2 3 3
2004 St. Louis Rams 14 3 134 673 5.0 48 4 19 189 9.9 28 0 1 1
TOTAL 2,395 10,135 4.2 59 56 407 3,324 8.2 64 8 23 15

I read a story today by Ryan Wilson over at CBS Sports, and I was drawn to his comment:

"In general, running backs don't command much in free agency, especially ones with more than 1,600 carries over an eight years."

Take a look at the carries numbers for both player, and make sure to add in Jackson's receptions. Turner has 1,709 total carries (both rushing and receptions), while Jackson has a whopping total of 2,802 over the same time period. Don't get me wrong, there's no way I'm implying Jackson doesn't have fuel left in his NFL tank. But when you look at the numbers, it's curious why the Falcons and their fans think Turner has been so over-worked, eh?

They didn't want to pay Turner in 2013, and their fans think Jackson can be had for around $2 to $3 million per year on a two year contract because he longs for a chance at the Super Bowl... Really... REALLY?

Both of these players have worked hard throughout their careers, and while their NFL horizons may be in view, both have loads to offer any team they play for during the next few years. When all is said and done, few can argue that both Jackson and Turner's current situations are inspired by the business aspects of today's NFL, and not diminished abilities. Both players experienced drops in production in 2012, but if you look at the Rams and Falcons, you could see reasons why this happened had little to do with either player being over the hill. Turner lost ground to a high flying passing game, and the effort to get Jacquizz Rodgers some playing time. Jackson fell into a shared rushing approach in an effort to keep him healthy all season, which seemed to work by and large.

Yet, today's NFL is market driven more than ever. The fans are buying into the high production passing attacks that have made the once precious running back position play second fiddle. It's hard to argue that even Tight Ends are getting more attention than running backs. The days where running backs were considered a viable choice in the first round of the NFL Draft are all but gone. Think about that for a second, then consider where a Eric Dickerson would be drafted in this pass heavy era? I think he'd still go in the first round, but I'm not sure it would be at the second overall pick in the draft like he was in 1983.

When I consider running backs like Jackson and Turner, I can't help but believe their current values are being understated. The NFL game is still about balance on both sides of the ball. Anyone who thinks a team can go to the Super Bowl without a rushing attack is more than a little loopy. The rush still sets up the passing game. Guys like Turner and Jackson create a variety of havoc for opposing defenses. They punish tacklers with their power, and make them think twice about rushing the quarterback on draw plays. They block huge linebackers - like Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers - in key situations, or inspire with the beastliest of modes too.

This NFL, the one we have today, is going to see fewer running backs having nine or ten year careers. I think teams will opt for options in the draft. They'll chose to go with cheaper options, now available because of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. When you can get fresh-legged rookies locked into first contract deals for a few million dollars for four or five years, why not? I've wondered how the CBA will affect the NFL game I love, and it seems apparent teams will decide on positions in a more disposable fashion. While NFL owners appear to have snookered the NFLPA - to me anyway - I wonder what effect players like Jackson and Turner will have in the broad scheme. Ten years ago, if these players had hit the open market, there would have been teams salivating for a chance to sign them. But this is a different day. Monumental players like Steven Jackson will be few and far between. The number of carries every year will be seen as a ticking clock that winds down after four or five years, and if you think about the average career life of an NFL running back - 2.57 years - it really doesn't seem to have changed, right? Wrong! The career life numbers reflect ALL running backs, not just the ones who succeed like Jackson and Turner. With career yardage totals of 13,459 (rushing and receiving), running backs like Steven Jackson may be a dying breed.

I honestly hope both Jackson and Turner find new teams to play for, though in Jackson's case I hope he stays with the St. Louis Rams. There's something near heroic about a player that plays as well as #39 has over the last nine years for a team that garners little in the way of fanfare. He's shown up every year, playing his heart out, as if to say champions are those who take the field and give their all. Jeff Fisher and Les Snead: Find a way to pay Steven Jackson. You'll be glad you did...

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