I recently sat down with David Salerno of NFL Network to discuss the changing dynamic that is the NFL Running Back of today. Here are two of the seven questions posed to me in the interview.
I’ll address the remaining five in subsequent posts.
How has the draft changed for running backs coming into the NFL?
To truly answer this question you have to take a close look at the history of the position in relation to past NFL Drafts. At one time, RB’s were the very best athletes on the field. Looking at it from a generational perspective, players like Jim Thorpe and Red Grange were pioneers in bringing elite athleticism to the position. Thorpe was an Olympic Decathlete in 1912 and professional baseball player for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds & Boston Braves, while Grange entered the NFL as a college standout for Illinois; rushing, receiving, passing, and returning the football for the Illini – a true all-around player.
The 50’s brought Notre Dame’s “Golden Boy” Paul Hornung to the NFL. Hornung was a two-way standout for the Irish as a halfback and safety. In the 1956 season, he led his team offensively in passing, rushing, scoring, kickoff and punt returns, and punting. He also played defense and led his team in passes broken up and was second in interceptions and tackles made. That same year, Penn State’s Lenny Moore was named NFL Rookie of the Year as a dual threat runner and receiver.
Gale Sayers and O.J. Simpson brought a new dimension of athleticism to the running back position. Sayers set a Nebraska state high school record in the long jump at 24’ 11 ¾ “ and was considered one of the greatest open field runners in college football history as a Kansas Jayhawk. Simpson was a two-way JUCO standout prior to entering USC, and also was part of the 4X110 relay team that broke the world record for the Trojans.
Before exploding on the scene for the Chicago Bears in the mid 70’s, Walter Payton would score 65 TD’s for Jackson State. Tony Dorsett excelled in both football and basketball in high school for Hopewell High in Pennsylvania, and would capture almost every major college award for Pittsburgh in 1976 before being picked 2nd overall in the ’77 NFL Draft.
Emmitt Smith would put together a high school career that would name him Florida’s High School player of the century. Smith rushed for over 100 yards in 45 of 49 games and was a sprinter on the 4X100m relay team. That led to a hallowed career at Florida as a 3X First Team All-SEC and All-American selection. Barry Sanders is regarded as the most elusive runner in NFL History. For much of his college career he backed up Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State, but made the most of his single season as the feature back. Sanders rushed for near 3,000 yards (2,850) and 42 TD’s, capturing college football’s Heisman Trophy. His NFL career speaks for itself.
Other players like Earl Campbell of Texas and Bo Jackson of Auburn combined athleticism and brute power to dominate college opponents, garnering Heisman honors, as well as the honor of being selected number one overall in the NFL Draft.
But perhaps the greatest of ALL-TIME was Jim Brown. Brown personified the definition of multi-sport athlete, excelling in football, basketball, and lacrosse while at the University of Syracuse, and lettering in baseball & track as well at Manhasset High in New York. In 2002 he was named The Sporting News greatest football player ever, and is a member of the College Football, Pro Football, and Lacrosse Hall of Fame. Brown was chosen 6th overall in the 1957 NFL Draft.
All these players were the backbone of their teams and entire NFL organizations were built around their individual talents.
Fan of Friday Night Lights? Remember when Billingsly told Winchel (and I paraphrase), “You don’t have to worry anyway. Just turn and hand the ball off to Boobie, he’s going to make us all look good.” That’s what the running back meant to an offense, to an entire team just a few decades ago.
I argue that running backs are just as important to the NFL game as they ever were, it’s just that the game has caught up with them. Athletes on defense are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever. Linebackers and Safeties, what many consider the counter to RB’s on defense, are narrowing the gap in Combine skill drills (on average).
Here are a few other numbers to ponder. From 1993 to 2008, a total of 23 RB’s were taken on average through the entire NFL Draft. Since 2009 that number has fallen only to 22. Of the Top 100 players taken from 1993 to 2008, an average of 9 were RB’s, but that total has dropped to 7 since 2009. What’s caught people’s attention is certainly the lack of any 1st round picks at the position the past two years. From ’93 – ’08, an average of 3 RB’s were selected with an NFL club’s first pick, in fact in the last season of that period (2008) a total of 5 RB’s were chosen.
So are the past two NFL Drafts the new norm, an emerging trend in the value of RB’s? I think it’s a bit too early to tell. But definitely things are changing as a result of a number of factors effecting the game today.
What about the NFL game has affected the way in which RBs are utilized?
I think you have to start with college football and what the annual player pool of talent is being filled with. Spread Option or Read Option offenses are very popular at the NCAA level. A 2009 ESPN report showed 48 Division 1 Universities employing some version of the spread at least 75% of the time. That number has probably grown significantly over the past five years.
As a result, the types of players begin recruited and how they’re being coached and developed has changed as well. The hybrid quarterback, or the player that presents both a run/pass threat is a premium in college football. Offensive Coordinators are looking to spread defenses from sideline to sideline, taking advantage of the athleticism of their skilled players in the open field. Most college running backs require more speed and quickness to elude defenders, versus strength and explosion to run over them. Schemes are created that give runners ample room at the point of attack.
Another point overlooked is offensive linemen aren’t asked to blow defenders off the ball as much in the spread and read option offenses. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s all finesse, but a counter mindset is being established in the NFL’s unofficial feeder league, and this effects how all college offensive players view the run game.
So take the incoming talent from the collegiate level and mix it with a professional game that has emphasized rule changes that clearly favor the pass and you’re going to get a change in philosophy to wear running backs fit.
The NFL Competition Committee has placed focus on the safety of players, while inadvertently or purposefully (doesn’t really matter) advanced the importance of a strong passing game to win in professional football. Illegal contact, defensive holding, and pass interference have all but “hog tied” today’s defensive backs. The League will argue that offensive holding is still the single most called penalty in the game and that’s true. But take the above three defensive infractions and add them together (all primarily called in coverage) and you have an equivalent counter balance to that claim. Additionally, efforts to protect vulnerable quarterbacks from debilitating hits have widened the window of time in the pocket.
I’m challenged to think of any new rule changes that have similarly advanced the cause of the run game.
So it’s no coincidence that average pass attempts per game are up by almost 3 since ’93, while average rushing attempts have gone down. Points per game are up as well, something the League is more than happy to concede as a result. The historical benchmark of seasonal success for a running back, the 1000-yard season, had 10 fewer members (13) in 2014 than in the 2000 campaign (23). Rushers with over 200 attempts for the year reduced from 24 in ’00, to 17 in ’14.
Some possible causes might be the hybrid Tight End. One out of every five top receivers in the National Football League are coming from the “Y” position. Teams turn to TE’s on 3rd down more and more. “Post up your Power Forward” and let him play off the no contact rule after 5 yards. Easier to let a 6’5” receiver out rebound a 6’1” linebacker than to slam a running back between the tackles.
Same goes for the “supersized” WR’s that everyone seems to covet these days. A seemingly “must have” component of any NFL offensive roster.
Prior to 2011, there were only two QB’s that had tallied more than a 100 carries on a season; Steve McNair (101 in ’97) and Michael Vick on multiple occasions. Consider some of the game’s most notable mobile QB’s never even came close; Elway (high of 66), Favre (high of 58), Staubach (high of 55). Only 3 QB’s are tallied in the top 250 rushers of all-time. Steve McNair, Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young. I noted McNair’s 101 attempts, but Tarkenton’s tops was only 62 and Young’s 74.
Since 2011 the following QB’s have all eclipsed 100 carries on a season; Cam Newton (4 times), Tim Tebow, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, and Robert Griffin III. Throw in the likes of Andy Dalton, Andrew Luck, Alex Smith, Nick Foles, and Aaron Rodgers who all eclipsed 60 attempts (well, Foles actually 57).
Since the turn of the millennium, there have been on average 6 playoff bound teams in the TOP 10 in the NFL in rushing attempts. That number has dipped to as low as 4 twice in the last four seasons (’14 and ’11).
More questions to follow – Thanks for reading!