The Current State of Running Backs in the NFL

Image: Getty Images, via The Huffington Post

Running backs aren’t what they used to be in the NFL.

Even just a few years ago, workhorse running backs, such as LaDainian Tomlinson, ran all over the field. Today, running backs bring a much different dynamic to the game. The position certainly doesn’t get treated or paid like it used to.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter recently tweeted this reality.

One GM today on free-agent RBs: ‘That position needs its own union. We treat our equipment people better than we treat our running backs.’

However, there is still a place for running backs in this league.

It is becoming more and more rare that we see true “workhorse” running backs—Adrian Peterson is probably the only real one that we have in the league today. Peterson ran for a ridiculous 2,097 yards in 2012, almost breaking Eric Dickerson’s all-time record for rushing yards in one season. While there are other very productive backs, such as Marshawn Lynch and Arian Foster, nobody really stands out like the running backs we used to see in the NFL. It was pretty recently that we had workhorse backs like Jerome Bettis, Curtis Martin, Shaun Alexander and Clinton Portis carrying offenses.

Lets face it. We live in a passing league. Teams are now putting the lion’s share of money, effort, and draft picks towards finding a franchise quarterback, and then going and finding the tools to make them successful—mainly receivers. We are seeing passing and receiving records broken all the time now. And lost in all this is the value of the running back.

While the days of backs being the focus of the offense are likely over, they still can serve a purpose. Only now, it should be in the passing game.

Quicker, more elusive backs such as Darren Sproles, Lesean Mccoy, Reggie Bush, and Jamaal Charles are being touted all around the league. They bring a new dynamic to an offense. A screen-pass suddenly turns into a 60-yard touchdown in the blink of an eye.

The Checkdown

Ray Rice catches a check down pass on 4th-and-29, in a 2012 game vs. the San Diego Chargers. He would convert the first down, and the Ravens would eventually win. The win helped Baltimore enter the playoffs later in the season, and eventually win the Super Bowl. [Baltimore Sun]

Ray Rice catches a checkdown pass on 4th-and-29, in a 2012 game vs. the San Diego Chargers. He would convert the first down, and the Ravens would eventually win. The win helped Baltimore enter the playoffs later in the season, and eventually win the Super Bowl. [Baltimore Sun]

Teams are using running backs in the passing game more than ever before. Chargers running back Danny Woodhead had the second most catches on his team, in 2013, with just one less reception than Antonio Gates. Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas had 71 and 77 receptions, respectively. Jamaal Charles led the Chiefs in both receiving yards (693), and receptions (70).

To put all of this into further perspective, the Jets leading receiver, Jeremy Kerley, had just 43 catches during the 2013 campaign.

Many running back prospects are entering the NFL as lethal pass catchers out of the backfield.

Yes, running the football is important. That brings us to the next step.

When you are winning in the fourth quarter, you need to be able to run the football to secure games and take time off the clock. If you want to set the tone early in a game, running the ball straight between the tackles is a great way to frustrate any defensive coordinator. How about short-yardage situations?

It is important to pair your playmaking, pass-catching back with a power back. This is where the likes of Lynch, Frank Gore, and Steven Jackson step in. They will run between the tackles and initiate a hit with a linebacker to gain just one more yard. They will ground and pound until the defense wants to quit.

What we see teams doing more and more these days is finding a tandem of running backs to complement each other, and it is the key to having a successful backfield.

We see teams doing this all over the NFL. The Lions have paired Reggie Bush with Joique Bell.  The Bengals have a tandem of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. The New York Jets have just paired their downhill runner, Chris Ivory, with a lightning-quick playmaker in Chris Johnson.

So, while the days of a team relying on one workhorse running back may be over, the position can still be extremely valuable to a football team’s success. Running backs can be utilized in many different ways and come in many different styles. The best way to utilize the position is to find two players that will complement each other, to benefit from the passing game out of the backfield, and to run straight down the throat of the opposing defense.

Kyle Cohen

About Kyle Cohen

Kyle Cohen is 17 years old and has a passion for the New York Jets. He lives on Long Island and frequently makes the drive to East Rutherford to watch the Jets play live. Aside from the Jets, Kyle also loves to watch basketball and hockey—he plays for his high school basketball team, as well.