The Two-Back System Debate – One is the Loneliest Number

Read the debate intro and the argument from Bleacher Fan about whether or not a two back system in the right approach for a successful NFL offense.

Looking around the NFL nowadays it becomes increasingly clear that the every-down type running back is nearing extinction. Teams are getting a plethora of players involved in the rushing attack. From short yardage specialist to third down pace-changers, more and more running backs are getting touches. But one approach to the rushing game is starting to garner support and has certainly piqued my interest – the two-back system.

Why not double your pleasure and double your fun with two full-time starting running backs? Now before your start to confuse my proposal with the enigma that is the running back by committee approach, let me clarify what I mean by the two-back system. The two-back system employs two primary running backs interchangeably. Coaches switch between the two backs in order to keep them fresh or alternate them on different drives. Running back by committee systems typically involve complex role assignments (e.g. the starter, the goal line back, the third down pace-changer, the fourth quarter clock grinder, etc.) that are meticulously assigned considering everything from defensive matchups to playing surface to statistical history. This is all too complex. The two-back system reduces this excessive entanglement with arbitrary stats and employs more of an old fashion gut feeling approach to calling the running game.

In 2008 the Carolina Panthers were a perfect example of a successful two-back system. Two running backs, DeAngello Williams and Jonathan Stewart, attempted 457 rushes for 2,351 yards and 28 touchdowns. While the dynamic duo did not split the load evenly (Williams had 273 attempts, 1,515 yards and 18 rushing scores while Stewart had 184 attempts, 836 yards and 10 rushing scores), they certainly were successful as a powerful tandem of starter quality running backs. The Panthers ended the season third in the NFL in rushing yards and first in rushing touchdowns, besting the next closest team by six scores. Even with the Panthers’ poor record in 2009 (5-7), the Panthers’ “double trouble” are primed to finish near the top of both categories again. It is clear that the two-back system is working in Carolina.

The New York Giants also experienced huge success last season leaning on the two-back system. The Giants led the NFL in rushing yards with 2,518. Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward accounted for the vast majority of this yardage while splitting the total number of carries somewhat evenly across the season. Brandon Jacobs had 1,089 yards on 219 attempts and 15 rushing touchdowns and Derrick Ward was not far behind with 1,025 yards on 182 carries and two rushing touchdowns. While Ward’s touchdowns are not comparable with Jacobs, the two backs were easily the envy of the league with dueling 1,000 yard seasons. This season the Giants rushing attack has taken a step back. Currently, the G Men are ranked tenth in rushing yardage entering week 14. This can be explained, in part, by the pounding Jacobs took last season. But I cannot help but wonder if the departure of Jacobs’ rushing brother-from-another-mother, Derrick Ward, is to blame. Ahmad Bradshaw (122 attempts for 596 yards and four rushing touchdowns) has not proven himself as an equivalent, starting caliber back that Derrick Ward was last season. In my opinion the Giants stuck with the two-back system, but the problem is the not the system but this season’s choice of backs.

The system is proving itself a winner. Teams like the Panthers, the Giants, and even this year’s Arizona Cardinals team, are really onto something. It is simple and effective and is quickly becoming a must for success in the NFL.

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