In the fourth quarter of the final game of the 1972 season, Falcons running back Dave Hampton carried the ball for a one yard gain. Atlanta stopped the game to celebrate. Hampton had become the first Falcon to rush for 1,000 yards in team history. Throughout the 70s, a running back gaining 1,000+ yards was a real accomplishment, with only 26 teams and a 14 game schedule, there weren’t many chances for a running back to pile up the numbers. In the two previous seasons there were just seven 1,000 yard rushers, though in that 1972 season there would be 10.
Hampton wasn’t one of them. On his next carry, he lost six yards. He got one more rushing attempt, but gained just one yard. He would finish the season with 995 yards. Hampton and the Falcons would have to wait until 1975 for their day in the sun, when he would be just one of eight running backs to break the barrier.
As the NFL progressed the schedule grew to 16 games, then the league to 32 teams. The novelty eventually wore off, peaking in the early aughts when over half the league routinely had a thousand yard running back.
But now, with the league evolving into one heavily reliant on the pass, having a 1,000 yard rusher, as trivial as it may be, is a thing again. The reason for this is twofold: league-wide rushing attempts are trending down, and the feature back is no longer in vogue. Though there was an uptick in 2017, teams have been rushing less passing more since the mid 1990s.
With fewer chances come fewer higher totals, but the small decline in rushing isn’t enough alone. Teams are distributing those declining opportunities to more players, which in turn means they are spending less in salary and in draft capital on running backs.
Thrice the NFL has had 20+ running backs with 1,000+ yards: 1998, 2000, and 2006. In the past three seasons, the totals have been 7, 12, and 9, numbers not seen since the dip in the early 90s.
The amount of running backs with a heavy workload is declining, and as a result the amount of running backs breaking the 1,000 yard barrier is as well. Those totals are back to where they were in the mid-to-late 70s, when the 1,000 yard rusher was still a thing. But the drop off in running backs with a starter but not workhorse workload hasn’t been as severe. The feature back is no longer in vogue, and running back by committee is.
In this, the Eagles are ahead of the curve. Their Super Bowl run featured three running backs, all cheaply acquired and used as a committee in the second half of the season and playoffs. LeGarrette Blount was signed on a cheap one year contract in free agency, Jay Ajayi was traded for a 4th round pick, and they split the rushing workload in the playoffs. Corey Clement was an undrafted free agent and carved out a role for himself as the season progressed. For 2018, the Eagles will carry some combination of Ajayi, Clement, and other cheaply acquired running backs in Darren Sproles (traded for a 5th round pick), Donnell Pumphrey (4th round pick), Wendell Smallwood (5th round pick), and Matt Jones and Josh Adams (free agents). Ajayi will begin the season a top the depth chart, as Blount did in 2017, but like Blount might not end it in such a position. Duce Staley minced no words in how the team operates:
If you look and study us for the last couple of years, a lot of [the carries distribution] comes from being that guy. When we have a group of backs we are going to start off with a back and he’s going to run until his tongue is hanging out and then here comes the next guy. A lot of you see that as a running back by committee and I would agree with that.
In 2016 Jay Ajayi easily cracked the 1,000 yard rushing barrier with 1,272 yards, the 4th highest total. In 2018 there’s no guarantee he even gets the workload needed to be one. If he does, he should once again be among the top rushers in the league. And if not, it’s no concern.
What’s old is new again, and having a 1,000 yard rusher is now a bonus rather than commonplace. Adjust your fantasy team accordingly.