The star of the show. The belle of the ball. The angel atop the tree. The diamond of the ring. The Tim Tebow of quarterbacks. Whatever way you look at it, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ Doug Martin is getting more attention right now than anyone else in the NFL. Martin is coming off a historic rushing performance against the Oakland Raiders when he posted 251 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries.
Right now the man nicknamed ‘Muscle Hampster’ can do no wrong, but if you flip the calendar back a few months, this wasn’t the way things were supposed to go. At draft time, all the talk of impact running-backs surrounded Trent Richardson.
Richardson was selected third overall, after the Cleveland Browns traded up to draft him, a full 28 spots ahead of Martin. At the time, analysts were talking about how Richardson was set to be the next great running back and he would immediately have a massive impact on the league.
After an off-season dealing with injury issues, Richardson has failed to make a consistent impact with the Browns. He has run for 575 yards, five touchdowns and fumbled twice. Martin on the other hand has 794 yards, seven touchdowns and no fumbles, despite only two more total carries on the season.
Now it could be argued that Richardson is in a much more difficult situation, but that would be devaluing the good work of the Browns’ offensive line, a unit that has been stellar this season and has three potential Pro Bowlers starting on it. Martin may have a better passing game to take the focus off of him, but he has already lost both of his pro bowl caliber guards.
If you were to tell anyone that Martin was better than Richardson a few months ago, they would likely have laughed in your face. In reality, Richardson probably does still have more talent, but Martin’s skill-set fits better to the contemporary professional game than Richardson’s does.
The NFL is a passing league. No longer do teams that run the ball 30 times a game dominate the offensive power rankings. Not one single team that ranked in the top five of rushing attempts last season was ranked in the top five for points per game. Only the Houston Texans, who had the most rushing attempts in the league last season, even cracked the top 10 as they finished 10th. Of the top five scoring offenses last year(of which there were six teams), only the Carolina Panthers ranked in the top half of the league in rushing attempts, 14th, and they wouldn’t have been anywhere near the top half without Cam Newton‘s 126 rushes.
In today’s NFL, committing to running the football 20+ times a game is not an ideal blueprint for success. Long gone are the days of Jim Brown, Walter Payton and even Jerome Bettis. The prototypical back of today is not a big bruising runner who searches out contact. Instead, today’s running-back needs to do more with less and contribute as much to the passing game as he does the receiving. While Richardson can be a very effective receiver and a decent blocker, he is primarily a back who needs 20 carries a game to wear down defenses before breaking off big gains. Doug Martin plays a very different game.
Martin is averaging 5.2 yards per carry to Richardson’s 3.8, while he also averages 12.2 yards per reception to Richardson’s 7.7. Because Richardson often looks to initiate contact and doesn’t have the same agility as Martin, he doesn’t break off as many big runs. More importantly, Martin is able to take advantage of the spread offenses and shotgun formations that are prominent in today’s NFL.
In those formations, the defense is spread out to create more space while the offense is able to offer a passing threat. With Richardson, the Browns are forced to play tighter formations and run a more rigid offense. The Browns are one of only two teams in the NFL, the other being Houston, that have run less than a third of their snaps from the shotgun formation. That allows the defense to zone in on Richardson and be more comfortable with an extra defender in the box.
Not only is Martin’s elusiveness beneficiary in the passing game, but so is his comfort level as part of a passing offense. He can routinely catch passes out of the backfield or in screen situations, while he is also an outstanding pass blocker. Richardson may have more receptions than Martin this year, 31 to Martin’s 20, but that is largely because Martin is trusted more to pick up blitzes. Martin isn’t just asked to help offensive linemen, he is asked to block blitzing linebackers on his own and expected to pick them up.
After his record-breaking day for the Buccaneers’ last week, it will be no surprise that some are already saying that Martin is better than Richardson. While I’m not going to make that judgment just yet, they are still rookies, I believe that it is clear already that Martin is a better fit in this passing league.
Martin is a contemporary back, while Richardson is a classic.
Cian Fahey writes for RantSports, Irishcentral, The Guardian, Balls.ie and FootballGuys. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf