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  1. #1
    berg8309's Avatar
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    Will the running back make a come back?

    I've been thinking a lot about this lately, as a lot of the media banter, and fan banter, surrounding the draft involves some form of saying "This is now a passing league" with mentions about how running backs are not valuable anymore. Which is true and at the same false. Everyone knows the kind of damage that Adrian Foster or Adrian Peterson can do, they can change the entire course of the game. However it is also true that a lot of teams have moved away from a feature back set, and use multiple backs to carry the load, and generally pass more often than they used to.

    The NFL is a trend league in a lot of ways. New offensive schemes pop up, wreck havoc, defenses learn how to stop them and adjust, and offenses change again. The league likes to teeter back and forth between 3-4 and 4-3 defenses as they become more and less effective. Right now it seems to be at a pretty happy medium. What cannot be denied though, is that through the years, and decades, football has slowly but surely passed the ball more and more, both in college and in the pros.

    So the question becomes, is this a trend which will reverse, and we will see feature backs return, or is it evolution, and we will continue to see the decline of the running back? And why?

    One theory could be that players aren't coming out in the feature back mold anymore. They either lack the body to take the abuse (Steven Jackson) or agility to avoid the abuse (Chris Johnson). It could be the product of college teams passing the ball more often, developing less running backs.

    Or maybe it's the lack of quality corners in the NFL, and teams are trying to exploit that weakness. The invention of the west coast offense also gave QBs and WRs who otherwise might not have done much a chance to shine.

    Or maybe it's that running plays have been there and done that, and teams know how to defend them. Its harder to get creative with running plays than it is with passing plays, although its not impossible. As mentioned above, offenses have to constantly evolve, as defenses will eventually figure out how to shut them down. Look at the wildcat, it only took a year for teams to figure out how to stop it.

    Whatever the cause of the decline of the running back, they surely won't go away. I would bet that any coach in the NFL will tell you that you have to be able to run the ball to be successful. At least enough to keep teams from staying in the nickel package the entire game.

    So will we continue to see the decline of the running back? Pass rushers are becoming a more and more valuable, and teams are loading up on them. Young guys like Clay Matthews, Aldon Smith, Von Miller and Chris Long have demonstrated the ability to hit quarterbacks hard and often. There seem to be a lot of teams who make it a gameplan to hit the quarterback as often as possible. So will the running back continue to fade, or will teams start moving back toward running the ball to keep their quarterbacks intact? What do you think?


  2. #2
    laram0's Avatar
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    Re: Will the running back make a come back?

    It's a very good question. The Patriots and Packers have showed everyone that you can win without a stud runningback. However, I still believe the runningback position is key to any NFL offense.

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    berg8309's Avatar
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    Re: Will the running back make a come back?

    Quote Originally Posted by laram0 View Post
    It's a very good question. The Patriots and Packers have showed everyone that you can win without a stud runningback. However, I still believe the runningback position is key to any NFL offense.
    That's a good point, but the Patriots and the Packers also have something other teams don't, elite quarterbacks. It seems to me the teams most often cited to as leading the way in multi-back rotations are teams like the Pack, Pats, and Saints, who have elite quarterbacks who can slice and dice the secondary. It's unrealistic to think that every team can achieve that. For the most part, teams will still need a somewhat balanced attack, as guys like Colt McCoy and Alex Smith can't carry the load if teams stop defending the run and just play against the pass. They need help from their ground game.

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    HUbison's Avatar
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    Re: Will the running back make a come back?

    Excellent question, berg. I think there's still evidence of a need for a workhorse in the backfield. If you make a list of the most rushing attempts in a single season, 8 of the top 14 rushers did so since 1998. But I don't think we will see the days of Eric Dickerson (who has 3 of those top 14 seasons) anymore.

    There's lots of reasons for that. Many you mentioned; as well as rules that seem geared towards a passing league. But another one that I might mention is the violence with which running backs are now faced. Today's RBs are getting harder and their bodies are having to absorb more than the older backs did. Today's backs are getting hit by 240-250 pound LBs and 270-310 pound DLs that are moving faster than their counterparts of days gone by. Back 30, 40, 50 years ago, the RBs were being hit by 220 pound LBs and 260 pound linemen.

    I would say the difference between getting hit by a 250 pound man versus a 220 pound man multiplied over the course of 300+ times per year brings us to a simple truth: today's RBs are taking too much punishment to last long as a feature back.
    "Before the gates of excellence the high gods have placed sweat; long is the road thereto and rough and steep at first; but when the heights are reached, then there is ease, though grievously hard in the winning." --- Hesiod

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    Re: Will the running back make a come back?

    I think it has been an evolution. First, you had the West Coast Offense spread across the league like wild fire. In the more common version of that system (e.g. not the Coryell/Martz/etc. version), the idea is to be able to pick up those 3-4 yard gains almost automatically in the passing game while not forcing one of your offense's most important players to take a lot of hits. You also had the evolution of the runningback into more of a passing threat following the success of Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Ladainian Tomlinson and others. Around the same time came the new rule emphasis when Martz and Dungy went to the league and showed tape of the Patriots beating the stuffing out of receivers before the ball got there, so the league cracked down on pass interference calls--which made the passing game more attractive. A few years later, the league began to pay more attention to hits on the quarterback, which favored the passing game even more. If your quarterback is protected by the rules, and you can spread the ball around, you're not risking your season on the hopes that a guy who is going to get hit on every play that he touches the ball doesn't get injured.

    Eventually everyone starts looking around and seeing that the elite teams in the league are the pass-oriented Patriots and the pass-oriented Colts. Meanwhile, probably the last time that a team won a Super Bowl with a dominating ground game was the 2000 Ravens or maybe one of the Steelers teams (although even when they won with Bettis on the roster, they were splitting time between their backs).

    In general, I think these things go in cycles. Eventually, NFL defenses will have shifted so far in the direction of smaller, speedier linebackers and defensive backs that the pendulum will start to swing back the other way. No telling how long that might take, though. I don't see it happening in the next few years.

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