A Double-Edged Sword

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

It was all the rage in the NFL last season to have two tailbacks sharing the workload relatively evenly. The four teams that reached the conference championship games had two running backs splitting the carries: the Indianapolis Colts with Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai; the New England Patriots with Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney; the Chicago Bears with Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson; and the New Orleans Saints with Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush.

That showed the upside of having two capable running backs: Neither got worn down, and their complementary running styles kept defenses off-balance. But this season, the downside of trying to craft such a setup has been on display: What if all you're doing is taking carries from your best runner?

Take what's happening with the Minnesota Vikings, for instance.

Last season, Chester Taylor was the main man in the Vikings' backfield and a 1,200-yard rusher. But when Oklahoma tailback Adrian Peterson was available for the seventh overall selection in the draft, the Vikings didn't hesitate. It made sense with the success of the Colts, Patriots, Bears and Saints last season.

The problem has been Peterson has turned out to be even better than advertised. He leads the NFL with 740 rushing yards, 14 more than Pittsburgh Steelers speedster Willie Parker.

Until this past weekend, however, Peterson wasn't even the Vikings' clear No. 1 runner. He started only three of the first six games, two when Taylor was hurt and one when they were in the backfield together, and he had more than 20 carries in a game only once.

When Peterson got only 12 carries in a 24-14 loss to the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium 10 days ago, former NFL coaches turned TV talking heads Bill Parcells and Mike Ditka were among those who questioned the wisdom of the arrangement.

Brad Childress, the Vikings' second-year coach, may or may not have been listening. Either way, he made Peterson the clear featured runner for last Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Peterson played nearly two-thirds of the offensive snaps and had 20 carries in the Vikings' 23-16 loss. Taylor got six carries and became mostly a third-down receiver out of the backfield.

The Cowboys have had a similar dilemma, with Julius Jones and Marion Barber, over the past two seasons. Jones started every game last season and has started every game this year.

Jones ran for nearly 1,100 yards last season, but Barber has established himself as the more dynamic runner. Barber averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season (to 4.1 yards per carry for Jones) while rushing for 654 yards.

This season, Barber has become the clear centerpiece of the Cowboys' running game. He has six more carries than Jones, 84 to 78. He has run for 479 yards and five touchdowns and is averaging 5.7 yards per carry, while Jones has rushed for 296 yards and one touchdown and is averaging 3.8 yards per carry. Yet Jones has remained the starter.

Part of it is running style: Barber gives an all-out, almost frenetic effort on every play. "I'm not sure that guy could get 20 carries a game," a scout for one NFL team said while watching Barber and the Cowboys play earlier this season. "He'd never last, running like that."

But part of it is probably just the nature of a football coach: Why tinker with something that's working? The Cowboys are 6-1 and atop the NFC East.

Meanwhile, the four teams whose success last season may have convinced coaches this was the way to go aren't two-back clubs any more. The Bears traded Thomas Jones to the New York Jets; Rhodes left the Colts in free agency; Dillon retired from the Patriots in the offseason; and the Saints have lost McAllister to a season-ending knee injury.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company