Kory Sheets sets an all-time rushing record, remarkable given CFL’s shift away from the run

It's no secret that Saskatchewan Roughriders' running back Kory Sheets has been exceptionally good so far this season: his 442 rushing yards through three games are 138 clear of closest challenger Jon Cornish, and he's recorded 131, 133 and 178 rushing yards in those games (earning our First Star nod this week for the 178-yard showing against Toronto). What is surprising is just how historically good Sheets' start has been, though. Not only is he on pace for 2,652 rushing yards and 2,946 yards from scrimmage, both of which would shatter Mike Pringle's records, he's also put up more rushing yards in a three-game stretch at the start of a season of any running back in CFL history. As league head statistician Steve Daniel writes, that's particularly impressive considering how Canadian football has changed over time to a game with less emphasis on the run:

Getting back to Kory Sheets, and with the above changes in the game in mind where rushing is a much smaller percentage of the net yards gained, his 442 yards (147.3 per game on pace for 2600+ after three outings) is even more amazing. This is especially true in that only 33% of the time do clubs run the ball in our “passing league”. In researching extant records:

No CFL player has ever started with as many rushing yards in the first three games as Kory Sheets.

The largest total after three games ever recorded before 2013 was made by Willie Burden of the Calgary Stampeders in 1975 with 411. Burden rushed for game totals of 70, 159 and 182 in Games #1-3 and went on to make it five 100-yard games in a row.

There are a couple of notable caveats here that Daniel includes. First, that's far from the best three-game stretch a running back has ever recorded: Pringle put up 548 rushing yards over three games in late 1998. Second, while teams run the ball less overall than they used to, they tend to give most of the carries to one featured back instead of spreading them out over different players, so Sheets wouldn't necessarily receive many more carries if he was playing in a more run-centric era. In fact, he might get less. He might not, though: while on the high end historically, the carries he's getting (26 in each of his last two games for a total of 52 over that span) aren't out of proportion to some earlier backs, as legendary Riders' RB George Reed holds the all-time CFL record with 61 carries over two games in 1975.

Despite those caveats, it's still remarkable that one all-time rushing record (best first three games in a season) has been set in 2013 and that others could fall if Sheets keeps this up. As Daniel relates that teams are running about half as much per game now as they were in the 1950s, a key reason why early backs like Johnny Bright and Normie Kwong still have plenty of league records. Here's a table of the decade-by-decade rushing attempts per game data Daniel includes in his piece:

Here's a chart attempting to represent that visually. It's not perfect, as the first and last time ranges provided aren't at equal intervals to the rest of the data, but it gives you an idea of how the CFL's rushing attacks have evolved over time:

What's really notable here is that the Riders are playing like a throwback team. The league as a whole is averaging 37.7 rushing yards per game, which works out to just over 18 per team (and that includes quarterback scrambles, receiver end-arounds and so on, not just running back carries). Meanwhile, Saskatchewan put up 32 rushing attempts in their last game (26 from Sheets, three from RB/receiver/returner Jock Sanders, two from quarterback Darian Durant and one from slotback Weston Dressler), 29 the week before and 24 in Week One, a total of 85 and an average of 28 per game, 10 more than a typical team. It's working thus far, as the Riders are blowing away the CFL pack not only in rushing attempts with 85 (B.C.'s second with 68) and rushing yards per game (173.0, B.C.'s second with 143.0), but also in points for (114, Calgary's second with 87) and overall touchdowns (12, Calgary and Toronto each have nine). They're running efficiently, too: their average of 6.1 yards per rush is third-best in the league. Sheets' performance is the key there, and if he can keep this historic level of production up, it could be a season to remember in Saskatchewan.

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