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2023 NFL Week 1 Proves Running the Ball Is Less Important Than Ever

Sep 10, 2023; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) celebrates after a touchdown in the first half against the Miami Dolphins at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

There are several reasons running backs are devalued and disrespected by the front offices in the NFL. Three teams that pulled surprising season-opening victories did not do it with any semblance of a running game.

The Los Angeles Rams ­— even without star WR Cooper Kupp — had 334 passing yards against the Seattle Seahawks in their 30-13 win. The Rams averaged 8.8 yards per pass attempt and just 2.3 yards per rush.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers upset the Minnesota Vikings 20-17. Tampa Bay averaged just 2.2 yards per rush. In the second half of this close contest, Baker Mayfield completed 15-of-19 passes for 110 yards. Tampa Bay ran 21 times for 37 yards.

The Las Vegas Raiders — despite having 2022 rushing leader Josh Jacobs active — beat the Denver Broncos 17-16 with an anemic 2.1 yards per rush. Think about it. Jimmy Garoppolo averaged 7.7 yards per pass attempt, but Las Vegas ran the ball 29 times for only 61 yards. Jacobs ran the ball 19 times for 48 yards, with a long of seven yards.

Defenses Can Stop the Run

One reason the league average after Week 1 was only 3.8 yards per rush (it was 4.5 yards per rush last year) is NFL safeties can be an eighth defender in the box to contain the running game.

They can also still jam receivers and tight ends or blitz the quarterback. Five running backs saw eight-plus defenders in the box at least 50 percent of the time in Week 1. For the most part, the strategy worked.

8+ Defenders in the Box%, Week 1 Name
68.88 Christian McCaffrey
63.64 Alexander Mattison
53.33 Derrick Henry
53.33 Tyler Algeier
50 Saquon Barkley

Yes, Christian McCaffrey was a big part of a blowout victory. But outside of his third-quarter, 65-yard touchdown run, he rushed 21 times for 87 yards, 4.1 yards per rush. Alexander Mattison was held in check in a Vikings defeat. Derrick Henry was held in check in a Titans defeat. And Saquon Barkley was held to 11 rushes for 33 yards in the first half before the game became a giant embarrassment.

Upper-body image of Jalen Hurts (in a green helmet, white jersey and white pants) running the ball with no one around him

When in Doubt, Teams Pass

The Philadelphia Eagles ran the ball 32 times per game last season (third most in the NFL) and averaged 147.6 rush yards per game (fifth in the NFL).

In the season opener, they ran the ball only 25 times for 97 yards despite leading most of the game. In the second half, Philadelphia ran the ball only 10 times for 38 yards, with QB Jalen Hurts getting five of those carries.

The Eagles didn’t even run the ball with two minutes remaining in the game on fourth-and-2 from the New England 44-yard line.

Even when teams could run the ball effectively, they lost to teams with better aerial attacks. The Los Angeles Chargers rushed for 234 yards and three touchdowns. Big deal.

The Miami Dolphins didn’t have to run the ball. They had a passing attack with 466 passing yards (10.4 yards per pass attempt), double the passing yards that Los Angeles had. Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelley's rushing performances didn’t translate to a victory.

Churring Through Running Backs

Running backs to have more than 100 rush yards in Week 1 in 2023:

Christian McCaffrey 152 yards
Breece Hall 127 yards
Austin Ekeler 117 yards
Nick Chubb 106 yards

Running backs to have more than 100 rush yards for Week 1 in 2022:

Saquon Barkley 164 yards
Jonathan Taylor 161 yards
D’Andre Swift 144 yards
Nick Chubb  141 yards
Leonard Fournette 127 yards
Cordarrelle Patterson 120 yards

Running backs to have more than 100 rush yards for Week 1 in 2021:

Joe Mixon  127 yards
David Montgomery 108 yards
Elijah Mitchell 104 yards
Melvin Gordon 101 yards
Damien Harris  100 yards

Some Observations

First, there isn’t a lot of overlap like you see in star quarterbacks or receivers.

Also, Jonathan Taylor is missed and needs to play for the Indianapolis Colts and soon. Outside of rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson, Indianapolis had 16 rushes for 25 yards in Week 1. Maybe running backs aren’t interchangeable?

Aside from Barkley and Taylor, the other backs to have more than 100 yards in Week 1 last year included the fabulously consistent Nick Chubb and D’Andre Swift, Leonard Fournette and Cordarrelle Patterson.

Swift had just one carry for three yards this year, which is one more than Fournette (who hasn’t found a landing place after parting ways with the Bucs) and Patterson (who is still on the Falcons but won’t have many carries behind Tyler Allgeier and Bijan Robinson) put together.

Although Fournette is only 28, he’s considered old by NFL running back standards. He was taken fourth overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.

He’s lesson No. 1 about why you can’t take a running back that high in the first round. A few picks later, the Kansas City Chiefs picked Patrick Mahomes with the 10th overall selection. And the Texans picked Deshaun Watson at No. 12. Quarterbacks have a much longer shelf life.

Elliott Kalb has been known in the sports television industry as "Mr. Stats" for more than 35 years. He is a 13-time Sports Emmy winner as a writer, researcher and producer. Follow him on Twitter (X) @MrStats50.