by Mario "Game" Granata
Is the running back position becoming a thing of the past? With all of the mock drafts that are coming out, not one of them has a running back in the top 10. Jim Brown weighed in on this very topic, and didn't have high praise for some of the current players in the league, and with the NFL evolving, it's either sink or swim for the running back position
Much has been said of the “New” NFL, and the pass-happy league that is has become. Some may say, that because of the rule changes that have taken place that the offenses are opening up and in order to put fans in the seats, you have to air the ball out. However, one of the greatest running backs of all time, Jim Brown has another perspective on the issue at hand. Brown stated that the reason why running backs aren’t getting the ball 20+ times a game is that there simply aren’t any great running backs in the NFL. Brown then highlighted two names, Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson as the only two players who are on teams that don’t have “running back by committee.”
This begs the question, what or who would be classified as a “good” running back? When looking at the numbers, one cannot deny that the running back position has evolved from the ‘3 yards and a cloud of dust’ from previous decades, to an era where a running back’s hands are just as important as their vision.
Backs in today’s NFL, don’t have the usual body type that they did 10, 15 or 20 years ago. They are smaller, faster, and used more and more in the receiving game than ever before. It all started with Roger Craig in 1988, when he became the first back to amass 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving in the same season: a feat that wasn’t duplicated until 1999 when Marshall Faulk did it. Along the lines, we as fans have seen the evolution of the running back position, as more and more are starting to become receiving threats. Marcus Allen was a multifaceted player who was able to catch as well as run, and LaDainian Tomlinson, in 2003, was 4th in the NFL in receptions with 100.
This evolution of the position has many people talking about the position becoming extinct, but they must remember, this game is about outscoring your opponent (as in any game) and that is the offense’s job to do so, and if you can have the defense guessing which option that the running back is going to be used in, you are going to be at a disadvantage.
Good running backs have hands. Good running backs have vision. Good running backs are a direct result of the offensive coordinator that is calling the plays for them. During Brown’s time, he was the focal point, and the best player on the field, so there was no question that for the Browns to win, #32 was going to have to run the ball 20+ times during the game. Now, the description of the statistic has changed. Now, we speak of running backs not getting ‘carries’ but getting ‘touches’.
Two players that highlight this concept, of getting carries and touches are Jamaal Charles and CJ Spiller. Over the past two seasons, these players both played 31 games, but the number of times that they have had the ball in their hands, either running or receiving is very different. Charles has 544 carries and 105 receptions over the past two years for a total of 20.9 touches per game. Spiller has 409 carries and 76 receptions for a total of 15.6 touches per game. Further breakdown states that Charles has carried the ball 15+ times in 22 of 31 games, while Spiller has only carried the ball 15+ times in 11 of 31 games. These two players are very similar in speed and size, so if it worked for Kansas City, why wouldn’t it work in Buffalo?
The definition of what, or who a running back is, should be altered due to the current state of the game, and which is probably the reason why Brown (who only averaged 2.2 receptions a game in his career) has a somewhat skewed perspective of what a running back in today’s NFL is. Although Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson are rare exceptions in today’s NFL, one cannot discount the magnitude of how the game, as a whole, has evolved. The 78-year-old Brown then stated that if he was in the league today, he would still get the ball as much as he did when he played, and at 6’2” 232 pounds, he would definitely be in the class with Lynch and Peterson, but one has to question, is this the end for running backs with that style? Only time will tell.