The End of the “Bell-Cow”

In 1977 Joe Ferguson, Quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, led the NFL in passing yards with 2,803 yards in a fourteen game regular season. That is slightly more than two hundred yards per game and when extended to the sixteen game regular season of today, he would have finished with 3,203 yards.

If Joe Ferguson had played in 2016 with those statistics he would have finished in twenty fifth place in passing yards, while Drew Brees led the league with 5,208 yards. One phrase often used to explain this dramatic change in passing yards per season which fans will often hear during the course of an NFL or NCAA football broadcast is, “It’s a passing league now.”

This statement lays the claim that the game has changed, from a strategically run-first approach by most teams, to a strategy of stretching the field with the passing game in order to set up a more efficient run game.

So why the change? During that 1977 season NFL teams scored an average of 17.2 points per game, the lowest total since the 1948 season.

The league decided to open the rule book and make playing offense a little easier, and defense a little harder.

An official was added to the defensive backfield to better regulate plays deep down the field, offensive lineman were permitted to extend their arms and open their hands in pass blocking, and a five yard rule for defenders was initiated to limit the ability of a defensive back to contact receivers attempting to run down field.

Today we see the consequences of these and other rule changes in favor of the offense by the sheer increase in the offensive statistics, particularly passing statistics, in the NFL from 1978 on. Thus 1977 became known as the last of the “dead ball era”.

One of many consequences of making passing the ball easier is the value of a single star running back, or a “Bell-Cow” as it’s been referred to.

At one time a running back’s ability to carry the ball out of the backfield was the focal point of the position and nearly every NFL offense.

As such, running backs were some of the wealthiest and most recognizable stars in the league.

In today’s NFL, while there are still star running backs such as LeVeon Bell and Adrian Peterson, the quarterback is now the most valuable and recognizable position on almost every team.

The wear and tear of the running back position on a person’s body combined with the changing of the strategies by most teams have led to a decrease in usage rates for most running backs.

Therefore those who play the position and wish to continue to do so must develop more specialized skill sets than just being able to carry the ball. Pass blocking and receiving out of the backfield have changed the dynamic of how a running back is used.

The best example of this change is the New England Patriots, who utilize a four-back system with Dion Lewis, James White, Marcus Gillislee, and Rex Burkhead.

Each has a specific skill set and by using them all at a lesser rate individually, it is theorized they will remain more fresh and each usage will be maximized.

This strategy for running backs is probably the most sensible for NFL franchises.

Gone are the days of a single superstar who carries the ball thirty five or forty times in a single game.

In come the committees to break apart the workload and maximize efficiency. With them they take the Bell-Cow’s.

The Walter Payton’s, Eric Dickerson’s and Emmitt Smith’s are the relics of a game forever changed.

Until the next set of rule changes.

A former college football player and lifelong fan committed to providing unique insight into NFL story lines and statistical analysis.