• Mike Smith, the coach of the Falcons, leaned forward in a dark leather chair in his office in Flowery Branch, Ga., thought about how NFL teams are using running backs today, then threw his head back and chuckled. "It really is counterintuitive," he said. "You say you're going to have this feature back and you're going to feed him the ball and he'll get stronger as the game goes on, then you go out and throw the football around the field. Or you say you have to have two backs to share the load at a time when teams are running the ball less than ever."
Welcome to the evolving world of NFL offenses, where workhorse running back has become the latest oxymoron. Thanks in part to rules changes that opened up the passing game, since the early 1990s the league has tilted toward the quarterback. Last year a record 10 players threw for more than 4,000 yards, doubling the season high for the '90s, while teams averaged just 55.0 carries a game, sixth fewest since 1970. From 2007 to '09 there were 17 instances in which backs had 300 carries in a season, the lowest three-year total since 1992 to '94. Only two of the last 10 Super Bowl winners—the '00 Ravens with Jamal Lewis and the '04 Patriots with Corey Dillon—had a back with 300 rushing attempts.
These days tandems are in. Four seasons ago the Colts and the Bears reached Super Bowl XLI using two backs who were within 100 carries of each other; since then the number of playoff teams following a similar blueprint increased from six in 2007 to eight in '08 to 10 last year. With a rotation, teams can reduce wear and tear or capitalize on different skill sets. The Vikings did it last season with Chester Taylor (a better pass catcher) subbing for Adrian Peterson, and the Chargers did it with Darren Sproles (a speedy scatback) spotting LaDainian Tomlinson. The Panthers have a change-of-pace runner in DeAngelo Williams and a power back in Jonathan Stewart.
The effects of a heavy workload are clear. The players with the three highest single-season rushing attempts are Larry Johnson (416 carries in 2006), Jamal Anderson (410 in 1998) and James Wilder (407 in '84). Johnson has not reached 200 carries in a season since; Anderson rushed a total of 356 times over the next three years, then retired; and Wilder surpassed 190 carries just once in his final five seasons.
But just as gladiators wear their battle scars as badges of honor, elite runners take pride in being on the field full time. They never want their toughness questioned the way Patriots running back Laurence Maroney's was during his second season, in 2007. After missing three games because of a groin injury and parts of two others with various knocks, Maroney found diapers left by anonymous teammates at his locker-room stall.
"Somebody just came with the idea that backs tend to last longer with less carries over the course of a couple of years," says Atlanta's Michael Turner, who was first in carries (376) and second in yards (1,699) in 2008 but missed five games last season because of a right ankle injury. "But I think we're starting to be really underappreciated for what we do. [Critics] question our toughness and say we can't carry the load. It's not that we can't do it; it's just the way coaches are calling the plays."