Perhaps the most underrated line of "The Empire Strikes Back" is when the good guys are hiding on what they think is an asteroid, parking the Millenium Falcon until the Empire goes away. One problem: It's no asteroid, as they find out when Han Solo shoots the inside of a giant space slug's throat.
The slug freaks out. (Hey, how would you react?) And as he — she? — is thrashing the Falcon about, Princess Leah reminds Han of the dangers of leaving their once-safe haven too soon, with the Empire still lurking. It's classic Han and Leah:
Han: "All right, Chewy, let's get out of here!"
Leah: "The Empire is still out there! I don't think it's wise to —"
Han: "No time to discuss this with the committee."
Leah: "I am not a committee!"
That slays me every time.
So what, pray tell, does it have to do with football? Little. Little directly, anyway. But there is this stigma of committees in the NFL. Despite the league becoming more of a specialized, shared-duty kind of world, where several unitaskers are brought together to perform their craft and perform it well in part-time roles, the idea of the effective part-timer in the NFL doesn't always sit well.
Certainly not with players, who want to play more naturally. But also with fantasy football folks. They like stars. They want to draft stars, workhorses and bellcows.
That, however, is largely a day gone by. For every Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy and — for how long, who knows? — Marshawn Lynch, there are two dozen teams that favor a (gulp) committee approach to their offensive backfield. One guy to run inside, one to run outside. A pass blocker, a pass receiver. A guy who can double on special teams. Complementary parts.
Naturally. You can almost hear a player such as the Jets's Chris Johnson screaming to anyone who will listen: "I am not a committee!" It's the way things largely are these days. Seeing as how it roundly has been effective, too, it's most likely here to stay.
You could argue that Lynch and his two talented backups or Peterson and any guy with a pulse make up a pretty good "committee." But we're considering "super" committees here, backfield groups that will heavily involve three or more contributors.
With that in mind, let's take a look — with a non-fantasy lens, really — at the 10 most intriguing RBBC (running back by committee) situations currently happening in the NFL:
1. San Francisco 49ers
Key contributors: Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde, LaMichael James, Marcus Lattimore
Skinny: A lot to break down here. The ageless Gore remains the lead dog until further notice. But that's not to say that the pack isn't catching up to him. Hyde is a highly regarded second-round pick. Hunter will have his role. Lattimore is out to take Gore's job, he says, two years removed from a serious knee injury. The only one who appears out of the picture is James, who has expressed frustration with his limited role as a kick returner primarily. Gore will be the primary first- and second-down runner, as he should be, but will he run the ball 276 times again as he did last season? You'd think Lattimore (if healthy) and Hyde can cut into that number, but both also have looked good catching the ball, too. No team has as much firepower, diversity and options in the backfield as the 49ers.
Key contributors: McCoy, Darren Sproles, Chris Polk, David Fluellen, Henry Josey
Skinny: McCoy remains the horse, and he touched the ball an eye-popping 381 times (including playoffs) in 17 games last season, for an average of 22.4 per. Will that last number drop below 20? Not likely, and why would it? With a rushing average of 5.1 (second best in his career) and a receiving average of 10.4 (career best), McCoy needs to get the ball often in Chip Kelly's offense, which ran the ball more than any other last season in the NFL. And with the addition of Sproles to the mix, the enticement of having an additional runner/receiver/space player in a spread scheme with huge lanes is really exciting. Kelly has said that Sproles will be a runner first, receiver second, but we all know that's a bit farcical. There's a fascinating little battle for the third and, we assume, fourth spots with Polk, Fluellen and Josey — all of whom were undrafted, the last two being rookies. That third guy could end up being quite important, too. Josey could be a great practice-squad stash option for 2015.
3. Buffalo Bills
Key contributors: C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown, Anthony Dixon
Skinny: A pretty interesting quartet. Jackson and Spiller ranked 21st and 22nd in the NFL, respectively, with 206 and 202 carries last season, but Spiller's early-season usage — with eight-, nine- and 11-touch games through November — was curious before a heavier workload down the stretch. Is Jackson fading a bit? Well, he's 33, which is a concern, but has yet to reach the 1,500-touch mark for his career and has fewer career handles than McCoy, who is seven years his junior. But you can understand that acquiring the 233-pound Brown — even with his well-documented fumbling issues — for draft picks likely means that, at best, Jackson will fall into a specialty role, perhaps like Pierre Thomas has in New Orleans. At worst ... could Jackson be cut? We're not there yet, not following a bounceback season; he still can do a lot, especially in the passing game as a blocker and receiver. The wild card is Dixon, a special-teams maven in San Fran who has showed great energy early in offseason practices. He should fill a smaller but important role.
4. New England Patriots
Key contributors: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, James White
Skinny: The Patriots had four different leading rushers in games last season — the first three above, plus the departed LeGarrette Blount — and had those backs combine to catch 80 passes a year ago. If anything, that last number could go up if Vereen stays healthy (he missed parts of eight games last season) and with the drafting of White, Wisconsin's all-time receiving-yards leader for a running back. Ridley might be on the outs after this season as a free agent if his fumbling continues, but that doesn't mean that the Patriots won't get some more usage from him. He had 20- and 26-carry games for the team a year ago and still can be a workhorse for certain games. But don't forget about Bolden, too, who averaged nearly five yards per carry and occasionally looked decent catching the ball. All in all, this team will vary its usage dramatically from week to week — Vereen went from 12 catches for 153 yards in Week 15 to 3 for 8 in Week 15, for example, and Bolden went from a 13-carry breakout performance in the overtime win over the Broncos to barely touching the ball again for the rest of the season. Versatility helps, and Bill Belichick expects every player to be ready to be called on at a moment's notice, but he isn't afraid to change his game plan wildly from week to week.
5. Detroit Lions
Key contributors: Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, Mikel Leshoure, Theo Riddick
Skinny: Bush and Bell became the only teammates in NFL history to both eclipse the 500-yard rushing and receiving marks in the same season. Both noticeably struggled to catch the ball securely last season, however, despite their receiving production — and that will have to be a point of emphasis for new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. He came over from New Orleans, where the team has employed a committee approach in the backfield successfully, and it would shock no one if Bush's role looked more like that of Sproles with the Saints, where he totaled 188 rushes and 231 receptions in three seasons there. Not that Bush can't run the ball in traffic anymore, but he is 29, is approaching 2,000 touches in his career and did have his lowest rushing average by quarter in the fourth (3.5 yards per carry, long of 14 yards on 46 attempts) last season. Bell got more work down the stretch last season, and though he won't break long runs (four of his 248 career carries have been 20-plus yards), he can be the second- and fourth-quarter back who tenderizes defenses. Leshoure feels like he has a chance to win a job, after two of the past three seasons have gone awry. Last season, three Saints backs at 50 or more carries, and they used three heavily in 2012, too. By the way, Riddick has opened a few eyes with his athleticism in camp, as well.
6. San Diego Chargers
Key contributors: Ryan Mathews, Donald Brown, Danny Woodhead, Marion Grice
Skinny: One of the more surprising early free-agent signings of this offseason was Brown, who was one of the few additions the team could afford to make so tight to the salary cap. So why, following a breakout season from Mathews and key contributions from Woodhead, were the Chargers so eager to sign Brown? Versatility. If either Mathews or Woodhead goes down, Brown can fill in capably. He might not possess Mathews' combination of vision, force or body control, and Brown is not nearly as shifty and quick in short areas as Woodhead. But Brown catches the ball well, has some burst and can stand up in pass protection. He'a also smart and dependable (zero lost fumbles, zero penalties last season). That gives the Chargers a deep and diverse group of runners that will allow them, if they choose, to have games like the playoff victory over the Bengals or the Thursday night win over the Broncos twice as much (or more) as they throw it. Grice is a sneaky-good prospect for down the road.
7. New York Jets
Key contributors: Chris Johnson, Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell, Alex Green, Daryl Richardson
Skinny: There is a higher probability for failure here than in any of the previous situations mentioned, as Johnson's scattered performance, Ivory's injury history and Powell's uneven performances all lend to the potential downfall of this group. The Jets already have cleared some of the flotsam with Mike Goodson out of the picture, but even with Johnson working with the first team, there is a bit to clear up. He has dealt with knee and ankle injuries this offseason and remains a candidate to go down at any minute, despite Johnson's surprisingly decent durability — at least 251 carries and 36 receptions in each of his six NFL seasons, with one career missed game. Johnson turns 29 early in the season, with more than 2,000 career touches, and the Jets must be prepared to replace him, even if he's the only speed back they really have. Rex Ryan wants to get back to "ground and pound," as much as Marty (60-40 pass-run) Mornhinweg will relent to being, and Johnson (speed), Ivory (power), Powell (third downs) and others have the talent to make it viable if everything goes as planned.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key contributors: Doug Martin, Charles Sims, Bobby Rainey, Mike Smith, Jeff Demps
Skinny: Martin struggled last season before going down with a season-ending shoulder injury, which is one that can be tricky (especially for running backs) to rehab from. But the club fully expects Martin to return to his rookie-season form, and you easily can point to his limited success last season to the Bucs' O-line troubles and a few stout defenses that bottled him up. Still, there will be a multi-man effort back here. Sims looked like the best pass-catching back at the Senior Bowl and could have a Vereen-like role (remember, new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford coached him in college) as a receiver. Rainey and Smith also showed some spunk last season and can be used in doses. Demps' best value should be on special teams, if he can make the roster with his track speed. Martin is the primary dog, but Sims has some Matt Forte-like ability, and the third back will end up a prominent piece as well.
9. Cincinnati Bengals
Key contributors: Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cedric Peerman, Red Burkhead, James Wilder
Skinny: Whether this is a trio (or more) is highly debatable. Bernard did enough in his rookie season to warrant being the de facto starter, with second-rounder Hill assuming the battering-ram complementary role. Everyone is ready to run off Green-Ellis ... but why? Yes, he's turning 29 in a few weeks, lacks big-play ability and — strangely — has developed a bit of a fumbling problem that he never showed in New England. But he is reliable, tough and a respected, do-it-all player who can help on special teams and can take 20 carries in case of injury. It could come down to Burkhead, a jack of all trades but master of none, for a roster spot. Not sure the team would keep both, but there is room for three backs to heavily contribute to an offense that might want to take responsibility off Andy Dalton's plate instead of heaping more of it on.
10. Pittsburgh Steelers
Key contributors: Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Dri Archer
Skinny: Bell's the, ahem, bell cow back if he can stay healthy. He carried the ball 382 times his final season in college and has the ability to be the rare NFL workhorse. But why would the Steelers go out and sign Blount if they didn't want to share responsibility? Blount finished strong last season and will endear himself to the old-school Steelers crowd that likes his Bettis-like power and light feet in the hole. Together, that's a pretty forceful duo, even if the big-play ability is a bit muted. So that's where Archer comes in. The Swiss Army Knife back is a blur, and he can do some Sproles-esque things in space. You don't want him ramming it inside much, but that's not his calling card. He'll be a pass catcher, a space player, a trick-play artist and a kick returner — anything to get the ball in his hands 5-10 times per game to inject his rare speed.
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