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ATLANTA – Michael Turner(notes) identified the number before a visitor had a chance to get to the second digit. 376 – the number of times Turner ran the football last season. And the curse of the 370-carry running back? Yes, he's heard the lore.
"It doesn't mean anything to me," the Falcons running back said with a shrug. "What was I doing before last season? I can tell you I wasn't playing a lot."
Turner nodded downward and wagged one of his feet.
"People forget," he said, "these are some fresh legs."
Fresh legs that make Turner half of one of the NFL's best running back tandems. Paired along with lithe gazelle Jerious Norwood(notes), who is expected to see increased receiving opportunities this season, the duo features a lethal versatility. Both are among the fastest players in the league at the position. Both have physiques that lend to greatness: Turner with his granite shoulders and wrecking-ball torso, and Norwood with his long, grasshopper legs churning at freakish speed.
But the pair isn't alone. As the NFL has shifted toward more two-back committees to cut down on wear and tear, rotations have improved dramatically. Gone are most of the bell-cow backs who once enjoyed (or endured) 90 percent of the touches in a backfield, replaced by 60-40 splits and dazzling third down specialists.
That in mind, here is our ranking of the NFL's running back tandems:
1. DeAngelo Williams(notes) and Jonathan Stewart(notes), Carolina Panthers
No two running backs fit together as well as Williams and Stewart. It's arguably the only tandem in which the No. 1 and No. 2 could swap positions and not hinder the performance of the offense. Stewart may even be the most physically talented of the two, but there is no ambiguity about their seamless fit. Both players are young, have explosive touchdown-producing ability, can play between the tackles, and have shown the ability to catch the football at some point in their careers. From the longer view, maybe only the health factor could hinder this duo – something that has reared its head this preseason with Stewart. But unless the tandem misses significant time together, there's no question as to which is the best two-deep backfield in the NFL.
2. Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood, Atlanta Falcons
Norwood has quietly gone about business his first three years in the NFL, averaging a very respectable 817 yards rushing and receiving combined. Now that Turner is in the fold, Norwood's consistent contribution in the passing game arguably makes them more balanced than Carolina's tandem. Certainly they are every bit as explosive. However, Turner and Norwood are slightly older, and didn't quite measure up in total touchdowns last season (30-23). Beyond that, Atlanta's duo is every bit as good as any other tandem.
3. Chris Johnson and LenDale White(notes), Tennessee Titans
Johnson and White are essentially a slightly less efficient version of Carolina's Williams and Stewart. That could change this season, with White trimming his physique in an effort to become a quicker, more explosive playmaker. Johnson has already become a feared two-dimensional back, while White is one of the most effective short-yardage red-zone specialists in the league. With a healthy season, they could be the NFL's top rushing tandem. And they've already accomplished a feat that no other duo in the top 15 has: Each rushed for his first 1,000-yard season before he turned 24.
4. Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor(notes), Minnesota Vikings
Peterson's sheer dominance combined with Taylor's versatility should make this the top tandem, but fumbling issues (11 combined last season) and Taylor's age knock it down just slightly. Truth be told, this duo was at its best in 2007, when Taylor had more of a role in the running game, and Peterson was a more consistent part of the passing game. But even with Taylor starting the decline in his career, Peterson has the ability to carry a tandem into the top five for years to come.
5. LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) and Darren Sproles(notes), San Diego Chargers
The sparkling playmaking of Sproles got lost a bit last season in the obsession over how much Tomlinson had lost off his game. Even with Tomlinson putting up average numbers (for him, anyway), this was still easily a top-five tandem. Both backs can do it all offensively, and Sproles has a gear and change of direction that may only exist in a half dozen other players in the NFL.
6. Thomas Jones(notes) and Leon Washington(notes), New York Jets
Jones is beginning to fade, but Washington's emergence is coming at the perfect time. What Jones lacks in explosive playmaking, he makes up for in pounding consistency and unparalleled health (he has played in 59 straight games). Meanwhile, Washington emerged as a more effective runner and reliable receiver, showcasing some of the big-play ability that Thomas has lacked. Only Thomas' age and inevitable decline will keep this from becoming one of the top-three tandems in the league.
7. Brandon Jacobs(notes) and Ahmad Bradshaw(notes), New York Giants
While his previous role as a No. 3 back hasn't allowed him to show it, Bradshaw does have the ability to be a two-dimensional back. It was showcased his sophomore season at Marshall when he caught 56 passes. He also has the explosive ability to break the long touchdown runs that Derrick Ward(notes) couldn't. All of that makes Bradshaw a major piece next to Jacobs in the backfield. And he wasted no time showing he could flourish in the role in the preseason and previous spot opportunities the past two years. Jacobs is what he is: a power runner with patience and solid speed for a player his size. But it's Bradshaw who will make this one of this season's best tandems.
8. Marshawn Lynch(notes) and Fred Jackson(notes), Buffalo Bills
Jackson is one of the most underappreciated No. 2 backs in the NFL. He has shown flashes at times of being a capable starter who can catch and run. He does lack the ability to dish out punishment like Lynch, but that's part of what makes them so well suited as a tandem. Both can be versatile as well. What they lack – and what keeps them near the bottom of the top 10 – is the elite speed to consistently break off long runs. Beyond that, they are one of the best-rounded duos in the league.
9. Marion Barber(notes) and Felix Jones(notes), Dallas Cowboys
A supremely talented twosome that got scuttled by health issues last season. Barber is a rusher/receiver who could be a high end Frank Gore(notes) if he stayed healthy all season, but his running style keeps that from happening. Before getting injured last season, Jones showed he is a big-play back that might have spared Barber some punishment down the stretch. Health is the absolute key for this pair. If they play together for a full season, they have a combined skill set that could make them lethal.
10. Clinton Portis(notes) and Ladell Betts(notes), Washington Redskins
This has been an on-again, off-again tandem, largely fluctuating with Portis' desire to be a primary back. While Betts hasn't been nearly as effective a runner the last two seasons, he demonstrated the ability to be a two-dimensional back in '06. With the right balance, this could still be one of the league's strongest tandems. The one downfall that will always keep it out of the top five or six in the league? Neither player has home-run hitting ability that could complement the other's more balanced style.
11. Brian Westbrook(notes) and LeSean McCoy(notes), Philadelphia Eagles
Unlike almost every other rookie runner, McCoy is going to get some credit for his preseason work because he was filling in with the No. 1 offense with Westbrook recovering from injury. In a short time, McCoy has shown he will be a factor both rushing and receiving. In fact, there have been moments where he's looked like a Westbrook clone – right down to his body movements. That should make for an easily established rotation that will keep Westbrook fresh and give McCoy a chance to carry a healthy part of the load this season.
12. Ronnie Brown(notes) and Ricky Williams(notes), Miami Dolphins
This is a more skilled and versatile backfield than credited. Both players could be dependable No. 1's for other teams. Instead, they share the load in Miami almost 50-50, with Brown getting roughly five more rushing attempts per game. Brown is the more explosive player, but Williams can grind out short yardage effectively, and both can catch the football. The only reason the pair didn't put up numbers similar to Tennessee's Brown and White last season is because of a more effective passing game with Chad Pennington(notes). But like the Titans' twosome, this is a very dependable and effective tandem.
13. Frank Gore and Glen Coffee(notes), San Francisco 49ers
Gore's versatility is well known, and with Coffee showing a better than expected knack in the passing game, this is easily the second-best veteran/rookie pairing when it comes to doing it all (first goes to Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy). Coffee carried the load in the preseason, including some run against first-team defenses, which makes his preseason showcase a little more reliable than every other rookie back outside of McCoy. With an offense that could run the ball a mind-boggling 60 percent of the plays this season, this is a tandem that will show early and often why it's highly regarded.
14. Joseph Addai(notes) and Donald Brown(notes), Indianapolis Colts
There are few players who have seen their outside reputation plummet as drastically as Addai in the past 12 months. But those who realize he was playing hurt much of last season (which led to some indecisiveness on his part) still see his great value. He's still one of the most versatile backs in the league, able to make big plays both running and receiving. And he's playing at a far tougher pace now that Brown is pushing him. Brown has some explosiveness as a runner, but Addai is definitely a better receiver, which will keep this tandem active and much needed all season long.
15. Ray Rice(notes) and Willis McGahee(notes), Baltimore Ravens
OK, this might seem generous considering Rice hasn't shown he can consistently be a No. 1. But if he does, and McGahee stays healthy and motivated, watch out. Rice can be explosive in all areas and McGahee still has some juice left. Maxed out, it could be a top-five tandem. Rice is that good and versatile, and McGahee can definitely fill that banging LenDale White-ish sidekick role to great effectiveness if he keeps his head on straight. If you've paid close attention, you've seen flashes of this being the big surprise tandem of '09. But until they do it, they're stuck toward the middle.
16. Matt Forte(notes) and Kevin Jones(notes), Chicago Bears
Forte has fantastic versatility but needs to get slightly more consistent running the ball. Everyone is still waiting for Jones to bounce back to his pre-injury form. If he can, the Bears will have two running backs that can do it all. But even healthy, it's a pairing that lacks a consistently explosive runner. Jones may be able to be that guy if he returns to his early career form. But all of those questions keep this pairing from approaching the top 10.
17. Steve Slaton(notes) and Chris Brown, Houston Texans
This might be a tad high considering Brown missed all of last season injured and really hasn't been a serious factor in a backfield since 2005. But when he is healthy, he has the ability to be a very effective runner and receiver. And it goes without saying that Slaton is a dynamic player on every down. Slaton's overall ability and Brown's skill level when healthy put them in the middle of the pack. But make no mistake, this is a tandem that easily has top-10 potential if everything were to fall into place.
Thomas (L) and Bush
18. Pierre Thomas(notes) and Reggie Bush(notes), New Orleans Saints
Health and consistency trump overall talent level and complementary styles. Thomas can be a tough runner and Bush can be the finesse playmaker, but neither has done it for a full season. Thomas has the ability to grind and be the cornerstone of this pairing, while Bush has the big-play ability to make it great. But until they realize that harmony, they'll just be a poorer, far less impactful version of Tennessee's Johnson and White.
19. Steven Jackson and Samkon Gado(notes), St. Louis Rams
Jackson's talent and versatility are absolutely immense. But two factors submarine this tandem. First, it's not really a tandem – Jackson is overwhelmingly the No. 1, and Gado and a cast of other nondescripts will split a few touches here and there. Second, Jackson missed four games and parts of a fifth last season with injuries, giving him 8-plus missed games the past two seasons. The running game is virtually nonexistent without him, and that undercuts the overall value of the tandem.
20. Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) and Greg Jones(notes), Jacksonville Jaguars
Greg Jones hasn't had many opportunities with Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor(notes) gobbling up the touches the past two seasons. Jones-Drew's immensely versatile skill push this ranking higher than it would normally be with only one certain player in the tandem. Jones is the veteran, but there really isn't even a clear No. 2. And no other backs on the roster beyond Jones have shown the ability to be effective as a runner and receiver. Jones-Drew is special. Whoever ultimately is the No. 2 is bound to be mediocre at best.
21. Kevin Smith(notes) and Maurice Morris(notes), Detroit Lions
Smith won't blow your mind, but his skill set is far better than people realize. He is a two-dimensional back. So is Morris, who is approaching the wrong side of 30 but still efficient in a No. 2 role. Neither is a truly great player in their role at this point, but both are good, with Smith appearing to be on the verge of a breakthrough. That keeps them above some tandems with bigger names and flashier résumés. But ultimately this tandem has the ability to have a much bigger impact depending on how much Smith's game can grow this season.
22. Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris(notes), New England Patriots
This is a solid pairing, but relatively unspectacular. Morris shows some signs of being a big-time runner, but both he and Taylor are into the declining portions of their careers. Taken alone, neither is a great back at this point in his career, but their collective ability and consistency in their roles is what makes them a solid tandem. Taylor can still be an above average runner and catch balls out of the backfield (though he hasn't had to do it in a few years), and Morris is still good enough to carve up defenses in a moderate change-of-pace role. The occasional carry going to other backs further down the depth chart (Kevin Faulk(notes), Laurence Maroney(notes), BenJarvus Green-Ellis(notes)) weakens the overall tandem as well.
23. Ryan Grant(notes) and Brandon Jackson(notes), Green Bay Packers
Grant is certainly a better player than this spot, but Jackson has been really disappointing and hurts the value of the pairing a great deal. Grant isn't a true two-dimensional running back either. But he has the ability to be a very good rusher, which makes up slightly for Jackson, who really hasn't been proficient at anything. Grant has the talent to raise this ranking up, but until Jackson shows he can contribute – or loses his job to a more dependable player – this looks like a one-man backfield.
24. Larry Johnson(notes) and Jamaal Charles(notes), Kansas City Chiefs
Johnson's health (12 games missed in two years) and overall wear and tear knock this tandem down a bit. Charles' fumbling doesn't help either. Johnson has yet to show he can survive behind a line without multiple Pro Bowlers on it. And Charles has yet to show consistency. If both stay healthy, they have a very balance combination of skills and could boost themselves around 10 spots up this list. But make no mistake, the tandem is going in opposite directions – Johnson fading and Charles ascending. And lacking a dominant presence, that reality dooms it to the middle at best.
25. Willie Parker(notes) and Rashard Mendenhall(notes), Pittsburgh Steelers
From a skill standpoint, this tandem should be rated much higher. But Mendenhall is basically a rookie this year and hasn't shown what he can truly do, and Parker's health issues are already casting an ominous shadow. Indeed, if Parker's hamstring doesn't hold up, there is no telling what the Steelers will actually get from this tandem. Considering Parker's big-play ability and Mendenhall's balanced abilities, this could be a top-10 tandem if both stay healthy. But that uncertainty and Mendenhall's lack of experience drag it down.
26. Justin Fargas(notes) and Darren McFadden(notes), Oakland Raiders
Talent isn't the problem. But don't buy the company line – there is no clear No. 1. People like to say that it's Fargas, but as long as McFadden stays healthy, they'll see a similar number of overall touches. There may not even be a clear No. 2 with Michael Bush(notes) bound to see a healthy number of carries. It's hard for one player to get into a serious groove – or for a tandem to function consistently – when one player isn't getting at least 60 percent of the carries. This tandem would be more dependable if the Raiders tabbed a clear No. 1 and No. 2 and just stuck with it.
27. Derrick Ward and Carnell Williams(notes), Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The depth chart says Earnest Graham(notes) is the No. 2, but players have been saying privately Williams will ultimately fill that role. Some have even sworn that Williams could eventually be the dominant No. 1. That's a head-scratcher, considering Williams has played just 10 games the past two seasons, and hasn't averaged more than 3.9 yards per carry in the last three. Ward is a solid and unspectacular runner who can be a serviceable receiver. Frankly, it's Williams' re-emergence that muddles this picture. Until he can prove otherwise, Graham should be the one playing the strong backup. The fact that he's not knocks this tandem's ranking down a bit.
28. Jamal Lewis(notes) and James Davis, Cleveland Browns
Lewis looks like a guy who has just hit that 30-year plateau. He seems to be getting less explosive and efficient with each season. He's more of an uninspiring pounder than anything at this point in his career. Davis, on the other hand, has speed and big-play ability. But like all rookies on this list, he doesn't get credit for a flashy preseason. The one glaring hole for both players? Neither has caught the ball consistently in the past, a troubling reality for the top two players on a depth chart.
29. Cedric Benson(notes) and Bernard Scott(notes), Cincinnati Bengals
Say what you want about Benson, but at least he has shown the occasional flash of productivity – or at the very least, the ability to grind out 100 yards on 30 carries. He's not a dazzling receiver out of the backfield, either. His occasional bright spots prop this duo up. Scott is a rookie who has looked eye-popping at times, but he has yet to do it when it matters. If he's as good as he looked at times in the preseason, there's a chance he could steal a great deal of the load from Benson as the season progresses. Until then, both have plenty to prove.
30. Correll Buckhalter(notes) and Knowshon Moreno(notes), Denver Broncos
Sure, the depth chart says Buckhalter and LaMont Jordan(notes) are 1-2, but let's not kid ourselves. When Moreno is healthy, he'll eventually become the starting running back. But that's the rub: Moreno's MCL sprain kept us from seeing if he can be an instant impact player. And a lack of acclimation into the offense has been historically bad for rookie runners. On the bright side, both Buckhalter and Moreno are two-dimensional runners and receivers. So they have a chance to rocket up this list. But until we see them produce in defined roles, they are bottom-dwellers.
31. Tim Hightower(notes) and Beanie Wells(notes), Arizona Cardinals
Surprised? This duo might be ranked more highly if Wells hadn't missed most of the preseason with an ankle injury. What we do know is Hightower isn't an explosive runner, and Wells historically hasn't thrived catching the football. So in reality, neither is a complete back, and neither is a clear starter at this point. We don't even know if one of the two can do at least one thing well on the NFL level. That's the sign of an undependable backfield.
32. Julius Jones(notes) and Edgerrin James(notes), Seattle Seahawks
Both players were sent to the bench at some point last season and totaled 1,212 rushing yards and five total touchdowns between them. So exactly what is there to be thrilled about? Neither is explosive or has provided much in the passing game the last several seasons. Jones is an average runner at best at this point, and James is declining. In fact, on every other NFL team, both players would likely be backups by the end of this season – assuming rookies would eventually get the nod in Arizona and Denver. Unless you completely throw out long term upside, there isn't a worse tandem in the NFL.
Photos: Associated Press
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