While running backs have been largely devalued across the NFL, in Thursday’s season opener, they were looked to for much of both teams’ production.
The 101st NFL season kicked off with the Houston Texans visiting the Kansas City Chiefs when two of the best quarterbacks in the league faced off. But one of the biggest storylines wasn’t a show-stopping performance from Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes; although, he had 211 yards and three touchdowns on 24-of-32 passing in the 34-20 win. Or what Deshaun Watson did without the Texans’ biggest wide receiving threat, DeAndre Hopkins. He finished with 253 yards, one touchdown, and one interception on 20-of-32 passing. This was about the backs.
Kansas City rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire recorded 138 yards and one touchdown in his debut while the bulk of Houston’s scores were from the duo of David Johnson and Duke Johnson; each with one.
Their efforts weren’t one-off, or at least they shouldn’t be. Both performances can boil down to a couple of factors. The COVID-19 pandemic forced regular offseason and preseason work to halt and the result was less continuity league-wide. Nothing can simulate a live game, so when teams took the field Thursday, some sloppiness was expected. Another result of less time together as a team is relying on what works. While both of these teams’ backs are largely unproven (with their current team or in general), they were able to find their lanes and open up the field, especially Edwards-Helaire.
The rookie had the best performance out of any back and became the fourth player in the last 30 seasons with at least 130 rushing yards and a score in their NFL debut, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The past three players to complete that feat, ESPN noted, eventually won Rookie of the Year or a rushing title that season. He took advantage of Houston’s different defensive looks and had an 80% success rate against six-or-fewer defenders in the box, per Next Gen Stats.
Edwards-Helaire was able to run through a middling 2019 run defense and David Johnson’s efforts were against a poor Kansas City run defense. There’s a slew of other backs, including the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Jones (versus the Minnesota Vikings), the Arizona Cardinals’ Kenyan Drake (against the San Francisco 49ers), or the Atlanta Falcons’ Todd Gurley (versus the Seattle Seahawks) who will all face defenses that can struggle to stop the run. If these two high-powered offensive teams looked to their backfield for added support earlier than usual, the trend might continue as other teams find their footing in this unique NFL season.
One thing is for certain, though. The story of Thursday night’s season opener was Edwards-Helaire. The No. 32 overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft looked every bit like a first-rounder and his poise as a runner between the tackles could make the Kansas City offense even more formidable than they were last season. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the league.