Breaking down running back playing time

Thought I would take that list of 2009 playing time I mentioned yesterday and take it in another direction.

I just looked at how many snaps each running back in the NFC South got last year and the results were interesting. In the case of the most used running back in the division, the result was surprising.

Tampa Bay’s Cadillac Williams, far and away, led NFC South running backs in playing time last season. He was on the field for almost 60 percent of Tampa Bay’s offensive plays and was the only division running back to take part in more than 50 percent of his team’s offensive plays. Not bad for a guy who has endured two major knee injuries in his career.

Let’s take a look at last year’s numbers on playing time for the running backs on all four teams (we’ll only delve into the significant ones), translate what that meant in 2009 and analyze what it could mean in 2010.

Tampa Bay: The Bucs ran a division-low 999 offensive plays and Williams was on the field for 593 of them. Derrick Ward, who was signed as a free agent, was out there for 34.7 percent of the plays and Earnest Graham, who made the transition to fullback, participated on 23.1 percent of the snaps. Ward really didn’t have the impact the Bucs hoped for, but they haven’t given up on him. Williams is firmly established as Raheem Morris’ No. 1 back, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bucs let Ward take away some of his snaps (but not carries) just to preserve Williams.

New Orleans: This might be the most interesting running back corps in the division because everyone talked so much about the three-headed backfield last year. That was true as Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell got relatively equal playing time. Of New Orleans’ 1,067 offensive plays, Bush was on the field for 389. Thomas was out there for 372 and Bell got 262 snaps. Bell is gone and you might see playing time for Bush and Thomas go up a bit, but only slightly because Lynell Hamilton, who played 5.9 percent of last year’s snaps, is likely to take on some of Bell’s load. One other interesting note here is that fullback Heath Evans took part in 23.1 of the offensive plays, despite missing almost half the season with injury. Evans is healthy now and I’d look for him to be on the field about 40 percent of the time.

Carolina: The Panthers have one of the league’s most dynamic combination in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The playing time numbers pretty much back up coach John Fox’s view that these two guys are equal. Williams was on the field for 46.5 percent of Carolina’s 1,053 plays and Stewart participated in 40.3 percent. That breakdown should be pretty similar in 2010, barring injury. The Panthers let veteran fullback Brad Hoover go in the offseason and that’s significant because he took part in 31.2 percent of the plays. Tony Fiammetta took only 10.3 percent of the snaps as a rookie last year and he’s going to have to step into Hoover’s role.

Atlanta: The Falcons ran 1,093 offensive plays this past season and their participation got really out of whack because of injuries to Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood. Jason Snelling wound up leading Atlanta’s backs with 497 (45.5 percent) plays. Turner was on the field for 335 (30.7 percent) and Norwood for 284 (26 percent). The Falcons don’t want to overuse Turner, who carried 385 times in 2008. But I think it’s a safe bet a healthy Turner will stay on the field for more than 30 percent of the plays in 2010. His mere presence brings a threat that should make things easier for the passing game. Snelling earned a role in this backfield, but if Turner and Norwood stay healthy, his playing time should dwindle. Turner and Norwood both are home run threats. Snelling is a big back, who is best suited as a blocker in passing situations and as a short-yardage runner.