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NFL Playoff Sunday Open Thread: On the Fungibility of Running Backs

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One minor story of the late game yesterday is that for all the concern about the Steelers missing their top two running backs, it was pretty much a non-factor. They got decent running from Todman and below-average running but a effective work in the passing game from Toussaint. The running game wasn’t great, but is was good enough. Which really shouldn’t be surprising:

The Texans haven’t missed Arian Foster. Buffalo’s young backups have outplayed LeSean McCoy. The Steelers have had one of the league’s best offenses without Le’Veon Bell, although they might be tested in the postseason if DeAngelo Williams has a high ankle sprain. The Chiefs have gotten better without Jamaal Charles. Seattle’s offense kicked into high gear without Marshawn Lynch and even looked fine these past two weeks without Thomas Rawls. Arizona has gotten contributions from Chris and David Johnson. Jeremy Langford is allowing the Bears to let Matt Forte leave. All of Philadelphia’s cheaper backs look better than DeMarco Murray. Even the Saints have managed to improve while replacing Mark Ingram with Tim Hightower. Teams around the league have been stuck going to the well at running back but have come away without losing much at all.

Substantial investments in running backs in the NFL in 2015 just don’t make any sense.

To be Scrupulously Fair, there is one potential triumph for old-school bullshit this year: the Rams took a running back with the 10th overall pick, and Gurley was one of the better backs in the league. Does make this a sensible strategy going forward? Not really. First of all, the primary concern about Gurley — his injury history — remains very much an ongoing concern. But much more importantly, Gurley played as much and as well as could be reasonably hoped, and the Rams dropped from 25th to 29th in the league in offense, ahead of only the Titans and two teams that lost their quarterback to injuries. The real problem with spending a top 10 pick on a RB is that the difference between having an above-average running game and a below-average one just isn’t very important in the current NFL. ESTABLISHING THE RUN to set up the pass seems like a good idea in theory but in practice for all intents and purposes if you can pass you can pass and if you can’t you can’t. (Certainly, we can take the idea that Russell Wilson was good mainly because of Beast Mode, put it in a sack with ten cinder blocks, and throw it into Puget Sound.) And investing a lot in a RB does very little to insure that you’ll even have a decent running game. Ask Chip Kelly. Or the San Diego Chargers, who spent the 15th pick on Melvin Gordon, and ouch.

One final note from yesterday’s game. The more I think about it (and find out about it), the more I think the Bengals got completely screwed by the Jones penalty that really sealed their fate. It’s hard to have much sympathy for them given the suspendable Burfict cheap shot that gave the Steelers a colorable field goal chance. But a Steelers assistant coach is illegally on the field stirring the shit in a volatile situation and you’re going to give Jones a flag for trying to shove him? That’s an outrageously bad call, particularly given its massive impact on the game. (The game was basically a coin flip, or perhaps even the Bengals were favored given the weather, before the Jones penalty.) Either call offsetting penalties or swallow the flag. And this is my problem with the argument that Lewis should be fired because his team was OUT OF CONTROL. The Steelers were at least as OUT OF CONTROL as the Bengals; I don’t think Lewis is a bad coach because the other team was twice rewarded by the officials for it.

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