The great running back tandems

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Feb 03, 2007



By Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor Jonathan Comey
 
The evolution of running games in the NFL has been a pretty simple one.

For the first 40 years or so, the running game was a committee job. Everyone had to be ready: two or three tailbacks, plus the fullback, maybe even the water boy.
 
Then there was the Jim Brown Era. From 1957-1961, Brown became the first guy to average more than 20 carries a game on a regular basis. But there's only one Jim Brown, and when he retired, it was business as usual – backfield by committee.
 
The breakthrough for the one-back superstar system was O.J. Simpson's amazing 2,003-yard season in 1973. Although Simpson also was part of a rotation system in the backfield, his big year led to more. Walter Payton broke out in 1976, and he was a 20-carry-a-game guy for almost his entire 13-year career. He always had plenty of company as a workhorse – after his first four big years, he never led the league in rushing attempts again despite getting over 300 carries every full season.
 
This feature-back trend continued on through Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith, and extended to lesser backs like Eddie George, Jerome Bettis and Curtis Martin, as the fullback slowly went out of style as a handoff option. Since Payton got the ball rolling in 1976, the numbers of 20-carry-per-game backs have been legion.
 
Even in 2006, when the final four teams were all team-oriented at the tailback spot, there were seven players to average at least 20 carries a game.
 
But the Super Bowl has seen its share of twin-killing backfields end up on the winning side.
 
Super Bowls I & II
The Packers won both of their Super Bowls with rotations; in the first, it was Jim Taylor (53 yards), Elijah Pitts (45) and Donny Anderson (30), and in the second, it was Ben Wilson (63), Anderson (48) and Travis Williams (36).
 
Super Bowl IV
Five different Chiefs running backs combined for 140 yards.
 
Super Bowl VI
The Cowboys had one of the best trios of all time – Duane Thomas (95 yards), Walt Garrison (74) and Calvin Hill (25). Even Mike Ditka chipped in with a 17-yard run in the win over Miami.
 
Super Bowl VII & VIII
The Dolphins' great trio of Larry Czonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris was all-Czonka in the back-to-back Super Bowl wins – he had 258 of the trio's total 374 yards rushing in the two games.
 
Super Bowl IX and X
Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier were a sight to behold against the Vikings in 1975, combining for 51 carries and 223 yards; they followed with a combined 133-yard effort in their repeat win over Dallas. Harris was more of a one-man show for Pittsburgh's second back-to-back affairs in Super Bowls XIII and XIV.
 
Super Bowl XI
Clarence Davis and Mark van Eeghen aren't household names, but after combining for 210 yards for the Raiders, maybe they should have been. Goal-line back Pete Banaszak added two TDs.
 
Super Bowl XIX
San Francisco's Roger Craig and Wendell Tyler achieved perfect symmetry, each going for 135 total yards in the Super Bowl win over Miami.
 
Super Bowl XXVI
The great Mark Rypien Redskins team was very similar to the Colts we'll see Sunday – they relied on two great wideouts (Art Monk and Gary Clark) and got by with a backfield of a veteran RB (Earnest Byner, 49 yards) and a kid (Ricky Ervins, 72 yards).
 
Super Bowl XXXI
Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens were subpar in the backfield for the Packers (31 carries, 101 yards), but Brett Favre (246 yards, 0 INT) was sublime against the Patriots.
 
Super Bowl XXXVII
Tampa Bay's Michael Pittman stole the show with 124 yards in the big game, but FB Mike Alstott averaged 11 touches per game in the regular season.
 
Super Bowl XL
The Steelers had a classic blend: a fast rookie (Willie Parker, 93 yards), and the ultimate old grinder (Jerome Bettis, 43 yards).
 
There were other Super Bowl winners to win without a dominant running back – it breaks down to about 50-50, with mostly single-back winners over the last two decades of Bowls and mostly communal efforts over the first two.
 
But whether one-back or two-back, dominant running games don't really translate into Super Bowls. Of the top 20 single-season rushers in the Super Bowl era, only two won Super Bowls – Terrell Davis in 1998 (2,008 yards for the Broncos) and Emmitt Smith in 1995 (1,773 yards for the Cowboys).
 
The Top 10 tandems
When we went through the archives looking for the greatest tandems of the Super Bowl Era, the same trend emerged – they found success, but not ultimate success.
 
None of the Top 10 tandems even made the big game, despite turning in some incredible numbers.
 
Our criteria for a tandem was that both RBs had to average at least 10 touches per game, and we ranked them by total yards (rushing and receiving).
 
All of these combos came before 1986, about the time the concept went out of style, but new ones might emerge. The two Super Bowl contenders are both running-back-by-committee teams: the Bears have Cedric Benson and Thomas Jones; for the Colts, it's Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes. Jacksonville's tandem of Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor, meanwhile, just missed our Top 10 list at 172.9 yards per game, and we all know that the NFL is a copycat league.
 
Expect to see more tandems like these evolve in the near future.
 
The countdown:
 
No. 10: 1985 Browns (tandem YPG: 178.9)
 
Rush Yards
Rec. Yards
TDs
Earnest Byner
1,002
460
10
Kevin Mack
1,104
297
10
 
Maybe the best-balanced tandem ever, they became the third duo to each go over 1,000 yards on the ground. Mack would never get back to 1,000, while Byner would do it twice more.
 
No. 9: 1980 Falcons (181.3 YPG)
 
Rush Yards
Rec. Yards
TDs
William Andrews
1,308
456
5
Lynn Cain
914
223
9
 
Andrews was on his way to being a Hall of Famer before injuries stopped him cold; Cain never came close to his 1980 production.
 
No. 8: 1973 Cowboys (183.9 YPG)
 
Rush Yards
Rec. Yards
TDs
Calvin Hill
1,036
364
9
Walt Garrison
784
390
10
 
The departure of Duane Thomas after the Cowboys' Super Bowl win only made the backfield stronger. Hill and Garrison both made the Pro Bowl, but Dallas' bid to repeat ended with a loss to Washington in the NFC title game.
 
No. 7: 1981 Cowboys (184.7 YPG)
 
Rush Yards
Rec. Yards
TDs
Tony Dorsett
1,646
325
6
Ron Springs
625
359
10
 
Springs was the clear No. 2 guy in Dallas, but 218 touches is nothing to sneeze at. This was the Cowboys team that lost to the 49ers on "The Catch" in the NFC title game – Springs had only five carries in that game after getting 70 yards on 15 carries the week before. 
 
No. 6: 1976 Steelers (186.4 YPG)
 
Rush Yards
Rec. Yards
TDs
Franco Harris
1,128
151
14
Rocky Bleier
1,036
294
5
 
The 1976 Steelers were the ultimate proof that you need a passing game to win a Super Bowl. With two 1,000-yard rushers and a defense that allowed 28 points – TOTAL – over the last nine games of the regular season, they fell to Oakland in the postseason. Terry Bradshaw's 14-for-35 effort after an injury-addled season was the killer for the team that could have been the first three-peater.
 
No. 5: 1980 Lions (188.0 YPG)
 
Rush Yards
Rec. Yards
TDs
Billy Sims
1,303
621
16
Barney Bussey
720
364
3
 
Billy and Barney, a match made in heaven. Sims, another great RB whose career ended early, had a fantastic rookie year, and Bussey averaged 5.0 a carry after several years as the Lions' go-to back. Since we're talking about the Detroit Lions, it goes without saying that they managed to miss the playoffs outright.
 
No. 4: 1985 49ers (192.9 YPG)
 
Rush Yards
Rec. Yards
TDs
Roger Craig
1,050
1,016
15
Wendell Tyler
867
154
8
 
As a rookie in 1983, Craig was the second option in the Niners' backfield, but by 1985, it was tailback Tyler taking a backseat as Craig had an amazing double-double – 1,000 yards rushing and receiving.
 
No. 3: 1966 Browns (193.1 YPG)
 
Rush Yards
Rec. Yards
TDs
Leroy Kelly
1,141
366
16
Ernie Green
750
446
9
 
Not to ever question the legacy of the great Jim Brown, but those Cleveland Browns knew a thing or two about blocking as well. The year after Brown's retirement, Kelly and Green went out and matched him – both guys averaged over 5.0 a carry, both had over 1,000 total yards and both made the Pro Bowl.
 
No. 2: 1978 Bears (200.4 YPG)
 
Rush Yards
Rec. Yards
TDs
Walter Payton
1,395
480
11
Roland Harper
992
340
8
 
Roland Harper was a reliable No. 2 to Payton's No. 1 for three years in the late 70s, and 1978 was his big year. The fullback was a longshot as a 17th-round pick, and is seventh on the Bears' all-time rushing list.
 
No. 1: 1975 Bills (239.1 YPG)
 
Rush Yards
Rec. Yards
TDs
O.J. Simpson
1,817
426
23
Jim Braxton
823
282
13
 
Wow. It's hard to imagine a running game this good missing the playoffs, but the Bills did just that, finishing at 8-6. The two combined for 36 touchdowns (in 14 games), and their 239.1 yards per game was a remarkable 38.7 yards better than second place. Simpson (5.5 a carry) was the star, but Braxton wasn't too shabby in his last good season as Buffalo's big (243-pound) back.

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