The Calgary Stampeders agreed to a contract extension with Canadian running back Jon Cornish this week, and that deal (which adds one extra year to his existing contract) could be an important one. Cornish (pictured above running against Saskatchewan in last year's Western Final) was second on the Stampeders' tailback depth chart last season, which on most teams would make the former Kansas Jayhawk a complete afterthought unless the top back (Joffrey Reynolds) got hurt. That wasn't the case in Calgary, though; in addition to playing on special teams (where he picked up 224 return yards on 12 attempts and made 12 tackles), Cornish regularly spelled Reynolds on every third Stampeders' offensive series.
That's a highly unusual arrangement in the CFL, where most teams have generally relied on one all-purpose running back, occasionally subbing in others only in particular situations. It turned out to be an effective one, though, as Cornish proved exceptionally productive with the ball. He picked up 618 yards on 85 carries, with a 7.3 yards per carry average that was better than any other back who got at least 50 touches. Given the amount of single-back sets they feature, CFL offences also often require running backs who can be proficient in both pass-blocking and pass-catching, and Cornish didn't disappoint in either aspect. He hauled in 14 passes for 226 yards and a touchdown, an average of 16.1 yards per catch, and his blocking was pretty impressive as well.
By comparison, Reynolds finished with bigger totals (1,200 rushing yards and 286 passing yards), but wasn't as effective on a per-play basis in either department. His average rushing play picked up just 5.5 yards, while the average pass to him netted only 7.7 yards. He did receive far more touches than Cornish, which has to be taken into account, and he was still generally a reasonably effective back, but those stats suggest that using Cornish on every third series proved to be a pretty good idea for the Stampeders.
Both backs have a bit of a different style, which made their pairing particularly effective. At 5'10'' and 221 pounds, Reynolds packs a lot of force and is tough to stop between the tackles, but the 6'0'', 205 Cornish seems to have a bit more quickness and elusiveness. In addition to forcing defences to adapt to whichever back was in at the moment, the time-sharing arrangement also kept both backs fresh over the course of the game, which proved very effective in numerous fourth quarters. The Stampeders finished with a league-best 13-5 record, and much of that was thanks to their offence; they racked up 626 points over 18 regular-season games (an average of 34.8 points per game), over 100 ahead of the next-best offence (Montreal's, which finished with 521 points). The Cornish-Reynolds tandem was an essential part of that offence, and fresh backs combined with stellar blocking from an outstanding offensive line to often let Calgary stampede over its opponents.
The pairing also perhaps allowed Calgary to run more than they typically do. Despite going from essentially an unquestioned lead back to the first choice in a tandem, Reynolds only received 18 fewer carries in 2010. Thus, it seems that many of Cornish's 85 carries came on plays that probably would have been passes the previous year. I don't have the total number of plays ran in each year, so it's possible that the change is more thanks to Calgary having the ball more rather than any shift in philosophy, but we don't know for sure. It would seem logical that having fresher running backs could allow you to run more, though, especially if you get the ball back quickly after scoring. If you've just marched down the field on the strength of a bunch of 5- and 6-yard runs, your back's probably a bit tired, so you're often more likely to focus on passing plays; if you're using a different running back on the next series, you have more options.
The idea of running by committee obviously isn't new. Former Denver Broncos' head coach (and current Washington Redskins' head coach) Mike Shanahan is generally credited with popularizing the approach, but plenty of NFL teams have used it since then, some to great success. The approach has even made its way north of the border at times; one particularly memorable example was the John Avery/Ricky Williams tandem in Toronto in 2007, which had some great moments but didn't get too far thanks to injuries. More recently, some other teams have started to take heed of Calgary's tactics; B.C. found an impressive amount of success with a mix of Yonus Davis and Jamal Robertson down the stretch, and it's likely that both Edmonton (Arkee Whitlock, Daniel Porter) and Montreal (DeAndra Cobb, Yvenson Bernard, maybe even Ahman Green) might use aspects of that approach next year. The CFL's generally focused on having one star tailback and a bunch of backups per team, but that may be starting to change. If it does, the Reynolds/Cornish experiment may be remembered as the place where it started, and Cornish's contract extension may allow the Stampeders to continue along those lines for the next few years.