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The Adapt or Die Proposition of the Running Back in the NFL

Teams are continuing to refuse to pay running backs, leading many to think that NFL teams are killing the position. But is it death or forced evolution?

When I was growing up watching the NBA, there was a player on every team that fit the bill of what was called a bruiser or an enforcer. These were typically very strong and physical specimens that usually played power forward. They had limited offensive skills, were capable defenders, and tended to exist to send a message to the other team's best player. Players like Charles Oakley, Bill Laimbeer, Dale Davis, and Xavier McDaniel fit this bill in the 1980s and 90s.

But then a change occurred. The NBA went to a spacing game, where more three pointers were taken and the mid-range jumper became virtually non-existent. Those jumpers were the lifeblood of enforcers, one of the few things on offense that they did well. And as the need for those shots evaporated, so did the NBA’s need for the enforcer. They were replaced by rangy wing players that could create their own shot and hit some threes if needed.

It seems that the running back in football is suffering the same fate as the enforcer in basketball. In a league that continues to pay its star players more, running back is the only position that is seeing their franchise tag cost decrease. Running backs and fullbacks have the lowest average salary of any player in the league, and that number seems to only be decreasing. With elite players like Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Tony Pollard all holding out of training camp hoping for new deals, a question must be asked. Is the NFL trying to kill the running back position?

A Quarterback’s League

If I asked someone to name the 5 most prominent players in the NFL, there is a good chance that all of the names uttered would be quarterbacks. This is not an accident, it is by design. Quarterbacks are the faces of the league and the franchises they play for. When you see the Kansas City Chiefs play, the league wants you to think about Patrick Mahomes more than any other player on the field. This fixation on quarterbacks has translated into them being the topic of every talking head conversation, to have a Netflix series made about them, and for their salaries to continue to balloon. As an extension they have also proliferated the celebrity of their pass catchers, which has left the running back position somewhat faceless.

The Madden video game, which for many young fans is their introduction into loving the NFL game, has not had a running back on the cover of a game in nearly a decade. In the last decade there has been a shift away from the position. In the past, we glorified the tough men of the football field: the running backs and linebackers. But now that spotlight has shifted to the quarterbacks, wide receivers, and cornerbacks. The NFL is a passing league now, so the determination has been around highlighting its passers and its pass catchers. In many ways, a running back has the same level of importance as a fourth wide receiver in the eyes of many franchises.

In the past, a team was often built around an elite running back and an elite quarterback. We saw this in the 1990s with teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills that both prioritized having a top notch quarterback (Troy Aikman and Jim Kelly) in addition to great running backs (Emmitt Smith and Thurman Thomas). This is no longer the case. Running backs today are discarded by the time they reach the age of 30, sometimes sooner. There is significant data to suggest that a running back's best years will be when he is between the ages of 23-27. And with that being the case, the way that contracts are set up on the rookie scale in the NFL becomes a detriment to the player.

Rethinking the Contract

When it comes to NFL draft picks, they are guaranteed to spend the first 4-5 years (depending on where they were drafted) with the team that selected them. On top of this, the NFL has a rule stating that a player must be three years removed from being in high school to be eligible to be drafted. It is fair to assert that the running back position is the one where rookies are ready to contribute right away to their teams. We’ve seen this recently with players like Najee Harris and Kenneth Walker who both topped 1,000 yards rushing as rookies on winning teams. It can be concluded that even after one year of college that most elite college running backs could play at the next level.

We saw this idea questioned with Maurice Clarett when, after an amazing freshman season at Ohio State in 2002, he tried to challenge the eligibility rules of the NFL Draft. Similarly, former Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson broke records as a freshman, showing that there is a scenario where a player can be ready for that next level sooner. And if running backs were allowed to join the league at 19, that would mean a first round pick would be eligible for an extension at the age of 24, still firmly in his prime. This would mean that a player can get a large second contract from the team that drafted him, because his projected future production would match the potential salary.

Beyond that, perhaps running backs are showing a path of shorter term contracts as a viable option. Where instead of a 5-year deal for a first round draft pick, perhaps that becomes a 3-year contract allowing the running back to negotiate a deal while still firmly in his expected prime. This might be a tough pill for NFL team owners to swallow, but it is an alternative to running backs being discarded and replaced before their first contract is even up.

With running backs we are seeing the bad side of the evolution of the game on full display. The league has shifted to more spacing and more of an emphasis on wide receivers and the passing game. This is why it has become more important than ever that running backs offer some versatility to be more than wrecking balls that pick up three yards every time they go up the middle. Much like the power forward in basketball, a change is happening right before our eyes.

Adapting to the Times

On the surface, many football fans will say that the NFL is currently a league of passing. But the league has had between 30-35 pass attempts per game for teams consistently since 1990. The reality is that the league has become a league of spacing. With rules that have created more space in the middle of the field, the best asset you could have is a group of quick twitch athletes that can take a screen pass and turn it into big yardage.

What this means for running backs is that the prototypical power back is basically extinct. Backs now need to be blessed with a lightning-quick first step to be able to line up in the slot for bubble screens, to execute jet sweeps, and basic route patterns in the intermediate passing game. In the running game, they should be able to go up the middle, but it is more important to be able to stretch a run outside in space to exploit less capable tacklers in the secondary for big yardage.

Older football fans will often lament the demise of the “workhorse running back”, the player that could carry the ball 30 times receiving and doling out punishment to defenses. This player has become outdated in modern NFL, one with rules that are predicated on quick strike offenses that put up points. Instead, touches have become more valuable. Teams now have multiple game breaking wide receivers, tight ends that run routes better than some receivers, quarterbacks that can run as well as they pass, and not to mention multiple running backs that can make plays. Spreading touches to all these players has never been more important than it is today.

So is the NFL killing the running back? On the surface it feels like they are, but the reality is that the running back position is going through an evolution that it is overdue for. There is a reckoning coming in the next few years with the way that running backs are paid, and a couple of rule modifications could be looming to address these changes. Players like Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs are the ones feeling the wrath of this now, because they are categorized by position as opposed to their impact on the field. The outcome of this will be the diminishment of the running back (like what happened to the fullback) or the amalgamation of wide receivers and running backs into a hybrid skill position weapon designed to get chunks of yards in space. Only time will tell what the future holds for a position that is more scrutinized than it has ever been.

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