Najee Harris rushing for 1,000 yards doesn't make him elite for Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers  running back Najee Harris (23)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (23) / Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers got the running game going in the second half of this season, and as a result, Najee Harris went over 1000 yards rushing for the third time in his career. Fans have been quick to lump praise on this fact, as 1000 yards have been seen as the standard for a successful running back season.

Since Harris crossed that mark, the talk has once again been about how elite Harris has been as a running back. While I don’t believe that Harris is a bad player, the simple act of crossing over 1000 yards in a modern NFL season isn’t as impressive as it used to be considering the number of added games.

Why the Steelers shouldn’t be impressed

Let’s do some simple math. Originally, the 1000-yard season was viewed as such a feat in a 14-game season in the '60s-‘70s. During a time when the game as a whole was much more brutal, a 1,000-yard season was impressive. It meant rushing for roughly 72 yards a game. That kind of production, along with just simply staying healthy for a whole season, was a good benchmark for success.

Now, three additional games have been to the season, and the rules have changed to better protect the players. While protecting players is paramount, the math for getting a 1,000-yard season is far less impressive. Now, a running back just has to rush for roughly 59 yards per game.

To me, that shift is enough to make the impact feel less significant. Rushing for 60 yards a game should be expected for a top back, especially if they are treated as a bell cow as opposed to a committee back. While Jaylen Warren took a chunk out of Harris’s workload, he was still around the top five for total carries. The opportunities were still there in this run-heavy offense for him to be a top back.

Now, the same argument could be made for receivers going over 1000 yards in a season. With the extra games, this feat is far more feasible. That said, receivers are more dependent on quarterback play, which can be affected by a variety of reasons. While the point still holds up, I think the 1,000-yard mark is more meaningful for a receiver.

What Harris should be celebrated for is his ability to stay healthy. While the game is safer now than it used to be, being healthy for an entire season is quite the feat. It has allowed Harris the opportunity to rush for as much as he has.

He also has some impressive numbers for his first three seasons in the league. His numbers are higher than the likes of Le’Veon Bell, Rashard Mendenhall, and Franco Harris. That said, Harris is the only one of the three to stay healthy all three seasons, which greatly influences those numbers.

PFR has a handy tool that allows you to look at the stats of a player over a few seasons, and it extrapolates out that total to what a 17-game season would have looked like even if they didn’t play that many games. For Harris, his average rushing yards per season is 1090.

Franco would have averaged over 1200 rushing yards a season assuming he had maintained his pace. Bell would have been over 1300 rushing yards. Even Mendenhall with his injury-riddled first season would have been over 1100 rushing yards. Even Willie Parker would have had more rushing yards on average despite not starting in year one.

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All of this is to say that while Harris going over 1000 rushing yards is a good thing, it doesn’t tell the whole story. A 1000-yard season itself isn’t what it was, and when you more fairly compare the numbers, Harris’s first three seasons are slightly below some of the greats. He is a fine player, but he certainly isn’t an elite one even with so many pointing towards his stats as a reason that he is.