Running backs are replaceable, they say. If you are (a) alive and (b) near another human, there is a 10 percent chance someone is saying that to you at this very moment.
It is a thing people love to say. Just plug in another running back. How hard can it be? Can you find a young man between 5-foot-7 and 6-2 who weighs between 190 and 250 pounds and can run reasonably fast? Well, congratulations. You've found a running back. They're all the same, basically. If the one you've got crapped out on you, just discard him and remove the protective packaging from your new running back, sprinkle some Gatorade on him to loosen him up and send him out there. That's not just good football, that's thrifty football.
Or so they say.
That sentiment is floating around in Houston this week. The Houston Texans re-signed 25-year-old running back Arian Foster to a five-year, 43.5 million contract. He will make 34 times as much money in 2012 (18 million) as he did in 2011 (525,000), when he accounted for almost 1,900 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 regular-season games.
It is an oversimplification, but the takeaway is that the Foster signing is an indication the Texas will not be re-signing 27-year-old pass rusher Mario Williams, who was averaging a sack per game in 2011 until a pectoral injury ended his season.
If you are operating within the idiom of Smart Football Analysis deviance is punishable by 40 lashes to the head with Merrill Hodge's tie knot then you are required to observe that running backs come and go and that King Belichick hardly ever spends any money on them while elite pass rushers can sometimes elude franchises for decades.
While this is all kind of true, it also is nonspecific to the point of meaninglessness. We are not talking about Mystery Running Back X and Mystery Outside Linebacker Y. We are talking about Arian Foster and Mario Williams, and that changes the discussion considerably. That moves it outside the gray walls of Smart Football Analysis and into what I refer to as "actual thinking." The air's fresh out here.
At 25, Foster has completed his second season as a full-time running back. He has 659 rush attempts. Adrian Peterson is 26, and he has 1,400. Maurice Jones-Drew is 26, and he has almost 1,500. Ray Rice is 25, and he has 959. Michael Turner is 30 and has 1,400. LeSean McCoy is 23 and has 635. Those guys, minus Peterson, were the NFL's top five rushers in 2011.
You want a proven, elite running back? Your options are going to look something like that. Foster has played an unusually low number of snaps for a player in his circumstances and, I would add, runs in such a way he rarely absorbs a major blow. He is not unlike Marcus Allen in that regard.
This brings up another point, which is that Foster is a proven, elite running back. Yes, the Texans could have let him go and plugged in Ben Tate. Tate is a fine player, but in my expert and highly nuanced opinion, Foster is, like, way better. It is true that an NFL team could possibly pull somebody off the scrap heap and, in a decent offensive system, squeeze 1,000 yards out of him. Fourteen players rushed for 1,000 yards in the NFL in 2011, and that includes Reggie Bush. It nearly included Tate, who finished with 942.
But there is a major distinction somewhere in the continuum between Beanie Wells (1,047) and Maurice Jones-Drew (1,606). Some guys can turn a hole into 10 yards, and most NFL teams have somebody like this. But some guys can turn 10 yards into 40. They can turn a punt and a field goal, a field goal and a touchdown, and sometimes, if you've got one that plays on third down like Foster, a punt into a touchdown.
There aren't many of those guys, and Foster is one of them. Yes, the Texans could find another running back. And yes, there are a few other Fosters out there, but they aren't free.
This is not so much a comment on Williams, who in my estimation also is among the NFL's elite at what he does. It is luxurious to have a pass rusher like Williams on the team, and if the Texans lose him, he will be nearly impossible to replace.
But Foster would be, too.