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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?

By
Robert Klemko
· More from Robert·

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 average NFL ballcarrier makes about $2 million a season, or what teams are paying backup QBs to hang out on the sideline.

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.”

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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.

Jerome Bettis spiking the ball against the Vikings in December 2001 and on the cover of the Nov. 24, 1997 Sports Illustrated. (left: Damian Strohmeyer/SI/The MMQB)
Jerome Bettis spiking the ball against the Vikings in December 2001 and on the Nov. 24, 1997 cover of SI. (Damian Strohmeyer/SI/The MMQB :: Gregory Heisler/Sports Illustrated )

“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.”

Is Alfred Morris truly elite, or did he benefit from playing alongside a healthy RG3 in Washington’s zone-read offense in 2012?

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
September 3.96 4.31 4.97
October 3.78 4.47 4.71
November 4.36 4.44 4.62
December 4.68 4.42 4.35
 

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.

Tread on the Tire Theory

That running backs like Tate are bound to eventually get hurt means front offices are hesitant to spend big money on second or third contracts. Our Andrew Brandt explains why impressive numbers early in a tailback’s career could actually be harmful to future negotiations. FULL STORY

“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.

mmqb-end-slug-square

 
 

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)

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58 comments
Ciscos
Ciscos

The RB position in the NFL is only being devalued because "those in the know" are devaluing it. The RB position is just as important as it was in the 1960's.  The only thing that isn't is the big, ground and pound running back. If I'm wrong, then lets all welcome in Canadian Football.



AnthonyW.Gibbs1
AnthonyW.Gibbs1

I don't buy the premise.  Yes, offenses are changing and so is the game, but if a 250 lbs back with 4.45 speed and a body like a tank came out in the draft he'd be picked in the top 10 and would be getting 30 touches a game.  All because these guys aren't being groomed in the same way does not mean that there aren't good big backs out there and better believe a coach will use them if that talent is identified.


A big back can be drafted in the 6th round, get some preseason snaps, run everyone over, and suddenly will be your week 1 starter or the first back off the bench.  The game to me hasn't hardly changed at all save the playcalling emphasis.

BallRush
BallRush

I had such a hard time reading this article.  Analysis paralysis.  This could have been written in one sentence...  THE RULES HAVE CHANGED.  If we reverse the rules and let defensive backs touch receivers after 5 yards, let DB's slam their helmet into "defenseless receivers", let linemen demolish QB's after they've released the ball, the running back will become important again.  It's that simple Mr. Klemko.


Now, I'm not saying I'm FOR that, I'm just saying that's what's happened.


A slot receiver?  That position didn't exist 15 years ago.  But now, line a quick guy up in the slot 3 yards off the line of scrimmage and he's got instant separation at the snap.  2.5 seconds later the balls in his hands and he's got 4 yards at least.  Shutdown corner?  Another position that didn't exist 15 years ago.  He makes the most money on D, because with the new rules, if you can somehow SINGLE cover a guy, that let's you double more receivers and have a chance of stopping an offense.


Look, the objective is to get yards.  Teams can get more yards throwing east-west and letting players go 1 on 1 on the fringes (with a pick play thrown in to make it even more unfair).  If you need 3-4 yards, the chances of doing so in the air are much greater than doing it on the ground.


So why are RB's a dying breed?  THE RULES HAVE CHANGED.  So frustrating that Mr. Klemko had to write a novel about this.



LennaySam
LennaySam

Has no one else noticed the complete lack of support for many of his arguments.  Let's start here,"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."


In Fact, 

1. Florida State 442 passing attempts; 502 rushing attempts

2. Auburn 285 to 729

3. Mich St 430 to 569

4. S. Carolina 383 to 537

5. Mizzou 454 to 588

6. Oklahoma 383 to 559

7. Alabama 365 to 461

8. Clemson 493 to 544

9. Oregon 405 to 568

10. UCF 404 to 471


So, every team in the final top 10 ran it more than they threw it.  The suggestion that "pass-happy" leagues begin in college is ludicrous.  Running the ball is still an integral part of the game.  


Was any attempt made to determine whether the "Running Back by Committee" model has had an effect on the lack of single season yardage totals per back?  Or did you start with the premise that RB's are disappearing and then sought to prove it with fabricated and/or misleading facts/anecdotal evidence?  


BillRobinson
BillRobinson

Great article with many excellent readers' comments. Better yet, we don't see the trolls who are all too common in many threads. Together that make excellent reading.

patconwa
patconwa

Larger receivers require larger d-backs until someone like Miami brings back the snuffs. Read option will last until more RG3s blow knees and the QB large money looks as foolish as running back money does now. The game will continue to evolve toward more points being scored because the uneducated believes that is better football. More rules to favor offenses; extended arms for linemen, tighter QB protection, tighter D-back rules, etc. will produce more points.

Whatever
Whatever

One factor not mentioned is that players who are smaller and quicker are being moved to RB in these read option and spread offenses. My son is a 6'4" 230 lb. TE/S who rarely plays with his hand on the ground because he's in motion or split out wide. The running backs are smaller and quicker, so they can better cut and take advantage of a spread-out defense, or go out in pass patterns like a wheel route. 

Our middle school team runs the same offense and defense as high school, so the QBs, WRs, TEs, RBs, etc. all know the offense as they move up. The QBs have responsibilities and decisions to make; they can call audibles and checks at the line, and the receivers have to recognize coverages and use hand signals to the QB to call for route changes accordingly.

The football player is coming up quicker and smarter, and that's good for everyone. The RBs are still there, but they are simply evolving away from being battering rams.

trailofechoes
trailofechoes

We have such an over emphasis of sports that kids at the Junior High level and some Pop Warner leagues are getting high level concepts.  Then the kids whose families have money, or elite athletes and talent who get mentored, go to advanced camps every summer.  The average size and athleticism of high school players has increased dramatically.  High school running backs used to be the stocky athletic kids who outweighed the average defensive player, or the shifty, explosively fast kid (if you could find them) and could dominate, now the stocky athlete average's out, leaving only the shifty, explosive athlete as viable.  I think running backs can still be dominate because of the diluted talent at the high school level but why play a position that won't get you maximum value for your future. 


Then you have the simple math of YPP.  The running game yields 3.5 - 4 yards per play.  While the passing game yields 7 - 8 YPP.   At 60% efficiency the passing game will net many more yards per 100 plays than the running game.  You have to fall below 50% now to break even and QB's and schemes make the days of yore with pro bowl sub 50% passers laughable.  And let's face it it's the passing game that makes football the most exciting game to watch.  The sheer fact that at any moment a team can go from having a bad game and beaten badly to shifting momentum and going on a run for three drives...well that mainly derives from the passing game in most cases.  A  team down by four with one play left still has a chance, there's a romanticism in that which few sports can match.

LouieRivera
LouieRivera

FYI, big brain Robert. If Lynch is "elite" with 2847 yards over the past two years, why isn't Morris with 2888 yards over the past two years?

What a Seahawk fanboy you are.

MLG
MLG

How 'bout we make the incomplete pass a running clock and a 5 yard penalty instead of simply stopping the clock and letting the offense unleash the gazelles again? There would be less injury of the type laid on Mohamed Massaquoi (or Darrel Stingley), and the game would retain it's appeal to the young parents who must ultimately provide the kids that are the future of football. Just asking.

OilCan
OilCan

My opinion on NFL running backs changed with the emergence of Willie Parker;  A guy who couldn't crack the line up in a subpar BCS program,, he steps into the NFL to almost instant success..  No, his career didn't last that long but he started for the Steelers and he outlasted the life expectancy of an NFL running back.

Danny Woodhead,, the list goes on.  It takes a special back to be a special back but most running backs are a dime a dozen.   


Thank,

OilCan


T.Christian
T.Christian

I like how the article ignores Adrian Peterson 2 seasons ago. He must be one of those outliers which can be so easily dismissed. He carried the Vikings to the playoffs. I watched every game that season and their offense was atrocious. The play calling was predictable. First, Run. Second, Run. Third and short, Run. Third and long, short pass in the dirt followed by a punt. Had they had any other player on their offense they would have made a deep run in the playoffs. His value was a playoff berth. How much would some other teams pay just for that....Looking at you Jags, Browns, etc...

jrscott0262
jrscott0262

The only constant is change.  The running back's day is in decline, not over.  All it takes is one ill conceived rule change, or a defensive innovation that makes passing more difficult and the running game will regain importance.  Using a QB as a primary runner has never really worked out injury wise, so while QBs have stolen some of the running back's thunder, they are too valuable as passers to risk constantly (see Michael Vick and RGIII for example).

J Diddy
J Diddy

The NFL is a cyclical league, so I expect running the football to win championships to come back in vogue at some point. (Maybe the Seahawks will start that trend...) What I don't expect to come back into trend is RBs being overpaid and over-drafted. I think a big part of the downward RB trend is just better scouting. The 1990s and early 2000s NFL didn't distinguish the elite playmakers from the high production guys very well. High production guys can be found later in the draft and are relatively plentiful. Elite playmakers at the RB position come along once every 4 or 5 years. Those guys are worth a top 20 pick still today, and will be 20 years from now. 

MikeM3
MikeM3

LeSean McCoy might be elite?  Over 1600 yards rushing, a year after scoring 20 TD's. In this day and age, that is as elite as it comes!

bryon999
bryon999

The Seahawks might be reversing this trend.  They used dominant D, power running, and ball control passing to win the Super Bowl.  The league might be a passing league, but power football still wins Super Bowls.

BennyBobo
BennyBobo

@AnthonyW.Gibbs1 He would be moved to rush linebacker in college, a la Anthony Barr, to increase his value, both to himself and his team. This is the scenario 8 out of 10 times at the collegiate level. 


The truth is, the NFL has evolved, from rule changes benefiting QBs, to college QBs entering the pros more prepared than yesteryear, to NFL offensive coordinators evolving their schemes and play calling around their talent, and not the other way around, running backs are a dime a dozen. 


Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy are rarities. For every Peterson, there are 50 Ben Tate's, and that is not a complement.

Ciscos
Ciscos

@AnthonyW.Gibbs1 Totally agree. It cracks me up when the NFL says, the NCAAF isn't sending them "those dominating big back RBs" anymore.  Oh really? Out of all the guys that play college football, the NFL can't "find" a big RB? HAHA... They have to take that comedy act on the road cause they're hilarious!!

SouthNH
SouthNH

@AnthonyW.Gibbs1 You don't comprehend what you read very well do you Tony? The article didn't say the back you describe wouldn't be drafted in the top of the 1st round. The article was all about do you give the running back a 2nd or 3rd contract depending on his durability and mileage on his feet.

Ciscos
Ciscos

@BallRush If you're trying to tie in the rules for DBs on WRs, that has zero to do with devaluing the RB position. Those 5 yard bump rules have been in place for almost 20+ years. Offenses have changed - that's what's changed the RB spot. Not the rules.

Ciscos
Ciscos

@BallRush The "RULES HAVE CHANGED?" What RULE(S) are you referring to that devalues the RB????  You must be talking about strategy and schemes? NOT RULES.  There hasn't been one rule the NFL has imposed that devalues the RB position. Get the lingo straight.

YuSuk
YuSuk

Yeah, Deion Sanders wasn't a shutdown corner in the mid 90's... And Champ Bailey wasn't at the turn of the century. And Revis wasn't a shutdown corner at the end of the oughts.. Lest we forget Darrell Green, Ty Law or Charles/Rod Woodson. Would you like me to continue? Your post is elementary at best. That's why MMQB didn't hire you Einstein. And it's LEsean McCoy. To boot he did not have 20 td's in 2012. Rather it was 2011. McCoy's 2012 season sucked as he was injured.

Jason1988
Jason1988

Interesting response. I like it! 

CarterCollins
CarterCollins

@LennaySam You are spot on Sam.  My brain got twisted reading how the zone read had somehow been responsible, yet the most successful zone read teams run the ball far more than they pass.

Wisconsin Death Trip
Wisconsin Death Trip

@LennaySam  Where's the Wisconsin Badgers?


In 2012, under first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada, Wisconsin ran the ball on 68.5 percent of its total plays, the most lopsided run-pass ratio for the Badgers since Ron Dayne's Heisman Trophy season in 1999. 


clt0002
clt0002

@LennaySam  Auburn has always ran more than it passes, which is why it got the nickname Running Back U. I think it's easy to point to a few powerhouses (I balk at calling Clemson, UCS and Oregon powerhouses, though) that can simply pound the rock in the middle bc they're the ones that have the massive O Lines to do it. But you can't deny that across the board it seems there is more of a tendency to pass than it is to run. Look at the AAC, Big 12 and even Pac 12. Also, some of the spread teams that do run more go with a 'back by committee' approach. Oregon, Clemson, Oklahoma didn't really have feature backs last year, did they?

mefoster86
mefoster86

@LennaySam  Well done. Guess all the people relying on actual facts moved over to Grantland and Fivethirtyeight

YuSuk
YuSuk

Yeah, your sons junior high and high school games have any bearing at the pro level? Do you live in Texas? How much God do you snort down there?

MLG
MLG

@trailofechoes The Advantage has shifted too much in the favor of the offense, and nothing makes the game more boring than score-score-score-score...it's basketball in cleats, and it's become too dangerous.

mgranadosv
mgranadosv

@T.Christian Adrian Peterson is a freak of nature and there have been no runners like him lately, I think that's why they didn't mention him. When another AP comes around, he'll get paid like a QB because he's that valuable to a team. But even the first round RB has been disappearing (we can blame Trent Richardson and that guy from Alabama who the Saints took and has done next to nothing in the league).

Whatever
Whatever

@jrscott0262  RBs are in a state of flux, as are NFL offenses as NFL teams absorb college players who come from more and more sophisticated spread and read option offenses. RBs are down a bit now, but within 5 years we'll see RBs being a major part of most teams' offenses again because the talent will be better suited to current offensive philosophy (see LeShawn McCoy, Jamaal Charles).

Bongo
Bongo

@jrscott0262 :  That's an excellent point, and you can already read all of the questions marks about how Manziel will hold up in the NFL as a scrambling QB.


The thing that is missing from this analysis, though (and I'm including the previous article a few weeks ago) is how the running game - a successful running game - allows a team to control the clock and keep the other team's D on the field.  Sure, a bunch of short passes and QB scrambles can accomplish the same thing, but you have dropped passes and QBs getting nailed as they go out of bounds or as they're sliding.  To me, those are less reliable options.


Maybe I'm old school, but a team nursing a 3 point lead in the 4th quarter wants to have a ball-control running game.  Short passes are often seen as "safe", but how many pick sixes come from those quick sideline outs?  My main point is that a team can't just magically turn on an effective running game.  If you live and die by the pass, and that's not working, well, how much time have you really put into the running game? 


I don't think the RB position will ever go away, and at some point in the next 10 years a run-dominant team will win the SB, then the pendulum will begin to swing back.


Now, what has really changed in the last 20 years is that RBs take so much wear & tear that they're seen as done by the time they're 28, 29, 30, whatever.  I can only assume that this is because the players hitting them are so much bigger and faster. 

mefoster86
mefoster86

@J Diddy  Some things are cyclical, but the evolution of the pass game and the decline of the run game is a very long-term trend that is only going in one direction.

Ciscos
Ciscos

@Jason1988 Don't need a RB to be in the Top Ten. This isn't the year for RBs anyway. The Top Ten are for needs and high value wants. Everyone pretty much has a serviceable to very good RB on their roster already.

BennyBobo
BennyBobo

@Ciscos @BallRush except for the rule that flags RBs for using the crown of their helmets to their advantage, other than that, you were right. 

RobertKlemko1
RobertKlemko1

@mefoster86 @LennaySam  Of course, the elites would almost always run more than they throw because they're playing with a lead (duh) and they have no problem recruiting the best backs. Trend is in middle ranks of colleges. Get back to me with those stats.

PWINGS
PWINGS

@mgranadosv @T.Christian  I think the RB from Alabama that you're referring to is Mark Ingram.

As for AP being an exceptional back, obviously, he is. He's also the "only game in town" with the Vikings lacking a top tier QB or WR's. AP IS the Vikings' offense for lack of any alternatives. He gets more yardage simply because he's getting more touches out of necessity.

PWINGS
PWINGS

@Bongo @jrscott0262   "....Now, what has really changed in the last 20 years is that RBs take so much wear & tear that they're seen as done by the time they're 28, 29, 30, whatever.  I can only assume that this is because the players hitting them are so much bigger and faster."

Actually, it's worse than that. The punishment RB's absorb is not only due to the size of the players hitting them but also the number of players hitting them. When a WR or TE catches a pass, they are downfield and effectively past most of the defenders on the field. They are a target for only two or three players, mostly DB's. When a RB takes a handoff, he has the entire defense drawing a bead on him with the biggest players immediately in front of him. WR's don't get "gang tackled". RB's do....all the time.

In the immortal words of Indiana Jones: "It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage!"

Whatever
Whatever

@OilCan @TerrapinStation87  I disagree that RBs are a dime a dozen. But an RB has to be a fit for the offense. Teams are not designing offenses around RBs any longer; they're designing offenses around the passing game and spreading the ball around. 

Jamaal Charles, DeShawn McCoy and Adrian Peterson aren't dime a dozen RBs. They carry teams, but in many instances it's two RBs in an offense splitting the load. The difference is teams work more at creating space for an RB to operate in rather than slamming him into the line a/k/a Christian Okoye, John Riggins, Jerome Bettis, Jim Brown, etc. etc.

YuSuk
YuSuk

Because the year A.P. (this "all day"/A.D." man manure needs to stop. What a LAME nickname) broke 2,000 yards Minnesota's passing game was lethal. Good one

PWINGS
PWINGS

@comments @Whatever@PWINGS@mgranadosv@T.Christian   "....I've found that there tend to be 18-24 guys in the world at any given time capable of quarterbacking an NFL team well...."

I agree. I think what's happened with NFL QB's is the same thing that's happened with starting pitchers in MLB. League expansion combined with shorter longevity due to injury and the positions becoming more demanding has left the talent pool diluted. QB's and P's who wouldn't have made the Big Show years ago now have a roster spot because there aren't enough top flight players to go around. Supply hasn't kept up with demand.

PWINGS
PWINGS

@Whatever @PWINGS@mgranadosv@T.Christian  A big test comes in whether new coach Mike Zimmer (former Defensive Coordinator) emphasizes defense in the high rounds of the draft or drafts a QB. His public comments about Manziel suggest that he favors defense although ALL coaches and GM's lie this time of year to conceal their real intentions in the upcoming draft.If the Vikings don't improve their passing attack and o-line, look for AP to have a very productive but shorter NFL career. 

Lack of a productive o-line for much (not all) of Walter Payton's career probably cost him another 3,000 yards and a couple of productive seasons. If he would have had Emmitt Smith's o-line, he would have set career rushing marks that no one would have equaled. I know, that's open to debate but I firmly believe that.

comments
comments

@Whatever @PWINGS @mgranadosv @T.Christian  

... teams probably spent a few minutes thinking about how to stop the Vikings running game before last year. Like you said; imagine if they had an even decent NFL quarterback; they would be very difficult to stop. No one thinks they can win consistently with a one dimensional offense. Unfortunately, in an admittedly unscientific study of simply watching football for thirty years, I've found that there tend to be 18-24 guys in the world at any given time capable of quarterbacking an NFL team well. Its not like AP didn't create a thousand one on one match-ups for receivers last year.

Whatever
Whatever

@PWINGS @mgranadosv @T.Christian  And notice AP did not have anywhere near the season last year as he did two years ago. Why? Because teams spent the off season planning how to stop the Vikings' running game, figuring they could cope with Ponder/Cassel passing to an unproven and Harvin-less receiving corps. 

The result? A good season, but not great. And to me, further proof that the NFL has changed such that you can't rely on one phase of an offense to win consistently (in the Vikings case, just the running game). The RBs have to be an integrated part of the passing game (screens, wheel routes, motion, split wide, etc) in order for RBs to then have success running the ball.

Imagine what AP could do if the Vikings had an even moderately effective passing game? Teams couldn't stack the box, and holes would be plentiful and second level defenders scarce.

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