- The Washington Times
Thursday, December 2, 2021

ASHBURN — Of all the people Ron Rivera brought with him from Carolina, Christian McCaffrey wasn’t — and couldn’t have been — one of them. But Rivera has had success replicating the star Panthers running back’s impact by building Washington‘s own “McCaffrey-by-committee.” 

Last year, the team drafted third-rounder Antonio Gibson and signed J.D. McKissic — two backs that Rivera has compared to McCaffrey over and over. 

Even if Rivera could have magically added McCaffrey to Washington’s roster, going with a tandem might have been the smarter choice in the long run. 

As Washington rides a three-game winning streak into Las Vegas this weekend, the Burgundy and Gold have established a run-first identity that has fueled its recent surge. 

But on a larger scale, one of the defining stories out of the 2021 season is how many star running backs — including McCaffrey — have gotten hurt. In fact, the league’s eight highest-paid running backs are either currently injured, have missed multiple games or are battling nagging injuries. The group includes McCaffrey, New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara, Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, Cleveland’s Nick Chubb, Cincinnati’s Joe Chubb and Green Bay’s Aaron Jones. 

All eight have signed contracts within the last few years that carry at least a $12 million annual average value. Those deals now look like big gambles, if not outright mistakes.

Washington, on the other hand, is getting it done with Gibson and McKissic — whose combined contracts combine for less than $3 million annually. 

“Having one back really is tough because you don’t want that guy to really be the focus,” Rivera said.  “You want to have a good rotational system. And right now, I think that’s kind of where we are. We have a good rotational system. … They’re all versatile. They all do their own thing, and they have their characteristics and their traits that fit what we do.”

The debate over a running back’s value is nothing new. Those who are against paying the position have argued that teams can find suitable production at a much cheaper price — often noting that running backs just don’t have the same type of durability as other positions do in the long run. McCaffrey, for instance, has been limited to just 10 games the last two years because of an assortment of injuries — and he’s only 25. The Panthers announced Monday that McCaffrey suffered a season-ending ankle injury in their recent loss to the Dolphins.

But there’s an intangible effect that running the ball has for teams, NFL lifers say. The sort of effect that can’t be replicated by just passing it all the time. Tight end Logan Thomas said he could see the Seahawks’ defense wearing down as Washington dialed up a season-high 43 carries during Monday’s win. 

“They get tired,” Thomas said of the opposing defense. “They don’t like running side to side. They don’t like having to chase the ball, chase the ball, chase the ball. … In the fourth quarter, those big guys are tired of chasing that dude (Gibson) down the field.”

Those who do it best make a case for deserving a payday, like when Henry was rewarded with a four-year, $50 million deal after leading the league in rushing in 2019. Henry, sidelined this year with a broken foot, delivered on that big contract by running for more than 2,000 yards last season.

Other All-Pro backs — like McCaffrey (four years, $64 million) and Kamara (five years, $75 million) — have gotten paid because they could impact the passing game too. 

For Washington, Gibson and McKissic are producing at a steady level. Gibson ranks fifth in rushing attempts (183) and seventh in yards (712) for an average 3.9 yards a carry. McKissic is used as a change of pace back, rushing for 212 yards on 48 carries. 

And even Washington hasn’t been immune to injuries at the position. Gibson revealed in late October that he’s been playing with a stress fracture in his shin and has been on the injury report for most of the season. McKissic, too, could miss Sunday’s game as he hasn’t practiced this week with a concussion.

Still, the run game has become a staple for Washington — and its offensive line deserves a lot of credit. ESPN and Pro Football Focus rank the unit as one of the league’s best. 

The strength in the trenches has helped offensive coordinator Scott Turner to stick with the run — no matter who is back there.

“They’re happier when we run the ball a lot more,” Turner said with a laugh. “(Offensive linemen) want to run the ball. That’s just the nature of the position. You wouldn’t want it any other way.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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