There are many reasons why being an NFL running back is enjoyable. Mostly, getting paid to play football for a living and being at a marquee offensive position sounds like a lot of fun. Oh, and the money isn’t bad, and I’ve also heard speculation that attractive members of the opposite sex take kindly to large men with money. However, I cannot verify that with any journalistic integrity.
The only awful part is the horribly short shelf life which often results from the constant pounding. Unless they peak late in their careers (think Fred Jackson, who’s still been productive in his early 30′s), we begin to start counting down to the moment a running back will begin to sip lemonade in a rocking chair when he’s in his late 20′s.
It all feels so cruel, and it’s a process that’s accelerated when the running back in question is the motor of his offense for many years, and he therefore sustains a lot of punishment quickly due to his high volume touches. And thus we’ve arrived at Doug Martin, and the perhaps premature (he’s only entering his second season) yet still real reasons for concern about his workload, and the possibility of a slight fantasy tumble.
Martin was beastly during his rookie season, finishing with 1,454 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, and a yards per carry average of 4.6. Yep, stupid good, especially when we also add his receiving totals of 472 yards on 49 catches, and with some quick arithmetic we realize that he finished with 1,926 yards from scrimmage. As a rookie he was the second highest fantasy producer at his position, tying Arian Foster with 248 points.
While we’re at, here are a few more remarkable Martin numbers:
- He had five games with 120 or more rushing yards, and five when he averaged at least five yards per carry.
- The highlight of his season came in Week 9 when he had 251 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries.
- Yes, that’s 10 yards per carry, and three of his touchdowns in that game came on runs of 40 yards or more, an NFL record.
- Then when we include his receiving yards from that game (21), and his total yards from the previous week against Minnesota (214), Martin accounted for 486 yards over a two-game stretch. That had been accomplished only four times in league history.
- Throughout the season he had eight 40-yard plays.
You have every right to soil many garments while looking at those numbers again and again. But I’m intentionally burying the lede here, as while we all gawk at those digits, there’s another number which could often get overlooked.
That number is 368, Martin’s total touches during just Year 1 which were partly a product of the passing game’s lack of consistency with Josh Freeman’s second-half struggles. But regardless, Martin was ridden hard enough that his 319 carries were fourth in the league, and he was one of only five running backs to top the 300-carry mark.
So, after he averaged 19.9 carries per game, will his load be lightened at least slightly in 2013? Or will Greg Schiano ride his young back until the wheels rust and fall off?
Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times asked the Bucs head coach that question, and the answer was about as vague and dodgy as you’d expect:
“Look, we know what he can do. It isn’t like he’s a rookie and we’re trying to figure it out. So we’ve got to make sure we get him ready to play, don’t take it for granted he’s going to be the same guy because none of us are, right? But once he has shown that he’s ready, we’ve got to make sure we get him to Game 1 and through all the rest of our games healthy. Those are the two things I think are important.”
Martin’s carry volume was also high during his rookie year partly because LeGarrette Blount was such a massive downgrade. Whether or not rookie Mike James can do much better remains to be seen.
We can sometimes make far too much out of a running back’s workload, and the potential for an injury or a sharp decline should it rise much further, a crime I’ve certainly been guilty of in the past. The problem is that while the likes of Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster have soaked in several 350 or so touch seasons and been just fine thanks (though Foster stumbled at the end of 2012 before rebounding in the playoffs), the historical examples of implosions are more numerous and troubling.
Even at a young age, a little bit of caution can go a long way.