The NFL Running Back Is Going ExtinctOctober 17, 2012


Some things in life don’t stand a chance while others are timeless. The word “swag” didn’t stand a chance, but the word “cool” will be around until Jesus comes back. The Wildcat offense doesn’t stand a chance in the NFL. The same way brands are five steps behind using “swag” in ads, the New York Jets are doing the same with Tim Tebow and the wildcat offense.

The wildcat offense doesn’t stand a chance in the NFL, but the conventional running back should. Key word — should. Today, the running back position is an endangered species. It used to be a no brainer that the first player you drafted in fantasy football was a running back, but now it’s a quarterback.

The NFL is turning into the Bermuda triangle for once promising college running backs. Gone are the days of Jim Brown, Gayle Sayers, Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and Marshall Faulk turning football fields into dance floors.

Why is the NFL running back position on its deathbed? It’s because the running back is more expendable now than ever, open minds, pass happy philosophy, and the 2004 rule “emphasis”.

Expendable:

Former Denver Broncos head coach, Mike Shannahan couldn’t replace John Elway, but he could replace a running back. Shannahan’s zone blocking offense made stars out of Terrell Davis, Reuben Droughns Clinton Portis, Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson.

From 1995 – 2004, Shanahan had a running back rush for 1,100 yards or more except for 2001. What’s more impressive was that from 1998 – 2002 with the exception of 2001, he used a different running back. Shanahan’s system proved running backs were expendable and was the major reason for the Broncos trading Clinton Portis away to the Washington Redskins for Champ Bailey after the 2003 season. What happened in 2004, after Portis departed? Reuben Droughns stepped in and rushed for 1,200 yards and 6 touchdowns.

The truth hurts harder than a blindside hit from James Harrison and the truth is that if you want to get paid in the NFL, do not play running back. Take Maurice Jones-Drew who held out most of training camp seeking a new deal. His rushing yards and touchdowns the past four years look like this, 2011: 1,606 yards and 12 touchdowns, 2010: 1,324 and 5 touchdowns, 2009: 1,391 and 15 touchdowns, 2008: 824 yards and 15 touchdowns. How many of those years did the Jaguars make the playoffs? None. The last time they were in the playoffs was 2007 when Jones-Drew was sharing carries and he only had 768 yards and 9 touchdowns. Why invest more money into Jones-Drew when the team isn’t even making the playoffs? The NFL has changed. No longer do you need a great running back and a great defense to win a championship. Last year, the Packers and Patriots both had the best records in the NFL but had no running game and no defense. If a running back as dope as MJD can’t lead a team to the playoffs then paying him what he’s worth is a complete waste of money. MJD’s worth worth isn’t worth wins.

Open Minds:

Michael Vick began college in 1998. If Michael Vick started college in 1978 would he have been recruited to play quarterback? Maybe. He most likely would have been playing at Oklahoma, Nebraska or Notre Dame running the option never to throw a pass in the NFL. Sure the first African-American QB to be named starter at the beginning of an NFL season was James Harris for the Buffalo Bills in 1969, but African-Americans were thought of not being smart enough to play quarterback. So, very unfairly, the reality was to move them running back. Over time, people’s minds have opened up because of the success of black quarterbacks like Doug Williams, Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper and Michael Vick.

If people didn’t open their eyes and give black QBs a chance then several of today’s black QBs might playing running back today. Michael Vick and Troy Smith easily come to mind. Imagine Seneca Wallace and Russell Wilson in the open field after they blast through the line. Adrian Peterson is 6’2” 218 lbs and runs a 4.3 40 and Robert Griffin III is 6’2” 218 lbs and runs a 4.3 40. With more black athletes getting legitimate shots to play quarterback, less of them are now are playing running back.

Pass Happy Philosophy:

Remember when throwing up the peace sign was no longer enough when you were taking a group pic with your boys? For whatever reason dudes started throwing up the middle finger instead of chunking the deuce? Blame Andy Reid because he started the trend when he threw up the finger to the conventional NFL offense and ruffled the feathers of Eagles fans. From Philly barbershops, corner stores and Donovan McNabb/Michael Vick stans everywhere, the complaint has always been that Andy Reid doesn’t run the ball enough. Either way, Reid’s middle finger is still up because the Eagles have been to the playoffs eight times since he became head coach in 1999.

Andy Reid started the pass happy philosophy and Bill Belichick perfected it. In the past five years, the Patriots have only had one rusher eclipse the 1,000 yard mark and that was BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2010 with 1,008 yards. What do you need a great running back for when you have Wes Welker in the slot averaging 10.96 yards per reception since 2007?

Look at last season’s Super Bowl champion New York Giants. They were the worst rushing team in the NFL, but ranked 8th in total offense. The Green Bay Packers finished last season 15-1 and were ranked 27th in rushing but 3rd in total offense. These two teams relied heavily on passing only offenses and the Giants proved teams could win Super Bowls doing it.

Teams like the Vikings, Eagles and Raiders all ranked in the top 10 rushing last season and none of those them made the playoffs.

Quarterback was once viewed as the toughest position for a rookie to learn because NFL defenses are more advanced than rocket science. But this season, there are five rookie quarterbacks starting in the NFL because the game is more quarterback and wide receiver friendly.

Hitting a defenseless receiver who dares to go over the middle of the field will result in a 15-yard penalty, a fine and a suspension for whoever hits the receiver. The same goes for a defender who does the same to a quarterback. The game has been made safer which means it’s easier for these two positions, which has resulted in young quarterbacks and wide receivers having nothing to fear.

Running the football used to be the easiest thing to do in the NFL. With the emergence of slot receivers, pass catching tight ends, and no longer being able to hit defenseless receivers — passing the football is just as easy.

2004 Rule “Emphasis”

The 2004 AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts led to the Pats going to their third Super Bowl in four years. That game also shed light that the average passing yardage per team in 2003 was 200.4 yards, the lowest since 1992. The Patriots secondary was playing good old-fashioned football, the only problem was that the year was 2004 and not 1974. There were more non-calls on obvious pass interference penalties that game than there were fans at the stadium. Pass interference rules call for the defensive backs not to touch receivers after 5 yards and the Patriots were clearly in violation of the rule all game long.

It’s impossible to cover a receiver when you absolutely cannot touch him after five yards. If WRs are flying up and down the field freely you can believe that passes will be as well. The 2004 season introduced the NFL to the “No Air Traffic Control” era.

Before we answer exactly why the running back is near extinction, let’s pay our respects to the fullback position. Mr. Fullback, you were a true warrior. You always used your head and you were the perfect bodyguard and “do” boy. You died protecting the running back and we thank you for that. You can rock in the foxhole with me anytime, because I’ll know that you will have my back…or front, either way you’ll make sure I come out of that foxhole unscathed on the way to wide open fields to frolic in and maybe score touchdowns.

Now:

There is a reason the running back position was referred to as a workhorse position because he not only carried the football but the hopes and dreams of the team, fans and the city’s economy each time he touched the ball. Carrying the ball 300 times in a season for a running back was once a badge honor, but now it’s a red flag.

In 2001 and 2006 the NFL had ten running backs rush the ball more than 300 times. In 2001 it was the Redskins’, Stephen Davis with 356 carries and in 2006 it was the Chiefs’, Larry Johnson with 416 carries which is an NFL record.

What happened after their historical rushing carry seasons? Davis played five more seasons and only one of those seasons did he rush for over 1,000 yards. Johnson played six more seasons and never went over 1,000 yards again.

Five years after Johnson’s record setting 416 carry season, Maurice Jones Drew was the only running back to carry the ball more than 300 times last season.

Chris Johnson hasn’t been the same running back since he signed his new $53.5M contract extension with $30M guaranteed just before the start of the 2011 season. Some say it’s CJ2K’s lack of motivation is the reason for his decreased production, but it must also be noted that he carried the ball over 300 times in back to back seasons in 2009 and 2010.

Naming more than five dominant wide receivers in the NFL is easy. Naming more than five dominant running backs in the NFL is not so easy. It starts to get blurry after Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, and Maurice Jones-Drew, which is pretty sad. No longer are we debating “what if Barry Sanders had Emmitt Smith’s offensive line” or wondering if Eric Dickerson’s single season rushing record will ever be topped. As of now, it looks like a team has a better chance of scoring 100 points in a game before someone will break Dickerson’s record. The position that was normally played by the best and most instinctive athlete is now on its deathbed.

It’s easy to assume that as long as there are passing plays there will be running plays and a need for a running back. Did anyone see the fullback position going extinct? So who is to say that teams in the future won’t start to run entire 5 wide receiver offensive sets, which will eliminate the need for a running back. If fullbacks are rarely used in today’s game is the thought of the future of the NFL running back being nothing more than a “specialty player” so far fetched?

That’s all I got,

Ricky Writer

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