Inside Slant: Dip in NFL rushing

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
9:30
AM ET
In April, for the first time in 50 years, not a single running back was selected in the first round of the NFL draft.

Over the weekend, the league set a single-week record in combined passing yards (8,143) and touchdown passes (63). There were 19 100-yard receivers and only three 100-yard rushers, and the differential between the two (16) was the second-highest for any week of NFL games since 1970, according to STATS LLC via the Wall Street Journal.

The easy conclusion is that the NFL has accelerated its already-obvious shift toward the passing game. That sentence might be accurate, but for the moment at least, the best answer is that the league is simply better at passing -- and maybe getting worse at running -- than it ever has been.

Teams tried to run about the same amount of time in Week 1 as they did in recent season-opening weeks. Here, in fact, are the percentage of plays that resulted in a rushing attempts in the past five Week 1s:

2009: 42.3
2010: 42.0
2011: 42.3
2012: 42.2
2013: 41.1

Over that same span, rushing yardage totals have decreased by about 12 percent.

Running is a high-contact position that requires a steady flow of young players to keep talent adequately stockpiled. So it's notable that the thin draft class led to a grand total of 33 carries by rookie running backs in Week 1, the lowest such total since 2004, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The chart provides details of might be a substandard class of talent.

When you look at the top rushing performers from Week 1, most were from established veterans. The average experience level for the nine running backs who rushed for at least 70 yards in Week 1 was 6.2 years. None had been in the league for fewer than three years.

To be clear, there are some dynamic young running backs in the NFL. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Doug Martin, the Cleveland Browns' Trent Richardson and the Washington Redskins' Alfred Morris are each in their second years. They have better days ahead than what they showed in Week 1. (A combined 157 yards on 49 carries.)

This is hardly the time to declare an end to dominant running games in the NFL. Historically, passing totals drop off during the course of a season because of weather and other impediments. It's more than fair to wait and see if the league compensates in its rushing totals.

If not, however, this year's relative lack of fresh talent will be at least partially to blame.

(Statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)

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