Warning: Running back combos can be combustible

More NFL teams want their running backs to share the load. Two-back and three-back systems are on the rise as teams seek to reduce mileage on their lead backs and give opponents different looks.
 
Clinton Portis comes off his worst season and find two new backs in the mix.
Clinton Portis comes off his worst season and find two new backs in the mix.

The Saints won a Super Bowl with Pierre Thomas (793 yards), Mike Bell (654 yards) and Reggie Bush (five yards per carry) all contributing. The Panthers have the league’s best two-back attack, with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart rushing for more than 1,100 yards last season.

 
For a multi-back system to work, however, the players must be willing to coexist. As the 2010 roster take shape, here is a look at running back combinations that could be compatible or combustible:
 
Washington Redskins
The backs: Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson and Willie Parker.
 
The issues: All three are used to being the lead guy. They have never played together, and neither Johnson nor Portis is known for staying silent when unhappy.
 
Johnson says the situation can be handled successfully by new coach Mike Shanahan, who enjoyed success shuttling backs when in Denver.
 
"It will take off the wear and tear and have us play longer and produce more results," Johnson told reporters last week. "I think people misunderstand. Two guys that have always been starters — it’s supposed to be like there is some type of beef — but it’s not. (Portis) goes his way, I go my way, but it’s always been a certain respect for both of us, because I know what he has been able to do.
 
"We kind of complement each other. It’s not really, ‘I’m coming here to take your spot.’ "
 
It sounds good, sure, but it might not work. Portis is coming off his worst season (494 yards in eight games), and Parker’s production has decreased in each of the last three seasons. The Redskins also have serious offensive line issues to address.
 
"This is arguably the worst offensive line in the NFL," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said Wednesday.
 
Shonn Greene, superb in the playoffs, assumes the lead role for the Jets.
Shonn Greene, superb in the playoffs, assumes the lead role for the Jets.

Portis, who turns 29 in September, is the youngest of the three and has the biggest contract, and he knows Shanahan scheme from his days in Denver. Those factors might give him the inside edge for playing time, but Shanahan clearly is challenging Portis with competition.

 
Even with the addition of quarterback Donovan McNabb, the Redskins will need an improved running game to become a playoff contender.
 
New York Jets
The backs: Shonn Greene, LaDainian Tomlinson and Leon Washington.
 
The issues: After losing leading rusher Thomas Jones to the Chiefs in free agency, the Jets’ running game could suffer. Tomlinson is no longer a dominant back, and Washington is coming off a serious leg injury.
 
Green was superb during the playoffs, and he will get his chance to become a lead back. But how much does Tomlinson, who turns 31 in June, have left? And if he does not play a major role, will he accept it well?
 
We should find out quickly how much Tomlinson has left because coach Rex Ryan is committed to the running game, and the Jets have one of the league’s best offensive lines.
 
A strong finish to 2009 helps Felix Jones stand out in the Cowboys' crowd.
A strong finish to 2009 helps Felix Jones stand out in the Cowboys’ crowd.

"I’m excited," Tomlinson said. "Just watching film on them (Jets offensive line), seeing them from afar, and now being close and watching them work, how they interact with each other. It’s a real special group of guys."

 
Dallas Cowboys
The backs: Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice.
 
The issues: Choice wants more carries. Barber’s play slipped in ’09, and he could be replaced as the starter by Jones, the Cowboys’ best back late in the season.
 
Choice says he could start for some NFL teams, and he is probably right. However, expect the Cowboys to keep all three for another season, no matter how the players feel. No. 1, the three-back system has worked well for them. No. 2, Jones and Barber have been plagued by nagging injuries and having three quality backs gives the Cowboys protection.
 

To hold the fort as featured back, Matt Forte must embrace the Martz method.
To hold the fort as featured back, Matt Forte must embrace the Martz method.

Chicago Bears

The backs: Matt Forte and Chester Taylor.
 
The issues: Forte’s rushing total dropped from 1,238 yards as a rookie to 929 yards last season. Taylor signed a big free-agent contract last month, and they likely will battle for the starting job.
 
This pairing could work out well if Forte responds to the challenge. New offensive coordinator Mike Martz likes backs who can catch the ball, and both Forte and Taylor have good hands.
 

Frank Gore has a veteran complement in Glen Coffee, with a pick expected.
Frank Gore has a veteran complement in Glen Coffee, with a pick expected.

San Francisco 49ers

The backs: Frank Gore and Glen Coffee.
 
The issues: Gore wants to remain the workhorse, coming off four consecutive years when he has had at least 1,000 yards and 225 carries. But player personnel director Trent Baalke says he prefers a two- or three-back systems, and Coffee ran well last season when Gore was injured.
 
The 49ers have two first-round picks (Nos. 13 and 17) and could draft Clemson running back C.J. Spiller, a speed demon who would complement the bruising Gore and Coffee. Gore’s days as a 225-carry-per-year back could be over, but it just might extend his career.
 
This story appears in April 8’s edition of Sporting News Today. If you are not receiving Sporting News Today, the only digital sports daily, sign up today.
 
Senior writer Clifton Brown covers the NFL for Sporting News. E-mail him at cliftonbrown@sportingnews.com.
More NFL teams want their running backs to share the load. Two-back and three-back systems are on the rise as teams seek to reduce mileage on their lead backs and give opponents different looks.
 
Clinton Portis comes off his worst season and find two new backs in the mix.
Clinton Portis comes off his worst season and find two new backs in the mix.

The Saints won a Super Bowl with Pierre Thomas (793 yards), Mike Bell (654 yards) and Reggie Bush (five yards per carry) all contributing. The Panthers have the league’s best two-back attack, with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart rushing for more than 1,100 yards last season.

 
For a multi-back system to work, however, the players must be willing to coexist. As the 2010 roster take shape, here is a look at running back combinations that could be compatible or combustible:
 
Washington Redskins
The backs: Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson and Willie Parker.
 
The issues: All three are used to being the lead guy. They have never played together, and neither Johnson nor Portis is known for staying silent when unhappy.
 
Johnson says the situation can be handled successfully by new coach Mike Shanahan, who enjoyed success shuttling backs when in Denver.
 
"It will take off the wear and tear and have us play longer and produce more results," Johnson told reporters last week. "I think people misunderstand. Two guys that have always been starters — it’s supposed to be like there is some type of beef — but it’s not. (Portis) goes his way, I go my way, but it’s always been a certain respect for both of us, because I know what he has been able to do.
 
"We kind of complement each other. It’s not really, ‘I’m coming here to take your spot.’ "
 
It sounds good, sure, but it might not work. Portis is coming off his worst season (494 yards in eight games), and Parker’s production has decreased in each of the last three seasons. The Redskins also have serious offensive line issues to address.
 
"This is arguably the worst offensive line in the NFL," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said Wednesday.
 
Shonn Greene, superb in the playoffs, assumes the lead role for the Jets.
Shonn Greene, superb in the playoffs, assumes the lead role for the Jets.

Portis, who turns 29 in September, is the youngest of the three and has the biggest contract, and he knows Shanahan scheme from his days in Denver. Those factors might give him the inside edge for playing time, but Shanahan clearly is challenging Portis with competition.

 
Even with the addition of quarterback Donovan McNabb, the Redskins will need an improved running game to become a playoff contender.
 
New York Jets
The backs: Shonn Greene, LaDainian Tomlinson and Leon Washington.
 
The issues: After losing leading rusher Thomas Jones to the Chiefs in free agency, the Jets’ running game could suffer. Tomlinson is no longer a dominant back, and Washington is coming off a serious leg injury.
 
Green was superb during the playoffs, and he will get his chance to become a lead back. But how much does Tomlinson, who turns 31 in June, have left? And if he does not play a major role, will he accept it well?
 
We should find out quickly how much Tomlinson has left because coach Rex Ryan is committed to the running game, and the Jets have one of the league’s best offensive lines.
 
A strong finish to 2009 helps Felix Jones stand out in the Cowboys' crowd.
A strong finish to 2009 helps Felix Jones stand out in the Cowboys’ crowd.

"I’m excited," Tomlinson said. "Just watching film on them (Jets offensive line), seeing them from afar, and now being close and watching them work, how they interact with each other. It’s a real special group of guys."

 
Dallas Cowboys
The backs: Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice.
 
The issues: Choice wants more carries. Barber’s play slipped in ’09, and he could be replaced as the starter by Jones, the Cowboys’ best back late in the season.
 
Choice says he could start for some NFL teams, and he is probably right. However, expect the Cowboys to keep all three for another season, no matter how the players feel. No. 1, the three-back system has worked well for them. No. 2, Jones and Barber have been plagued by nagging injuries and having three quality backs gives the Cowboys protection.
 

To hold the fort as featured back, Matt Forte must embrace the Martz method.
To hold the fort as featured back, Matt Forte must embrace the Martz method.

Chicago Bears

The backs: Matt Forte and Chester Taylor.
 
The issues: Forte’s rushing total dropped from 1,238 yards as a rookie to 929 yards last season. Taylor signed a big free-agent contract last month, and they likely will battle for the starting job.
 
This pairing could work out well if Forte responds to the challenge. New offensive coordinator Mike Martz likes backs who can catch the ball, and both Forte and Taylor have good hands.
 

Frank Gore has a veteran complement in Glen Coffee, with a pick expected.
Frank Gore has a veteran complement in Glen Coffee, with a pick expected.

San Francisco 49ers

The backs: Frank Gore and Glen Coffee.
 
The issues: Gore wants to remain the workhorse, coming off four consecutive years when he has had at least 1,000 yards and 225 carries. But player personnel director Trent Baalke says he prefers a two- or three-back systems, and Coffee ran well last season when Gore was injured.
 
The 49ers have two first-round picks (Nos. 13 and 17) and could draft Clemson running back C.J. Spiller, a speed demon who would complement the bruising Gore and Coffee. Gore’s days as a 225-carry-per-year back could be over, but it just might extend his career.
 
This story appears in April 8’s edition of Sporting News Today. If you are not receiving Sporting News Today, the only digital sports daily, sign up today.
 
Senior writer Clifton Brown covers the NFL for Sporting News. E-mail him at cliftonbrown@sportingnews.com.

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