Here’s How a Heavy Workload Affects an NFL Running Back
Running backs suffer more wear and tear than any other position in the NFL. It’s a major reason why most teams now use at least two running backs rather than going with the traditional workhorse running back approach. This trend has not gone unnoticed in the NFL, as there have been zero running backs selected in the first round of the last two NFL Drafts. Further evidence of the running back position losing value in the NFL is the fact that the first running back did not come off the board until the 54th overall selection in the 2014 draft.
Running back DeMarco Murray was coming off his most productive season as a professional in 2014. As a member of the Dallas Cowboys, Murray carried the ball a whopping 392 times en route to rushing for league-leading totals of 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns. The former Oklahoma Sooner played a key role in the Cowboys’ run to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, yet Jerry Jones was surprisingly willing to let Murray test the free agency market.
The 2014 NFL Offensive Player of the Year ultimately signed a lucrative free agent contract with one of the Cowboys’ biggest NFC East rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles. Given the fact that Murray carried the ball well over 400 times in 2014 when you factor in the playoffs, the Eagles took a major risk in signing the All-Pro to a five-year, $40 million contract with $21 million in guarantees.
Prior to the season, history suggested that Murray was in line for a major dip in his level of production in 2015. There has been only one occurrence in NFL history when a running back who carried the ball 370 times or more saw an increase in his number of carries the following year. Very few people expected Murray to carry the ball 392 times or more for the Eagles this season, and in all reality, it would actually be surprising to see him even come close to his 2014 workload. So far, history seems to have been right.
With that, here is a look at how every running back who carried the ball 370 times or more during the regular season have fared the following season over the last 10 years.
Curtis Martin, New York Jets
- 371 carries
- 1,697 rushing yards
- 12 rushing touchdowns
- 220 carries
- 735 rushing yards
- 5 rushing touchdowns
Martin had a career-high 371 carries in 2004, which resulted in his most productive season as an NFL running back. In his next season, he saw a dropoff of 151 carries and almost 1,000 yards, and, coincidentally, that season ended up being his last in the NFL. Martin was one of the most durable backs in NFL history, but even his body couldn’t handle the wear and tear of back-to-back seasons with heavy workloads at the end of his career.
Shaun Alexander, Seattle Seahawks
- 370 carries
- 1,880 rushing yards
- 27 rushing touchdowns
- 252 carries
- 896 rushing yards
- 7 rushing touchdowns
The Seahawks rode Alexander all the way to the Super Bowl in 2005. He carried the ball 370 times, was named NFL MVP, and produced one of the best seasons by a running back in NFL history. Unfortunately, that season was the end of Alexander’s dominant run in the NFL, as he was never the same type of player after that. His numbers steadily decreased over the next three years before the two-time All-Pro finally decided to retire following the 2008 season.
Larry Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs
- 416 carries
- 1,789 rushing yards
- 17 rushing touchdowns
- 158 carries
- 559 rushing yards
- 3 rushing touchdowns
Johnson’s 416 carries in 2006 set a new NFL record for the most rushing attempts in a single season. That season also happened to be the end of Johnson’s run as a dominating NFL running back. The two-time All-Pro never again carried the ball more than 200 times in a single season and never regained the form that had him looking like a legitimate MVP candidate early in his career. Johnson’s career showed what a heavy workload can do to a promising young running back.
Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons
- 376 carries
- 1,699 rushing yards
- 17 rushing touchdowns
- 178 carries
- 871 rushing yards
- 10 rushing touchdowns
Turner spent the early part of his career with the San Diego Chargers backing up LaDanian Tomlinson before bursting onto the NFL scene with the Atlanta Falcons in 2008. The stout running back carried the ball 376 times in his first season in Atlanta and earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors for the first time in his career. His sophomore season with the Falcons wasn’t nearly as productive. He was only able to play in 11 games and carried the ball 178 times. Turner ended up having a couple of more successful seasons before his career with the Falcons came to an end but never again achieved the kind of success he had in 2008.
All statistics are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.