September 13, 2023

Who is the best running back in the CFL right now?

The running game has rarely been a focal point of CFL offences collectively.

By many it’s viewed as a chicken or the egg paradox. Do good teams run while winning or do running teams win through their ability to pound the rock?

While having an elusive quarterback capable of sneaking a second and long conversion with a quarterback draw, or a receiver capable of taking a rare handoff for the off-script explosive play is great, the basis of all running game success has, and always will, come down to the execution of offensive line play. That play of the big men in the trenches allows running backs and fullbacks to grind away clock and yardage with relentless effort.

While calling games for the CFL on TSN this season, I have seen first-hand the impact of a devastating running game on the score and psyche of opponents. 

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On Canada Day it was the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, after a long lightning delay, pushing Montreal off the ball consistently to close out a road victory. This past Saturday in Toronto I saw the defending Grey Cup champion Argonauts run the ball time and time again while leading those same Alouettes, including the on final two drives which totalled nearly fourteen minutes time of possession resulting in a touchdown and field goal to extend Toronto’s lead and take the season series against the current second seed in the East.

Both of these teams are powered by punishing backs in Brady Oliveira and AJ Ouellette. It’s a style of running that will always pay off come the colder temperatures as trophy time nears, but there are many different styles of runner having success this season as more than half the CFL is averaging above 100 yards rushing per game. 

The question becomes then; who is the best running back in the CFL right now?

Strip away the biases, logo allegiances, rings earned, and any other angles which might impact your feel for the CFL ground game judgement. Let’s look at the CFL’s best ball carriers in the simplest way possible: the numbers.

Oliveira is way out in front for the rushing title with 1,144 yards to date ahead of Edmonton’s Kevin Brown (829) and Ouellette (815). Oliveira, Ouellette, and James Butler of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats all sit second fiddle in rushing touchdowns (six) to a Most Outstanding Player frontrunner, Toronto’s quarterback Chad Kelly (seven). Fellow quarterback Dustin Crum leads the CFL in yards per rush attempt (7.4) ahead of Oliveira and Brown (5.9).

In some more advanced metrics, Oliveira leads Pro Football Focus’ rushing grades (92.6) on the season followed closely by Ouellette and Calgary Stampeders standout Dedrick Mills, who has a similar defiant running style to the two men he’s attempting to chase down in the eyes of PFF.

No player makes more tackles miss per carry (0.38) or gains more yards after initial contact (3.9) than Ouellette. Meanwhile, no backfield primary ball handler has more runs of 10 yards or more this season than Oliveira (29).

Oliveira also gets the most offensive line help with a league-leading 2.6 yards before contact per carry, as the Bombers’ bigs continue to find a way in 2023 to maintain their offensive identity while seeing Zach Collaros and Dalton Schoen flourish off run fakes for the ever-dominant Bombers attack.

Perhaps as important as the gains and yards before contact is the ability to prevent a first down running play going backwards and creating a difficult second down situation. In that metric, PFF has Oliveira allowing a CFL-low 7.7% of rushes that go for no gain, or negative yardage, while Kevin Brown and the Elks struggling line are slowing such a result on 18.8% of attempts. 

So it becomes a question of what you value most. Two power backs with similar running styles, with fine hairs separating their statistical performances and usage rates.

For me, this has to be between Oliveira and Ouellette currently, which is a head-to-head matchup that might go so far as to end up deciding the Grey Cup champion in Hamilton this November.

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