SBLIII - Do NFL Running Backs Matter?

Profile Picture: Adam Spradling

January 30th, 2019

Over the past few seasons, a very strange debate has broken out. Do NFL running backs matter in the grand scheme of the game? With Super Bowl LIII barreling down our throats on Sunday, February 3rd, it's a discussion worth having especially when you consider how much one team is paying for the services of their running game compared to their opponent. Yes, of course we're talking Todd Gurley here. Before we broach his impact on this subject, we should probably take a step back and look at the historical data that we have.


The most obvious way to sort through the information is to visit our friends at Pro Football Reference and look at the top-10 running-backs in Super Bowl history, more specifically looking at how their team's fared. Below are the Top-10 rushing performances based purely on yards. Spoiler alert: 9 of the 10 teams won the Super Bowl with a high-end rushing game.
Player Super Bowl Rush Yards Result
1 Timmy Smith (WAS) XXII 204 Won 42-10 (vs. Den)
2 Marcus Allen (LA Raiders) XVIII 191 Won 38-9 (vs. Was)
3 John Riggins (WAS) XVII 166 Won 27-17 (vs. Mia)
4 Franco Harris (PIT) IX 158 Won 16-6 (vs. Min)
5 Terrell Davis (DEN) XXXII 157 Won 31-24 (vs. GB)
6 Larry Csonka (MIA) VIII 145 Won 24-7 (vs. Min)
7 Clarence Davis (OAK) XI 137 Won 32-14 (vs. Min)
8 Thurman Thomas (BUF) XX 135 Lost 19-20 (vs. NYG)
9 Emmitt Smith XXVIII 132 Won 30-13 (vs. Buf)
10 Michael Pittman (TAM) XXXXVII 124 Won 48-21 (vs. Oak)
Rushing yards doesn't tell the whole story, even though those totals up top are quite hefty. I mean, nobody's looking at Michael Pittman's biceps and saying that he was the reason that Tampa crushed the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl. So in our search to figure answer whether or not NFL running backs matter, we have to dig further. How about we talk about workload?
Player Super Bowl Attempts Result
1 John Riggins (WAS) XVII 38 Won 27-17 (vs. Mia)
2 Franco Harris (PIT) IX 34 Won 16-6 (vs. Min)
3 Larry Csonka (MIA) XXXII 33 Won 24-7 (vs. Mia)
4 Emmitt Smith (DAL) XXVIII 30 Won 24-13 (vs. Buf)
Matt Snell (NYJ) III 30 Won 16-7 (vs. Bal)
Terrell Davis (DEN) XXXII 30 Won 31-24 (vs. GB)
7 Michael Pittman (TAM) XXXVII 29 Won 48-21 (vs. Oak)
8 Eddie George (TEN) XXXIV 28 Lost 16-23 (vs. STL)
9 Jamal Lewis (BAL) XXXV 27 Won 34-7 (vs. NYG)
Franco Harris (PIT) X 27 Won 21-17 (vs. Dal)
These numbers are just as revealing. There's a fair bit of cross-over from the rushing yards top-10, but again we have 9 Super Bowl winners and just one loser in the form of timeless Eddie George himself. Even then, the Titans were so close to at least tying that game. The point is pretty simple: historically, teams that have big time outputs from the running backs win the game more often than not.

But if you're looking for reasons why NFL running backs don't matter, then all you have to look at is the dates of those Super Bowls mentioned above. The most recent one was way back in 2001, and you don't need a calculator to know that was nearly two decades ago.


We don't have to go back that far to find a running-back who had an electric performance that helped seal one of the most improbable comebacks in the history of the Super Bowl. James White carried the ball 6 times for just 29 yards in Super Bowl LI as the Patriots mounted an improbable comeback for the ages, but he also caught 14 passes for 110 yards and an additional score. Tom Brady gets all the credit in that game, which he should because he threw for 466 yards, but White was a game changing force of nature as he incinerated the Falcons. Unfortunately for the Patriots, White was less effective a year later with just 66 total yards on 9 touches (7 carries, 2 receptions) with a touchdown in the loss to the Eagles at Super Bowl LII. New England never

In Super Bowl L, the Broncos' CJ Anderson, who will feature once again in Super Bowl LIII as a member of the Rams, was a bulldozing force against the Panthers with 23 carries for 90 yards and a score, which is about the average output of a productive running back in the championship game. Marshawn Lynch bullied his way to 102 yards on 24 carries with a touchdown in the infamous Super Bowl XLIX matchup against the Patriots.

Truth be told, even more recent running backs have proven their worth on the football field.


Marlon Mack was obscene in Wild Card weekend with 148 rushing yards against Houston in victory. Zeke Elliott was also brokers, producing 137 yards while Dallas survived the Seahawks. The following weekend, third-stringer Damien Williams exploded for 129 yards against Indianapolis while the Anderson-Gurley combination combined for 238 rushing yards against Dallas. Sony Michel had the breakout game of his rookie campaign with 129 yards and 3 touchdowns while the Patriots smothered the LA Chargers. Basically, every team that had a prolific effort from a running back through the playoffs won their matchup.

That was certainly the case for New England, when Sony Michel went off again for 113 yards and 2 touchdowns while Rex Burkhead bashed in two scores including the game winner. In the NFC Championship, neither team was able to get their running game moving forward with consistent success and instead relied on kickers and quarterbacks (and blown calls by the refs).

So the question of whether or not NFL running backs matter is a moot point. They can make a significant impact on your team.


The direct answer to the question of whether NFL running backs matter is a hard "yes", but the question itself was posed with a lot of nuance that isn't immediately suggested. Do you need to pay running-backs a boat load of money? Central to this debate is the case of Le'Veon Bell, who forwent $14.5 million in guarantees in order to fight for his perceived worth. In his place, James Conner exploded and produced numbers equivalent to Bell, while earning just $1.4 million thourgh the season. This is where this whole conversation really gained steam.

The man that truly has to answer whether or not NFL running backs matter is Todd Gurley, who has a massive contract extension that kicks in next season to the tune of $14.375 million per year over a maximum of five seasons. By comparison, James White makes $4 million per season on a 3-year, $12 million deal. Gurley was curiously absent in the NFC Championship where he carried the ball just 4 times for 10 yards while CJ Anderson rolled up 44 yards on 16 carries of his own.


We can all agree that NFL running backs matter. That's not up for debate. What we can question is whether or not superstar backs like Gurley and Bell are worth paying for. Saquon Barkley is still questioned as a legitimate second overall pick despite putting up one of the craziest rookie seasons in NFL history. You can absolutely get away without a superstar running back if you have an elite offensive line, and a quarterback that can keep defenses honest to a reasonable degree.

Does paying for the top-level talent at the running back position really make a huge difference?  Ahead of Super Bowl LIII, there are five rushers who will have a notable impact on the game. Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead are a bargain-bin version of a three-headed dragon. Todd Gurley is one of the most outrageous offensive weapons in the sport when he's healthy (which remains a big 'if'), and backup CJ Anderson has proved useful in terms of falling over for a three-yard gain.

Each franchise has gone in a different direction, with the Rams securing Gurley long term while the Patriots continue to swap out running backs as if they're just parts of a bigger machine. Both strategies have delivered the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl. We'll find out on Sunday, February 3rd if having an unparalleled talent like Gurley is the difference or not.