The Houston Texans currently have two very similar running backs, both in style and name, on the roster. Duke Johnson Jr., acquired in a trade last August with the Cleveland Browns for a what became a 2020 third round draft pick, is one of the best pass catching backs in the league. Over his five-year NFL career, Johnson Jr. has caught 279 passes for 2,580 yards, good for a 9.2 yard average, and scored 11 touchdowns through the air.
Then, about three months ago, the Texans traded for David Johnson, another pass catching back who tallied 208 receptions for 2,219 yards, good for a 10.7 yard average, and 15 touchdowns in the same time span.
Duke Johnson Jr. was selected 77th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft.
David Johnson went a mere nine picks later at the 86th overall slot.
Now, they’re both hanging their cleats in the depths of NRG Stadium over a battle red rug in the Houston Texans locker room.
Last year in Houston, Duke Johnson Jr. contributed 410 yards on the ground and 410 more through the air. During his final season with the Arizona Cardinals, David Johnson gained 345 yards on the ground and 370 more through the air. Neither of those seasons would put either back on this list of the top five running backs in Texans history. But with a possibly re-tooled offense, a wide open passing attack, and an ability to interchange one Johnson for another, opportunities abound for each in 2020.
Over the course of the franchise’s short life, Houston has only seen 11 players eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground. Two of them were quarterbacks (David Carr and Deshaun Watson). While none of the running backs who rushed for more than a thousand yards are still on the roster, that doesn’t mean a player won’t get there in this year (if there’s a season).
Bill O’Brien’s brand of football is smash-mouth, old school, run-to-establish-the-pass, and bludgeon the A-gap play. Yet the entire time O’Brien has been with Houston, they’ve never had a running back that truly suits that style. Oddly enough, the greatest running back of all time for this particular sort of game plan is also one of the greatest athletes in Houston sports history: Earl Campbell. Imagine an offense with Deshaun Watson, Earl Campbell and DeAndre Hopkins...let’s not digress too far here.
In looking over Houston’s statistical leaders, it’s clear the numbers don’t tell the real story. Case in point: Alfred Blue is #4 on the all-time yards list, but there’s no way he’s one of the top running backs in franchise history. So who is? Well, here’s a list to wile away your Tuesday.
#5 - Steve Slaton
Taken in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft, Slaton, a West Virginia Mountaineer, set a record for most yards in the Sugar Bowl, scored 36 points in one game, and was the first Mountaineer to have 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in the same game. His first NFL game was against the rival Tennessee Titans and resulted in 116 rushing yards, including a 50 yard run, which was the second longest in team history at that point.
While the Texans waived Slaton in September of 2011, he finished his NFL career as a Miami Dolphin. The running back completed his career with 442 carries for 1,896 yards, good for a 4.3 yards per carry average, and 13 rushing touchdowns. He added 99 catches for 802 yards and 5 receiving scores.
#4 - Ben Tate
The Auburn product saw his name called by the Houston Texans in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft. The 5’11”, 220 lb. running back had great speed for a guy carrying that much weight, running a 4.43 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Unfortunately, Tate broke his ankle in his first professional action, landing on Injured Reserve immediately after his very first preseason game. But once he got on the field in regular season play in 2011, Tate ran for back-to-back 100+ yard games, including a game against the Cleveland Browns where Tate racked up 115 yards while backfield mate Arian Foster added another 124 to set the Texans’ single game rushing yard record at 261.
Unfortunately, Tate never could crack the starting lineup, competing with Foster, Slaton, Justin Forsett and battling nagging injuries most of his time in Houston. The Texans would eventually let Tate walk in free agency; he bounced from the Browns to the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers before retiring.
#3 - Lamar Miller
Carrying the distinction of being one of the only running backs in NFL history to have a 95+ yard touchdown run is quite a thing. The fact that Miller did it twice is simply amazing, having scored on a 97-yard touchdown as a Miami Dolphin and then doing it again as a Houston Texan.
In 2016, Miller racked up 1,073 rushing yards, landing him in the #7 spot for most yards in a single season by a Houston Texan. Miller is one of only five backs to ever eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in battle red, and he just missed it by 27 yards in 2018, his last full season. He was injured in a preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys in 2019, and Miller saw his Texans career end that day; he spent the entire 2019 season on IR before becoming a free agent. He remains unsigned.
Miller ended his career in Houston with 2,934 yards on 716 careers, good for 4.1 yard per carry, and 18 total touchdowns. Of everyone on this list, only Arian Foster seemed to have a higher ceiling than Miller, but unfortunately, the Houston Texans could never seem to take full advantage of Miller’s skillset.
#2 - Domanick Williams (Davis)
The former LSU Tiger left his mark on the college football in the Sugar Bowl, scoring 4 touchdowns in the 2002 tilt as his Tigers went on to destroy the Fighting Illini 47 - 34.
Selected by the Texans in the fourth round of the 2003 NFL Draft, Williams earned the honor of being selected as Rookie of the Year. Eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in both of his first two NFL seasons, like Miller, Williams missed that mark in Year Three by a paltry 24 yards. Unfortunately, Williams’ quest for his third straight 1,000-yard season was cut short by a devastating knee injury, and the running back formerly known as Domanick Davis would never play another down for the Houston Texans. Fun Fact: Williams was cut the same day the Texans parted ways with David Carr.
#1 - Arian Foster
Not only is Arian Foster the greatest running back in Houston Texans history, he’s one of the greatest in Houston and NFL history. Foster lands at #75 in the all-time NFL leading rushers (a list Lamar Miller sits on at #97, appropriately), with 6,527 rushing yards on 1,476 attempts, 2,346 receiving yards, and 68 total touchdowns.
in 2010, Arian Foster set the franchise record for most rushing yards in a single season with 1,616, shattering the previous record set by Steve Slaton in 2008 (1,282). In 2011, Foster came back for another 1,224, then 1,424 in 2012, and then another 1,246 in 2014. While there’s no truly accurate way to measure it, anyone who remembers watching Foster could easily believe he dove for at least 25% of those yards due to his uncanny ability to dodge a tackle and leap forward like a pro swimmer to snatch another 4-5 yards time and again.
Like Elroy “Crazy Legs’ Hirsch, a Hall of Fame running back known for an unorthodox rushing style that made him highly elusive to would-be tacklers, Foster had a way of gliding across the gridiron with deceptive speed and slippery agility. While it’s clear that Foster has the most yards of any Texan running back, it’s safe to say he also has dodged the most tackles of any running back. In fact, Deshaun Watson might be the only other guy in franchise history to match Foster’s ability to evade defenders; Foster had the ability to get them to jump at the spot where Foster used to be instead of where he was at that moment. Call it shake ‘n bake, rock and roll, juking, whatever...it’s a skill you can’t measure in drills and one Foster, a famously undrafted free agent, had in spades. Odds are, by the time his 2010 campaign was over, all 31 other NFL teams were kicking themselves for letting such a special talent glide right on by during the draft.
While there have been other talented RBs like Justin Forsett and Carlos Hyde that deserve honorable mention, at the end of the day, these five men are the best of the battle red backfield.
What was your favorite play from one of these backs? Have a moment where you realized one of them was a special player? Give us your favorite Texans running plays in the comments.