Where Have All The Great Running Backs Gone?
Perhaps no industry is trendier than fashion. If you’re over 40 like me, you probably remember bell bottom jeans, parachute pants or “collar up” polo shirts from the ’80s. In hindsight we all look silly at times following these trends over the years and pictures of these moments often provide comic relief for the next generation. Well, like fashion, the NFL is extremely trendy as well and what is en vogue today is often laughed at 10 years later. For example, how many teams do you see playing the “46” defense on Sunday or employing the “Run and Shoot” offense? Schemes do evolve over time and it is easy to see that the current preference to use “spread formations” is an extension of the earlier Run and Shoot concepts. With these offensive changes, the 3 down running back is now on the EPA’s endangered species list and has become the exception rather than the rule. Is this trend simply the product of a change in offensive philosophy, rule changes or something else?
There is no debating that the NFL has become a passing league with teams on average preferring the passing game 59% of the time over the run. However, it wasn’t that long ago that the formula for winning Super Bowls was flipped? When the December weather rolled into the most of the country, you needed to play defense and run the ball. If you couldn’t do that, well then you weren’t going to be in any top 10 Championship shows on the ESPN Classic channel.
Granted rule changes since the Patriots mauled the Greatest Show on Turf in the Super Bowl have helped open up the passing game but is that why the 3 down back appears to be going the way of the T-Rex?
If you asked most coaches, a majority would agree with the statement that you should “play to your strengths.” Since we know that the league is slinging it all over the field now, is that an indictment on the current crop of “weak” RB talent coming out of college or a compliment to the “strong” quality of WR’s that are emerging from the college ranks. Like a good politician, I would argue it is a combination of both.
The formula for a successful running game in today’s game is to have to have at least 3 running backs or in the case of a team like the Cowboys drafting DeMarco Murray this year, you may need 4 to truly get the job done. Aside from a few players like Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson and MJD, most backs are lucky to get 7-12 “touches” per game. Gone are the days of the 20+ carry RB’s like Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton or more recently Marshall Faulk. If you spend any time watching the NFL Combine you will realize that these players are certainly not “less talented” from a pure numbers standpoint. The size and speed of today’s running backs are increasing each year and their training is much more sophisticated than ever.
So if it is not the talent level, what has fueled the growth of the Running Back By Committee (RBBC) approach? In a word – Specialization! Let’s remember that sports are a microcosm of society right? Look at the medical profession as the best example. Specialization abounds in spades in that industry where doctors not only specialize on certain organs or systems but will even build their whole practice on the treatment of one aspect of an organ. Corporations are not much different these days either. Gone are the days of the “generalist” as responsibilities are often segregated down to the smallest details. Running backs are also affected by this similar trend in the NFL where just being able to run the ball is not enough anymore. Back in the day, the RB with great vision was on the field the whole time even if he couldn’t pick up a blitz or catch a cold. Not anymore and not with the price-tag that today’s top drafted QBs are commanding. Now coaches like to shuttle in three or four different players on each play to “specialize” their team according to the situation. There is the 3rd down back, the short-yardage back, 1st and 2nd down back, blocking fullback or H-Back and each with a different purpose. Coaches insert the players with these various skills depending on the down and distance in an effort to “play to their strengths.”
Perhaps RBs are a victim of the growth of the spread offense in college and are now an afterthought where they don’t get the chance to hone their skills as thoroughly as before? This may have some merit when you consider that the old fantasy theory of the “breakout 3 year WR” is all but dead with many WR’s hitting the ground running like Mike Williams in Tampa Bay last season. Rare is the RB today that oozes with so much talent that you just have to have him on the field for all three downs. When you find one like an Adrian Peterson or a Chris Johnson, you should hold on tight and ride him to your fantasy championship because more than ever, these players are difference makers and clearly separate fantasy teams that have to play matchups every week and hope that the coach doesn’t have a 50+ passing game plan installed that week. We probably took for granted the talent level of players like Barry Sanders or Curtis Martin in the past and should really learn to appreciate this increasingly rare skillset of the every down back. Then again, like parachute pants are making a comeback, maybe we will one day return to the 4 yards and a cloud of dust days in the NFL where RBs were the toast of the town.