There is no question that the NFL has become a passing league. Gone are the days you see teams with workhorse running backs carrying the ball 20 times a game around the NFL. Teams have become not only more willing to throw the ball, but they also have started to see the benefits to keeping your best running backs healthy towards the end of the season.
That has made having a 1,000 yard rusher even that much more impressive. It is a feat that Bengals’ running back Joe Mixon reached last season with 1,168 yards to lead the AFC while playing in 14 games. The question now becomes whether Mixon can repeat that accomplishment? You may think it is a simple question, but history is against him.
You could site any of these reasons from the opening to make a case as to why the Bengals haven’t had a back-to-back 1,000 yard rusher since Cedric Benson did it in 2010 and 2011, but if you did that, you’d be giving the Bengals too much credit. We have to look a little bit closer as to why each running back failed to reach that mark again. In doing so, we will have a better idea of whether Mixon has a shot of repeating.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2012)
Green-Ellis (more commonly referred to by his nickname “The Law Firm”) was brought in as a free agent from the Patriots to fill the void left by Benson in the running game. He was also a veteran presence in the mix of a hard reboot that included the beginning of the Andy Dalton and A.J. Green era.
That first season he had a career-high in carries with 278, which lead to his best rushing total of his career (1,094 rushing yards). His 3.9 yards per carry wasn’t anything to get excited about, though.
Why didn’t he repeat?
The simple answer is Green-Ellis was meant to be sort of a bridge running back. The team had a clear need, and he was a guy they could count on, but they wouldn’t feel like they couldn’t address that position in the future, which is precisely what Cincinnati did.
The Bengals drafted Giovani Bernard the following offseason and even though the rookie carried the balled 50 less times than Green-Ellis, Bernard ended up with only 61 less yards in 2013.
Jeremy Hill (2014)
People sometimes forget that Hill wasn’t even the starter at the beginning of the season. Bernard was meant to be the main ball carrier. An injury opened the door about midway through the season for Hill to have one of the hottest finishes to a season that we’ve seen a Bengal have. He rushed for 929 yards in the final nine weeks of the season, and it looked like the Bengals had their running back of the future.
Why didn’t he repeat?
This is actually a very good question, and one that I don’t think anyone has a very good answer to. Hill never rushed for 1,000 yards again. In 2015, behind one of the Bengals better offensive lines they’ve had in recent history, he only managed 794 yards. He even had 223 carries after having 222 carries in 2014, which meant his yards per carry dropped from 5.1 yards per carry to just 3.6.
It just really felt like Hill had his talent taken away by the Monstars (see Space Jam). The coaching was the same, but Cincinnati still was very predictable at that time with running the ball out of the I-formation pretty consistently while throwing out of the shotgun. Opposing defenses picked up on that trend, and his drop-off was sudden as a result.
Why Mixon can break the chain
Mixon’s rookie year was a frustrating one for fans. It was Hill’s final season, and for whatever reason, the Bengals still gave the veteran most of the workload before his season was cut short by injury. Mixon would provide a spark every now and then and the team would go away from him in favor of Hill somehow recreating his 2014 magic. To say it was frustrating is an understatement.
Mixon has clearly been the best running back on the roster since his rookie season (no offense to Bernard), and what he did last season behind a terrible offensive line was nothing short of a miracle. Mixon made making defenders miss in the backfield look routine, because he was constantly surrounded early in the play. Not to mention towards the end of the season he was running the ball in an offense led by Jeff Driskel without Green.
The recent news of Jonah Williams missing the 2019 season definitely makes going back-to-back that much harder. Mixon will also likely see more of his carries given to backups in the hopes of keeping him fresh. That isn’t to say he won’t receive a bulk of the carries, but you shouldn’t expect him to have the same amount of touches Todd Gurley got for the Rams last season. Bengals head coach Zac Taylor has already stated he’d like to keep Mixon fresh.
Even with all of that, the change in coaching at the top should make this a slam dunk. Taylor’s offense is based around play action, which means having a running game will be a priority. Mixon being the most important part of the offense should allow him break this trend that has gone on for too long. That is provided guys like Dalton and Green stay healthy to keep the defenses from completely focusing on him each week.
So what do you think? Can Mixon get back-to-back 1,000 yard rushing seasons?