They say running backs are worth less than a dime a dozen in the NFL, and they have a point. After all, the NFL's No. 2 leading rusher this season — Alfred Morris of the Washington Redskins — was passed on exactly 172 times in the 2012 NFL draft. And the league's rushing touchdown leader — Arian Foster of the Houston Texans — wasn't even selected in the 2009 draft.
But maybe it's safer to conclude that, rather than not being valuable, great running backs are hard to find. Some, like recent 2,000-yard rushers Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson — are found in the first round, and some are diamonds from the rough. The abundance of late-round and undrafted backs that become studs probably means, however, that teams shouldn't make a habit of using early selections on runners.
But that doesn't mean they shouldn't commit all of the resources at their disposal to finding the next Peterson or Johnson or Morris or Foster, because despite the continued emphasis on passing in this league, 2012 has proven that quality backs can make one hell of a difference.
Each of the NFL's top three leading rushers are in the playoffs. Two helped carry rookie running backs, while the other completely carried sophomore Christian Ponder. Eight of the 12 playoff teams have a back who ranks in the top 12 in rushing, and each of the league's top five rushing touchdown leaders are playing January football.
That's quite an improvement as far as team success in relation to running back success goes. Last year, only six of the league's top 18 rushers were in the playoffs. And while Ray Rice (second in 2011) and Michael Turner (third) helped get their respective teams into the postseason, they certainly didn't play the kinds of roles Peterson (first in 2012), Morris (second) and Marshawn Lynch (third) have played on their respective teams this season.
Even if we go back to 2010, only three of the league's 13 leading backs, yardage-wise, played football in January. In 2009, like in 2011, only six of the league's top 18 rushers played for teams that made the postseason cut.
And while I know passing yards are overrated, the league's top three quarterbacks in that category — Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and Tony Romo — failed to make the playoffs this year. And if you prefer another metric, four of the league's top 11 quarterbacks in terms of passer rating failed to make the playoffs this season. It just so happens that four of the league's top rushers also were eliminated.
In 2011, each of the league's top five passing yardage leaders and nine of the top 10 rated passers made the playoffs. So while top running backs have experienced more team success in 2012, top quarterbacks have experienced less.
This might be an anomaly, but this is a sport that is always changing organically based on trends and even potential trends. Balance might not be a necessity, but it still helps. Hopefully what has happened this year makes more people come to this realization.