The Sweetness is Souring
The NFL still has star running backs, but how the position is being staffed and compensated is rapidly shifting underfoot. Forget finding the next Walter Payton or chasing Eric Dickerson's rushing record of 2,105 yards. Are we in danger of losing the 1,500-yard season?
Let’s give Ben Tate a hypothetical do-over on his football career.
It’s led him from Snow Hill High School in Maryland to Auburn University to the Houston Texans, who took him in the second round of the 2010 draft. After four years of laboring as Arian Foster’s understudy and proving his toughness at every turn, he finally netted that big free-agent contract with the Browns this offseason—only the contract wasn’t so big (just $6.1 million over two years) and it paid less than what other less-experienced backs received on the open market. (Toby Gerhart, for instance, signed a three-year deal with the Jaguars for $10.5 million.)
If Tate could hit the reset button, what would he do differently?
“I would’ve been something else, for sure. I’d have been a safety,” he says. “I had the opportunity to play it in college, but I wanted to be the guy to get the ball. I had no idea the position would be devalued, but hopefully I can break that trend.”
Good luck with that.
Nearly a month ago, The MMQB’s Andy Benoit did a nice job explaining how the position of Sayers, Smith and Sanders has become one of the least valuable in pro football. He noted that the average NFL ballcarrier makes about $2 million a season, or what teams are paying backup quarterbacks to hang out on the sideline. With the draft now less than two weeks away, we’re taking an even closer look at the reasons behind this economic shift. Andrew Brandt has an accompanying story on the devaluation from a business and historical perspective, and here you will find insight and analysis from the men who are playing and coaching an ever-changing game at the college and pro levels.
Almost every innovation we see in pro football isn’t really an innovation at all. Most often, they are college concepts ripped from their authors and applied to the NFL (think zone read, spread offenses and so forth). Because of this, we often think of college football as laboratory that explores a potpourri of ideas and possibilities. But in a lot of ways, the college game is usually at the whim of shifting resources and necessities.
The mistake is thinking that the NFL alone has become a pass-happy league. We’re seeing more refined quarterbacks and receivers coming out of 7-on-7 high school leagues, meaning the passing game has become a year-round pursuit throughout the country. The opportunity cost means that more and more running backs aren’t being taught the nuances of their position—to say nothing of the possibility that football is fundamentally changing at its grassroots level.
Once upon a time, youth and high school coaches put their best players at running back because that was the easiest way to put the ball in their hands most often. Now, it seems the best athletes are being taught to throw from the very beginning—while being given the freedom to run the ball out of spread formations such as the Pistol. Though the evidence is largely anecdotal, an argument can be made that your big running backs from 10 or 15 years ago are now playing either wideout or tight end, and the best of your shifty tailbacks are being groomed as dual-threat QBs. Or is it merely coincidence that two quarterbacks (Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III) were among the NFL’s top 25 leading rushers in 2012?
Princeton coach Bob Surace, a former Bengals assistant, is one of the few college football holdouts whose team still runs the ball more than it passes—453 to 443 in 2013—but that doesn’t mean he can’t see the changing tide.
“Football is becoming year-round for the skill position athlete,” he says. “What’s crazy is that high school teams are getting more practice time together with their coaches than NFL teams because of these new rules. So the quarterbacks and receivers are coming to us much more fundamentally sound—understanding concepts, understanding routes.”
In other words, even if the running back talent pool isn’t dwindling, opportunities for those players certainly are. But the talent pool is almost certainly dwindling.
If you’re the coach of a struggling college program without a feature back, why wouldn’t you tap into the surplus of college-ready passers and pass-catchers to find an athlete and make him a tailback? For this reason alone, many college coaches take the extra step of installing the zone-read option or simply a zone running game, which often requires a less-varied skillset from running backs and only average speed. The NFL consequence? When teams look at college running backs, they don’t know what they’re getting.
“The devaluing of running backs has something to do with some of the offenses that are being run in college,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn says. “There’s a big group that are part of the zone-read world, where maybe they’re not getting the ball in the backfield and handing it off to a guy and saying, ‘Watch what this dude can do.’ ”
It’s partly why we’d be shocked to see a running back go in the first round of this year’s draft. (Last year, no back went in the first round for the first time since 1963.) Even current NFL players in standard zone blocking schemes become lesser-understood entities. Talent evaluators ask themselves if individual success is merely a function of the scheme—the way it was for a procession of Broncos running backs in the early 2000’s—or if seemingly above-average talents such as Tate and Washington’s Alfred Morris can thrive in any offense? Most teams aren’t willing to pay big bucks to find out, especially in a league that threw the ball an alltime high 56.6% of the time last season. (The last season in which the NFL ran the ball more than it passed was 1983, with 50.3% of plays staying on the ground. A year later, teams passed 50.9% of the time and that number has steadily increased over time.)
One guy who has demonstrated that he can excel in and out of zone schemes earned the biggest contract of any running back this offseason: Rashad Jennings’ four-year deal with the Giants is worth $14 million. But Jennings’ story is unique: He weighed 268 pounds in high school, and was advised by nearly everyone in his football circle to take a scholarship to play linebacker, but he instead chose to attend Pitt as a running back. There he met his idol, big-bodied Steelers legend Jerome Bettis.
“I loved him and I ended up wearing 36 in Pittsburgh because I wanted to be like The Bus,” says Jennings, a seventh-round pick of the Jaguars in ’09 who played for the Raiders last season. “Being able to run first down, second down, third-and-short, fourth-and-short, third-and-long, catch the ball out of the backfield, protect the quarterback—do everything. No reason to come off the field.”
Bettis’ varied résumé was, ironically, the product of a defensive innovation that some believe ultimately injured the value of the running back position. When Bettis’ career began in the early 1990s, it was standard practice when NFL teams blitzed to simplify things and stick to man-to-man defense against receivers. But after some tinkering, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau soon kicked off a new movement: you could better disguise the blitz by threatening gaps in a pre-snap look with linebackers who would drop into zone coverage, leaving other unblocked pass rushers to attack the quarterback.
Offenses adapted quickly: The running back became the extra blocker instead of the bail-out receiver, meaning the tight end didn’t have to stay in to block. This made the lineman-sized Bettis extra useful when other teams began copying LeBeau’s approach. But if you didn’t have a Jerome Bettis on your roster—and who else did?—you needed a third-down back with a specialized skillset.
“Peoples’ answers to handle that have been to keep the backs in more, and not release them quite as much, so they can pass protect,” says 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, “and now the tight end has become more valuable because he’s one of three guys going out for a pass, so he has to be a viable receiver.”
The evolution of the tight end has been well documented. What’s rarely mentioned, however, is how the zone blitz has reduced the touches by running backs throughout the years. Even as zone blitzes became less in vogue, rule changes made football a pass-first game and teams continued to rely on tight ends more and more. Running backs were targeted on 21.2% of drop-backs in 2002, and just 17.3% in 2012.
So where is this all going?
Though the NFL was unmistakably a quarterback’s league by 2002, four running backs still finished with at least 1,500 rushing yards that season. In 2003, a record six teams had a back cross that threshold. There were five in each of the 2004, 2005 and 2006 seasons.
And while there were four in 2012, this seemed to be an outlier in the midst of a different trend. The NFL only had one 1,500-yard rusher in each of the 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013 seasons.
It’s clear no running back will be setting records for receiving yards anytime soon, but might the 1,500-yard rushing season be on the way out? It stands to reason that if you’re going to outsource a brutish, anonymous task such as pass protection to your running back—on top of not throwing him the ball nearly as much as you did a decade ago—you might as well use two or three guys to keep your payroll down and their energy up, right?
Well, yes and no.
Consider the following career monthly splits for yards per carry by three NFL veterans:
|Veteran A||Veteran B||Veteran C|
Veteran A is Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who starts off slower than most but explodes in the second half.
Veteran B is Texans running back Arian Foster, who starts strong and remains steady.
Veteran C is Tate, who starts off considerably better than the two Pro Bowlers, but his production tails off in December.
Tate has had some notable injuries, including lingering ankle issues, and last season he opted to play through several broken ribs in hopes of proving himself to free-agent suitors. He rejects the notion that he’s injury prone, and he aspires to be among the top five leading rushers in 2014.
“If you look at my injury history, it’s mostly freak stuff that you can’t do anything about,” he says. “I break my ankle. Unlucky. Everything else was minor—hamstring, turf toe. I didn’t miss a game at Auburn. You go so long being lucky, at some point you’re going to get injured.”
Either way, it would behoove new Browns coach Mike Pettine to put Tate on a “pitch count” in an effort to reverse that September-to-December decline.
But when it comes to Foster and Lynch, Quinn, the Seahawks’ D-coordinator, thinks their talents should be kept on the field at all times.
“There are a few guys, legitimate feature dudes, and it’s real,” Quinn says. “There may not be as many of them as maybe four or five years ago, but when you play them, you think, Okay, how am I gonna deal with this guy? Sometimes the teams that have a really significant runner are able to use him to open up the passing game.”
Who are these feature dudes? They come from both zone schemes (Foster, Lynch) and man schemes (Adrian Peterson). They create yards when the blocking isn’t there, and they largely stay on the field on third down.
But here’s the thing: they’re getting old.
Consider the four players who reached the 1,500-yard plateau in 2012: Adrian Peterson (2,097 yards); Alfred Morris (1,613); Marshawn Lynch (1,590); and Jamaal Charles (1,509). Morris is the youngest of that group, at 25, while the others are at least 27. Another 25-year-old, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, led the league with 1,607 yards last season. He headlines a short list of 25-and-under guys you might call elite, and then there’s a significant drop off. Eddie Lacy’s in the boat. But Morris? Well, that’s hard to say. Is he truly elite, or did he benefit from playing alongside a healthy RG3 in Washington’s zone-read offense in 2012?
Look at the high school level and you can see football’s shift happening in sharper relief. Rivals.com began evaluating wide receivers more favorably than running backs years ago—a reflection, says national recruiting director Mike Farrell, of the college coaching attitudes.
“We adjusted our recruiting and college coaches have adjusted their recruiting,” he says. “Now we really want the Megatrons. We started putting higher values on bigger receivers, taller cornerbacks, but running backs? We did not adjust our opinion.”
How long until stagnation morphs into decline? How many kids will take Tate’s advice and play safety or wide receiver instead? Jennings was in the position to choose 10 years ago, with North Carolina and Virginia Tech offering scholarships to play linebacker. But he chose Pitt, then transferred to Liberty and stuck with the position he longed for.
“I’m a running back,” he says. “I’ve fought to become a running back. This is something I want to do. This isn’t a skill I just necessarily rolled out of bed and I had. And if I could do it again I definitely would.”
The modern running back: Stubborn, unheralded, and not yet extinct.
Opening Sports Illustrated/The MMQB photo credits: Robert Beck (Lynch); John W. McDonough (Moreno, Foster); John Biever (Brown, Peterson); Simon Bruty (Morris, Rice, Johnson, Lacy); Carlos M. Saavedra (Gerhart, Jones-Drew, Jennings); David E. Klutho (Charles, Tate); Heinz Kluetmeier (Martin); Al Tielemans (McCoy)