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The Future of Football Is Here, and It’s Flexible

Wide receivers masquerading as running backs, runners lining up under center, dogs and (wild)cats living together, mass football hysteria — the NFL is increasingly position-free and less predictable than ever

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We saw the future on Sunday. There was Falcons running back Tevin Coleman, lining up like a receiver and utterly roasting the Broncos defense for 132 yards through the air. In one player and some highly specific game planning, the strategic future of the game was laid bare. It hasn’t been an avalanche — more like a glacial creep. But it’s impossible to deny now: The college spread game’s influence is infiltrating the NFL. As youth football, high school programs, and 7-on-7 leagues prepare athletes for the spread offense they’ll be playing at the college level, this machine has helped create a surplus of players who are explosive in space and have skill sets as both pass catchers and runners, and it’s become harder to put these athletes into fixed categories.

In the pro game, we’re seeing it more and more: running backs playing the roles of receivers. Receivers motioning into the backfield to run the rock. Quarterbacks racing for yardage. Runners lining up under center. Classically defined “positions” are increasingly meaningless in the NFL.

Coaches and coordinators are more frequently looking to nontraditional methods to take advantage of their players’ athleticism — the triple option is somehow showing its face in the NFL again, and even the oft-disparaged wildcat, which everyone thought had died off sometime around 2012 when the Jets tried and failed to make Tim Tebow their wildcat quarterback, has cropped up recently. NFL offenses have embraced the idea of fluid positional roles more freely, which means defending them is harder than ever. Here are the positional changes that are redefining NFL offenses as we know them.

The Running Back As Receiver

When defenses leave bigger, more traditional run-stopping linebackers on the field to help plug gaps and tackle running backs, coordinators have increasingly used those backs as de facto receivers. Many times, linebackers will be drawn into man-to-man coverage, flexed away from the formation, and when the backs bring excellent route-running ability, great hands, and top-end speed to the table, the heavier, more flat-footed defensive players don’t have a chance.

We’ve seen Le’Veon Bell do this frequently in Todd Haley’s offense — Pittsburgh has the opportunity to feature both Bell and DeAngelo Williams on the field at the same time, giving it uncommon run/pass versatility — and Bell’s incredible talent as a receiver makes him essentially unguardable in that role.

Likewise for the aforementioned Coleman, whose first big catch came early in the game. With the Broncos matched up in man coverage, his quick slant beat Todd Davis to the catch point, then as Davis tried to get over the Falcons’ legal pick play, Coleman separated. He broke a tackle and then raced up the sideline for 48 yards.

In the third quarter, Coleman did it again. Flexed out into the slot to the left, he drew coverage from linebacker Brandon Marshall. He ran a seam route and simply beat Marshall downfield to scream in for a touchdown.

A running back with this type of dual skill set forces defenses into a schematic Catch-22. Coleman can run the ball too, so they’ll want some beef on the field to counter that, but when he’s out in the slot as a receiver, it’s difficult to hang with a guy who can run the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds and can catch the ball on receiver-style routes. But that’s nothing compared to the next update.

The Receiver As Running Back

Play-calling — deciding which personnel to put on the field, how to attack certain defensive looks, and whether to run or to pass — is a constant chess match between offensive coordinators and their counterparts. Athletes that offer positional versatility give play callers and quarterbacks run/pass options based on defensive looks, and having the ability to seamlessly change the play from one to another is a massive advantage.

Percy Harvin was one of the charter members of the hybrid receiver/running back club, but its ranks are growing every year. Receivers like Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Golden Tate have all gotten carries from the backfield this year, and have shown that with an athlete that can either release into a route or motion into the backfield and carry the ball, it’s imperative that defenses be as responsive as these players are fungible.

In the first quarter of the Rams’ matchup with the Bills on Sunday, Los Angeles got the exact look it wanted. Todd Gurley was on the sideline, so Buffalo countered with its dime personnel package (six defensive backs). When L.A. saw that Buffalo had just three down linemen, it flexed Austin into the backfield, brought tight end Lance Kendricks back into the formation, and ran the ball downhill with its 174-pound receiver. He picked up 8 yards.

Late in the second quarter, the Rams got a nickel look (five defensive backs) from the Bills and decided to try something similar. Austin’s explosiveness as a runner was apparent as he cut his run to the outside. While he didn’t score, Austin did pick up 9 yards and set L.A. up at the 1-yard line. Gurley punched it in on the next play.

Sometimes, using receivers as running backs can have more than one utility. The Lions have struggled to get Golden Tate involved this season — he had one catch for 1 yard in Week 4’s loss to the Bears and sat on the bench for much of the second half — so they looked to manufacture some touches for him on Sunday against the Eagles. On their first possession, the Lions had gotten the look they wanted — Philly was in a nickel defense to counter Detroit’s three-receiver personnel grouping — so Tate motioned to line up into the backfield with Matthew Stafford and Theo Riddick to run the ball. He took a toss sweep to his right and picked up 11 yards.

Not only did that play get Tate more involved in the offense, but it also set up a touchdown by Riddick on a screen play later in the quarter. With Detroit in a similar formation, the defense keyed in on Tate — a former high school running back and one of the NFL’s most elusive receivers after the catch — but as Stafford faked a swing pass to his left to sell it, Riddick released underneath to his right. He caught the screen pass and took it in for a score.

Plays that use receivers as running backs aren’t going to work every time, but if they’re timed right and used against the right defensive personnel or formations, they can be a great change-of-pace weapon to keep in the arsenal.

The Runner As Quarterback

We were told the wildcat was dead. After its brief-but-exciting heyday in 2008, defenses adapted to the offense that replaced its quarterback with a running back and, for the most part, figured out how to stop it. Except, knowing how to stop something and actually stopping it are two different things, and the wildcat has slowly crept back into relevance.

Here are four prominent examples: The Rams ran Gurley out of the wildcat last Sunday; the Patriots had Julian Edelman run it in Week 4, when they found themselves down to their third quarterback; the Bills feature the look frequently in their offense; and the Vikings have experimented with it in their offense as well. Minnesota running back Jerick McKinnon was an option quarterback for Georgia Southern, and lined up together with Patterson, the pair presents a challenging duo to defend. Defenses may know the best ways to take the wildcat away, but they still have to man their gaps, pursue, and tackle.

McKinnon picked up 10 yards from a wildcat look in Week 4 against the Giants, then ran for 5 yards from a similar look on Sunday against the Texans.

The Browns may have been forced into using it because of injuries to Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown, but Cleveland’s experimented with the offense as well. The advantage the Browns have in running it through Terrelle Pryor — a former college quarterback at Ohio State — is that he can also pass the ball out of what look to be wildcat run plays.

Against the Dolphins in Week 3, Pryor was used as some alien hybrid of quarterback, receiver, and running back. On a second-and-1 early in the first quarter, he took a direct snap and ran it himself, picking up 15 yards. On the very next play, instead of running, he strafed to his left and hit tight end Gary Barnidge on a crosser for 26 yards.

In the fourth quarter, Pryor kept another one himself and ran it in for a touchdown.

It’s no big surprise that the Vikings and Bills are at the vanguard of the wildcat’s resurgence. David Lee — known as the Godfather of the wildcat as the quarterbacks coach for the 2008 Dolphins team that introduced it to the league — is the quarterbacks coach for the Bills. Tony Sparano, the head coach of that 2008 Dolphins club, coaches the offensive line for the Vikings. But it’s not just a legacy program — a few teams around the league continue to use it as a changeup to their base run plays.

The Quarterback As Runner

Most teams prefer to keep their quarterback behind center, but the archetype of a statuesque pocket passer is slowly being replaced with more athletic, mobile passers that contribute to the run game. It has been a decades-long march to positional flexibility under center, and now there are several variations on the “running” QB. Cam Newton won an MVP award last season after throwing 35 touchdowns and running for 10 more, Russell Wilson has been hugely successful as a dual-threat signal-caller, and even Tyrod Taylor has Buffalo’s offense executing thanks in part to his abilities as both a passer and a runner.

The read option is a common scheme used to get quarterbacks more involved in the ground game, but in Buffalo, the Bills have expanded their repertoire to include the triple option as well. NFL defenses are typically too fast for the triple option to work, and teams don’t want to expose their quarterbacks to big hits — outside of Carolina the option-pitch play has been a rarity at the pro level. But against the Rams on Sunday, Buffalo reached into its bag of tricks and pulled out the old chestnut. Taylor ran to his right, drew the defense toward him, then pitched it outside to Mike Gillislee, who rumbled in for the score.

The overall effectiveness of plays that feature hybrid or out-of-position players varies — some result in big gains or touchdowns and others look comical as they’re stuffed behind the line of scrimmage. But even the plays that fail have value: Just putting them out there on tape means that future opponents are forced to prepare for them. Under the current NFL collective bargaining agreement, practice is severely limited, so game planning and practicing to stop players at their normal positions — not to mention ways in which they can be used at other positions — is already a battle against time. The teams willing to bend traditional positional roles will continue to earn a competitive advantage.

The best coaches are always innovating and trying to utilize the unique talents of their players, so we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploiting dual-threat players. As the lines blur between running back and receiver, and quarterback and runner, the importance of these types of schemes will only increase. And for teams around the league, the more Swiss Army knives show up on roster sheets, the better.