Running is the past. Passing is the future. With completion percentages across the NFL continuing to rise, your average handoff seemed destined for the dustbin of inefficient history, nestled in between the midrange jumper and the sacrifice bunt. Yet, while their contracts have suffered, running backs are still here. So, welcome to … Running Back Day! We’re spending all day trying to answer the question of “What does it mean to be a running back in 2018?”
There’s been some confusion surrounding the modern running back and its place in football. It is easy to say the position is dying or even dead. The Boston Globe dubbed it “the era of the disappearing running back” three seasons ago. But just because something changes doesn’t mean it disappears: Netflix used to literally ship DVDs. Things evolve. Running backs used to run the ball. Now they do everything. The running back is not dead; it’s just different.
Of course, there are some tough facts about the running back position. Most notably, teams don’t want to pay or draft backs like they did in the past—and that’s probably smart. In an era of exploding salary-cap space, the average of the top 10 running back salaries has dropped over the past five years. In that time, the top 10 quarterback salaries rose on average over $10 million per player, according to analytics guru Warren Sharp, and wide receivers went up by over $5 million. NFL teams have gotten better at passing and worse at running:
I looked out of curiosity... in 1987, NFL average offensive DVOA was 6.6% passing, -1.6% rushing. By comparison, in 2017, the average was 11.7% passing, -5.6% rushing. The passing premium is higher now than it was 30 years ago. https://t.co/frdU5swXtQ— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) July 18, 2018
Over the past 10 years, NFL quarterbacks became more accurate—15 of the top 25 most accurate passers in NFL history by completion percentage are active. Only two players in the top 25—Steve Young and Joe Montana—haven’t been active in the past decade. This leaguewide improvement has lessened the risk of passing. Interceptions are near an all-time low. The running game’s main advantage—that it’s a security blanket for risk-averse teams—has become outdated. In 2016, one of the peak years of the league’s passing boom, the leaguewide pass-to-run ratio was 35.7 passes to 26 rushes. A decade before that the ratio was 32 to 28.2. Even rushing success has little correlation with the effectiveness of the play-action pass, according to research done by Football Outsiders.
Running the ball is not what it once was. Even with large contracts for Rams star Todd Gurley ($45 million guaranteed) and the extensions on the horizon for Le’Veon Bell or Melvin Gordon, the position is likely never going to return to the financial heyday of a decade ago, when Adrian Peterson could enter the league and make $96 million. In fact, for most teams it’s probably better to cycle through runners on cheaper rookie contracts. But that doesn’t mean the position can’t be hugely valuable for coaches who know how to use them. Some teams, who still believe in the outdated idea of “establishing the run,” cannot be helped. But everyone else can use this generation of running backs to their advantage.
“I kind of laughed when people said the running back was done,” said Panthers general manager Marty Hurney. “It’s harder to overpower defensive lines now—they’ve gotten so big and so fast. Versatility is more important than it ever has been at that position because I don’t believe you have the guys who come in and pound, downhill road-graders. It’s harder to do that. You have to have a mix of skills.”
One of the main skills Hurney references is pass catching. Two running backs had over 750 yards receiving last season—Alvin Kamara and Todd Gurley. That’s happened in only one other year since 2000. In 2014, Le’Veon Bell and Matt Forte both did it. From 2008 to 2012, not one running back eclipsed 750 receiving yards.
Plus, someone still has to be out there to run play-action. Even though it might not matter who it is, the concept baits linebackers and thus opens up the middle of the field. It’s crucial to modern offenses. On first down from shotgun, teams gained an extra 1.5 yards per pass per play if they ran play-action. The four teams that used play-action the most last season, according to Football Outsiders, were the Vikings, Rams, Patriots, and Eagles. If you are looking for an additional commonality between those teams, it’s that they are damn good. Marcus Mariota added 5.2 yards per play when using play-action, according to Pro Football Focus.
It’s pretty simple to explain how running backs became such a threat in the open field, according to Kansas City general manager Brett Veach. It starts with the spread offense, which has drifted upward from high school and college to gain prominence in the NFL.
“With spread and uptempo concepts, I think coordinators have found ways to get the ball to playmakers in space,” he said. “Offenses in college spread the field out. It’s not a game in between the hashes anymore. You have to be able to play laterally, and if you are a running back and you play laterally, that means you’ve got to catch the football.”
This is a problem for Luke Kuechly.
“The problem is that it’s not just like the old days where they’d just run this short route,” Carolina’s All-Pro middle linebacker said. “They can run route trees and you have to be on top of them. You have to be able to compete in space. That’s where this game is going. It’s one more thing you have to worry about. Some teams do have the pounders and you know what you’re going to get from them and they are not as good in space. But look at our division—Mark [Ingram] can catch the ball, Alvin can catch the ball, Devonta [Freeman] is an issue and look at Christian [McCaffrey]. Then you look at Gurley. David Johnson is a monster, Le’Veon. Those guys can line up at the slot, backfield. Anywhere.”
Bell, in the midst of a contract dispute with the Steelers, wants to be paid as an “elite offensive weapon” and not a running back, and he’s probably right to ask for that in the context of what a running back like him can do.
This generation of athletes is heaven for Veach, who sees pass catching out of the backfield as a prerequisite. When he’s watching tape of a running back, he’s typically looking for an athlete as close to Brian Westbrook as possible. Westbrook eclipsed 600 receiving yards for four straight years from 2004 to 2007 in Philadelphia. Veach was an Eagles scout after that era, but Andy Reid taught him the value of the pass-catching back. With the two now working together in Kansas City, Reid, whose innovative RPO-filled offense is one of the most influential forces in football, has told Veach that the backs in his offense must catch passes.
“Brian Westbrook is one of the guys who I’m trying to project to the other scouts: ‘Here’s what we are looking for,’” Veach said. “I’ve always thought of Westbrook, because that’s the first thing coach [Reid] taught me: the running back can’t play in this offense unless he can catch the football—whether that’s Duce Staley, Westbrook, or LeSean McCoy.”
Or Kareem Hunt, who had 53 receptions in his rookie year with the Chiefs and is working to improve on that. I asked Hunt why running backs can be so flexible now. He said he personally wants to stay on the field on every down—and he knows if he can’t block or catch, he’ll be hauled off after second down. “You’ve got to have a mind-set to want to do it all—run routes with the receivers [in practice], catch the ball a lot, be able to run in between the tackles, block,” he said.
Being able to do it all is a common concept now in the NFL backfield. A versatile running back’s existence helps offenses. For as much as the New England Patriots have had success running an empty set with no running backs in the past, they’ve also used James White as a pass catcher with roaring success. The Score’s Mark Schofield wrote this week about the San Francisco 49ers’ creative passing concepts out of the two-back set. Kyle Shanahan will send receivers deep on curls but then fullback Kyle Juszczyk—the highest-paid fullback in NFL history—goes out on a wheel route.
However, the league is still far from optimizing its use of running backs. Running the football poorly is still a curse for many teams. Sharp’s essay on the Chargers foolishly running the ball in passing situations is one of the best pieces of football writing this year.
As general managers, coaches, and players told me that flexibility is the future of the running back position, I asked a question that is nearly impossible to answer just yet: If running is de-emphasized, is the normal running back aging curve going to change? The position has a pretty rough ride after age 27 because of the physical demands of carrying the ball. The answer I got was a resounding … probably.
“You view it a little differently. The guys we talk about [in other eras], those guys were running into brick walls every play,” Hurney said. “Also [teams] are limiting the carries—[backs] have got less miles on their bodies. The less it gets the longer they can play.”
Gurley has never carried the ball 300 times in a season. Adrian Peterson, in his first 16-game season in 2008, carried the ball 363 times, and 314 the next. He carried the ball over 300 times in four seasons before he turned 31; his career ended two years and two teams later. There’s something comforting in the fact Bell led the NFL in carries last year with only the 140th-highest single-season number in league history. No other player from 2017 ranked in the top 250. Football Outsiders’ “Rule of 370,” which says that running backs decline sharply after 370 carries in a season, is not much of a factor anymore: only one player in the past decade has eclipsed 370 carries, DeMarco Murray in 2014. Incidentally, he retired this summer.
Running is not back; it may never be back. But the running back never went away. The smart teams are planning accordingly.