If there were an obituary for the elite running back, it would read like this:
“ELITE RUNNING BACK, age 86, passed from this earth late last year, dying from complications of Dominating Wide Receiver Syndrome after a years-long battle with relevancy. He will be remembered fondly for a lifetime that saw him rise to the pantheon of sport.
“Elite Running Back was born in 1925 in Chicago with the beginning of the pro football career of Chicago Bears great Red Grange. ‘The Galloping Ghost’ helped legitimize the NFL, paving the way for running greats like Jim Brown and Gale Sayers, Earl Campbell and O.J. Simpson.
“Elite Running Back reached his height in the 1980s and 1990s, as some of the finest runners to set foot on the gridiron — Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and so many more — ruled the NFL.
“Yet we all knew we could not hold on to our beloved Elite Running Back forever. He saw the end of his run on this earth come in the fall of 2011. Elite Running Back died in various locations throughout the country — at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.; at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans; at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.; at Ford Field in Detroit — where teams proved the services of Elite Running Back were no longer needed.
“Elite Running Back, we will miss you. (Sort of.)”
Think the death of the elite running back has been greatly exaggerated?
Lost in the hype of 2011’s shattered passing records is the fact that the elite running back, a position that’s been a cornerstone of many a great NFL team, is no longer sustainable in today’s NFL. In this Year of the Passer, the winds of the NFL permanently shifted to a direction the league’s been heading for years. No longer can a team shape its offense around an elite running back who singlehandedly controls the pace of a game.
Now, the running back — or should we say “running backs,” as the best offenses boast an array of specialized runners — is simply a diversionary position, intended to keep defenses off-balance just enough to create breathing room for the passing game, replaced by arsenals of receivers with diverse talents.
There were just 14 1,000-yard rushers this season, fewer than any year since 1999. The NFL’s leading rusher, Maurice Jones-Drew, played for the team that was last in the NFL in total yards, the 5-11 Jacksonville Jaguars. The league’s top-paid running back, Adrian Peterson, was having another great year until he was derailed by injuries — yet his passing-deficient Minnesota Vikings finished only 3-13. The league’s second-highest-paid runner, Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans, also missed the playoffs. The New York Jets thought they could ground and pound their way to the playoffs, and look how that turned out. And only one of the four teams that won on wild-card weekend had a 100-yard rushing game from a running back: the Houston Texans, thanks to Arian Foster’s 153 yards.
A quick look at the teams that made the playoffs shows that the elite wide receiver — who, with ever-more accurate quarterbacks, is far more efficient at moving the ball than the elite running back — has become a far more important position. Twelve of the top 20 regular-season leaders in receiving yards made the playoffs, including the top three: Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions, Wes Welker and the New England Patriots, Victor Cruz and the New York Giants. Yet only seven of the top 20 rushers made the playoffs.
“If you’re looking for a running back to gain 1,600 yards for you and win a championship, you’re now in the wrong business,” said James Lofton, the Hall of Fame wide receiver who played for the Green Bay Packers, the Buffalo Bills and three other teams from 1978 until 1993. “I have a couple of old videotapes from the early ’80s. We were run, run, pass, run, run, pass. Inside the 15-yard line you were run, run, run …
“Bill Walsh was prophetic: You pass to set up the run,” Lofton continued, speaking of the trailblazing San Francisco 49ers coach of the 1980s. “Those great 49ers teams, they only ran to put the game away in the fourth quarter.”
And while the running back isn’t dead, the elite running back sure is. Only four of the top 10 scoring offenses in the NFL had a 1,000-yard rusher. Realizing that running backs are not only fragile but also replaceable, the most successful model is that of the New Orleans Saints, with a rotating cast of running backs who can catch as well as they can run.
“For a long period of time, your roster was made up of three wide receivers and five running backs,” said Gil Brandt, who for nearly three decades was the Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel. “Now most teams are made up of five wide receivers and three running backs. We just run the ball so much less. You can go short with running backs because they can come in and play on day one. You can pick up a guy off the street and they can play right away. With wide receivers it’s harder to do that, because you gotta get acclimated to the quarterback.”
NFL personnel departments are becoming comfortable with this new reality when they’re looking at draft boards. While in the 1980s the first round of NFL drafts was dominated by running backs — five drafts in the decade saw six runners taken in the first round — that’s no longer the case. Only one running back was taken in the first round of last year’s draft — Mark Ingram by the New Orleans Saints. Don’t be surprised when Alabama’s Trent Richardson is the only runner selected in this year’s first round.
It’s all part of the NFL’s shift to a faster, higher-scoring game. In 2011 teams averaged more than 22 points per game. That’s a full five points greater than when league scoring bottomed out in 1977, when running backs dominated and when the entire season saw only five 300-yard passing games. This year a record 10 quarterbacks threw for 4,000 yards. The NFL set a season record with 11,356 points scored as well as a record number of comebacks from 14 or more points down, both attributable to the passing game.
Just a pendulum swing? Or an unexpected byproduct of the lockout-shortened preseason? Not quite. Some statisticians believe there’s still more to be gained by offenses increasing their pass-to-run ratio. Decades from now, we might look back to 2011 as the official beginning of a new pass-happy, avoid-the-run era that could dominate the NFL for years to come.
“We’re seeing an epidemic of a passing frenzy this year,” said former Pro Bowl quarterback Rich Gannon, “and I don’t see it slowing down. … When I was in high school, we were lucky if we passed 40 times in a season. Now, by time players get to college, they’re so much further along in understanding the passing game and coverages than I ever was, even when I came out of college.”
And so, Elite Running Back, we loved it while it lasted. But the game has changed. It’s not going to change back. Rest in peace.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at email@example.com.