Punch Drunk Wonderland

30 Years of Running Backs as Receivers

RB Roger Craig led the league in receptions in 1985 with 92.

RB Roger Craig led the league in receptions in 1985 with 92.

In recent years there has been a great deal of talk about the evolution of the NFL running back. There is the perception that backs are used more as receivers today than in the past, and a common opinion is that in this “passing NFL” a back has to be a good receiver out of the backfield if he wants to be among the top producing running backs. Also, there is a perception that “bell cow” backs are fading away to running back committees and more situational usage for players at the position. For the most part these perceptions are reality, but the concept of running backs as receivers is not as new to the game as some may think.

I started off with the intent of writing about the “New NFL Running Back” with a focus on reception trends for backs and how they’ve trended up in recent years. Unfortunately, the numbers proved me wrong. Sure, there was a bit of a lull between 2004 and 2010, but for the most part running backs have been part of the passing game with consistency over the last 30 years.

In 2013 there were 13 running backs with 50 or more receptions and 5 with 70 or more. In comparison to the previous nine seasons those look like a significant increase. However, if we continue going back in time we find that 2013 wasn’t so rare. In the last 30 NFL seasons there have been 9 seasons in which there were 10 or more running backs with 50+ receptions and 7 seasons with at least 4 running backs grabbing 70+ receptions (See the table below).

There have been a number of notable seasons in the last 30 years in which running backs or fullbacks have been huge contributors in the passing game. The 2000 season boasted the most running backs (or fullbacks) to reach 70 receptions of any other season over the last 30 years with seven. Fullback Richie Anderson led the way with with 88 receptions. 2013 saw the second most 70+ reception running backs as there were five backs to reach that mark (Pierre Thomas, 77; Danny Woodhead, 76; Matt Forte, 74; Darren Sproles, 71; Jamaal Charles, 70).  In 2003 LaDainian Tomlinson had 100 receptions and there were two other running backs that had 70+ receptions (Michael Pittman, 75; Priest Holmes, 74). Fullback Richie Anderson had 69 receptions that season.

FB Larry Centers

From 1994 to 1996 fullback Larry Centers had consecutive 70+ reception seasons with 77, 101, and 99 receptions.

Marshall Faulk had four 70+ reception seasons in five years from 1998 to 2002. His last year in Indianapolis with then rookie, Peyton Manning, marked a slight resurgence in the late 90s for receiving running backs that continued on with the Greatest Show on Turf when he went to St. Louis. From 1994 to 1996 fullback Larry Centers had consecutive 70+ reception seasons with 77, 101, and 99 receptions.

In the mid 80s running back Roger Craig was a monster receiver for the San Francisco 49ers. From 1984 to 1988 he had four seasons with 70 or more receptions, and in 1985 he led the NFL with 92 receptions. That’s right, Craig led all receivers in receptions that season. Contribution in the passing game for running backs has been part of the game for a long time.

# of Running Backs w/ 50+ & 70+ Receptions per year
Year 50+ Rec 70+ Rec
2013 13 5
2012 7 1
2011 8 2
2010 8 1
2009 8 1
2008 7 0
2007 5 2
2006 8 3
2005 5 1
2004 6 1
2003 11 3
2002 11 4
2001 12 4
2000 13 7
1999 8 2
1998 6 1
1997 4 0
1996 7 1
1995 16 4
1994 15 3
1993 13 3
1992 9 2
1991 7 0
1990 3 3
1989 9 2
1988 8 2
1987 5 0
1986 10 4
1985 9 4
1984 8 4

2013 was a notable season for running backs in terms of production in the passing game, and there is no doubt that receiving skills are vital for backs in today’s NFL. That said, running backs have been receivers for years and 2013’s numbers aren’t so shocking. Offensive systems have evolved and the running back’s role in the passing game and types of routes a back may run have changed over time, but don’t be fooled into thinking receiving production is new. Running back committees and situational usage may lead to some backs being singled out as “receiving backs” in terms of their role, and that can certainly lead to mixed perception. The one thing that likely fans the flames in terms of the perception that running backs are so much more involved in the passing game nowadays could be fantasy football.

Jamaal CharlesIn terms of fantasy football the running back has evolved, but not necessarily because of the passing game alone. Fantasy owners find that they can no longer count on the single “bell cow” fantasy producer among running backs, and this comes primarily out of the role playing scenarios mentioned above. This is especially true when it comes to PPR leagues. San Diego’s Danny Woodhead was the 12th ranked running back in 2013 in terms of fantasy production in PPR formats, and he only had 106 carries. That’s nearly three times fewer carries than LeSean McCoy’s 314. The difference for Woodhead was the 76 receptions. The point isn’t that today’s NFL utilizes running backs in the passing game more. It’s that some running backs find themselves in niches where their role is that of the receiver out of the backfield, and that is how they are primarily used. A running back committee splits snaps and role players fill in as needed. Some, like Woodhead or Darren Sproles, have emerged as key PPR options despite their limited touches in the run game. This is the real evolution that is occurring, and for this reason fantasy owners have to take a running back’s role for a team into consideration when drafting for PPR leagues especially.

From James Wilder’s 85 receptions in 1984 to the 77 catches Pierre Thomas racked up in 2013 running backs have been a part of the passing game in the NFL for most of the last 30 years. Sure, the days of all around backs like Herschel Walker or Marshall Faulk playing the role of the primary rusher and receiving back may be fading as focus turns more to role playing for backs, but don’t be led astray. Running backs have been catching passes for a long time.


K. Smelser About K. Smelser
Kelly Smelser is Owner/Senior Writer for Punch Drunk Wonderland and PDFantasy Sports. Architect of the PDW fantasy football world and general spinster of NFL and Fantasy Football news and analysis. Long walks on the beach, sunsets, and other such niceties are also fine...