The NFL has become a passing league, but has running the ball become a lost art?
The question is not, are there fewer good NFL running backs? Certainly, guys such as Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew and Arian Foster have as much talent as any group of top running backs—perhaps ever.
The future, too, looks bright for talent at the running back position. With Trent Richardson already running people over at half-speed and guys such as Marcus Lattimore and Le'Veon Bell awaiting their chance in the NFL, there are certainly quality backs in the pipeline.
No, the question is, is running the ball a lost art?
Remembering the True Artists
Before I started writing, I spent time coaching—both at the high school and the college levels. During that time, I coached (primarily) running backs and quarterbacks. I had the privilege of being around backs who ran the gamut from 1,000-yard NCAA rushers to high school freshmen who didn't know what a counter-step was.
No matter how experienced the back was, I always had the same answer when someone asked which great running back they should try to emulate: Eric Dickerson.
It's not that Dickerson is the greatest back ever—I believe that honor goes to Barry Sanders, with Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith very close behind. Rather, Dickerson was probably the back who could teach a young man most about the art of being a rusher.
Sanders was an abstract artist, throwing paint on the canvas at angles that simply couldn't be duplicated. Brown was an in-your-face shock artist (a trait he exemplified both on and off the field). Smith was a workman—getting up every morning to paint with the best tools and never giving up.
While all those styles are attainable to some, none translate like the style of Dickerson. Dickerson was an expressionist with the ball in his hands. With only a cursory glance, his running looks just like everyone else's. A closer look, however, shows a variety of brush strokes and techniques that could never be duplicated.
Looking at the above clip, pay special attention to how Dickerson sets up defenders in the open field. Note also how it is rarely the same way twice. Yes, this is a highlight package, but it isn't as if Dickerson's career looked much different. The wide array of moves that Dickerson had at his disposal haven't been seen since.
If a young running back could acquire even a small percentage of Dickerson's versatility, he would dominate whatever level of competition he was at.
Perhaps it's difficult for many fans to remember, but the last real phenomenal artist at the running back position was Fred Taylor. Before injuries piled up and ruined a lot of the agility that made him great, Taylor could seemingly invent angles and would take small steps that would leave defenders in his dust.
The Effect of the Zone-Blocking Scheme
It is somewhat important to note that "running the ball" is a function of team-, scheme- and roster-building as much as the talent of the running back himself. Teams that run the ball well generally do so regardless of game circumstances or even who the lead back is.
Part of it is institutional focus—always having good run-blockers, talented backs, coaches who emphasize that aspect of the game, etc. Another (arguably bigger) part of that dynamic is institutional mentality.
The zone-blocking scheme (ZBS) has a lot to do with ingraining that dynamic into organizations.
Alex Gibbs and Mike Shanahan joined forces in 1995, and since then, running the football in the NFL has never been the same. Gibbs and Shanahan did away with complicated blocking schemes—no more doubling, no more designed peel blocks, no more unaccounted-for defenders. What they installed was a simple man-on-man blocking scheme that was dedicated to getting running backs into space.
It is, to some extent, "Rushing for Dummies."
At the time, Shanahan needed a simple rushing attack because the passing offense was becoming more and more complex. Gone was the "digit" system, and gone were the days of simple play-calling. Shanahan's passing attack—a descendant of the Bill Walsh West Coast offense—called for an elite quarterback and wide receiving corps. Meanwhile, his rushing offense needed to be able to succeed without much attention and without much institutional support.
So, a guy like Terrell Davis—drafted in the sixth round in 1995—can step right in and succeed. A guy like Arian Foster (Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak was an assistant on that Shanahan/Gibbs Broncos team) can step in after being undrafted.
Moreover, those teams can succeed at running the ball even when those lead backs are out and when they are picking linemen off waiver wires or the post-draft scrap heap.
What this does is turn running the ball into an almost-mechanical process rather than an artful one. It is the same as the difference between a manufactured good—mass-produced with the cheapest materials possible—and a handcrafted artisanal product.
This is not to say, in any way, that guys such as Davis, Foster or the many other running backs operating in the ZBS aren't good. It is fair, however, to wonder if they would succeed out of that scheme and if they are truly artists like the elite backs of a bygone era.
The Impact of the NFL Combine and the NFL's Move toward Passing
Again, it's important to note that there have been some pretty fantastic running backs who have created their own styles of "art" in the NFL running back community. Perhaps I'm just "romanticizing" the era (see what I did there?), but NFL backs today are, to a large extent, either taking what's given to them on a football field, or they're creating with their natural athleticism rather than their acquired skill.
Athleticism versus skill is a very important balance for NFL teams. Nowhere else is that difference exemplified than in the days and weeks leading up to the NFL draft.
The broader psychological community has this debate all the time, calling it "nature vs. nurture." How much is a person's makeup inherited genetically, and how much of it is taught in learned and shared experiences?
Athletically, the debate is important, but NFL teams have it all the time. Which is more important, and how do natural versus acquired skills manifest themselves on the football field?
The NFL combine does a great job of measuring natural athletic ability, but it cannot measure how a player performs on the football field. For that reason, teams and media trot out the same line every April about how the process will depend more on tape than the combine or pro days. However, that doesn't change the fact that the combine (and training for the combine) has very much inserted itself into the process.
A team will not hesitate to draft a back based on milliseconds of speed in the 40-yard dash rather than a bit more skill shown on tape.
That dynamic has a trickle-down effect that changes the way young backs prepare for NFL life. It becomes less important to spend time watching film and working on steps, and much more important to spend extra time with a speed and conditioning coach.
It's the same dynamic that drives young basketball players to work on three-point shots and dunks instead of dribbling, or young baseball pitchers to work on their fastball instead of when to cover first base.
Of course, drafting running backs high has (largely) become a thing of the past anyway. As teams move more toward passing, running backs (as well as run-blocking linemen, capable blocking receivers, in-line blocking tight ends, etc.) have taken a backseat to passers, pass-protectors and pass-rushers.
The running back position hasn't only taken a step back, it's also fractured. A back like Darren Sproles shows plenty of artistry in the open field, but his career as an artist is part-time, at best. That means Sproles has fewer chances to showcase his skill, and he also has less time to hone his craft.
Today's great running backs don't have to be complete artists, only assembly-line workers. Peterson flashes for two downs, but comes off the field on third. Foster misses time, and a back like Ben Tate can come in and perform nearly as well. Again, that doesn't make Peterson and Foster any less great, it just means that their greatness is fundamentally different from guys such as Dickerson, Sanders, Brown and Smith.
So, is running the ball a lost art in the NFL?
Lost? Probably not. Underappreciated? Absolutely.
In its place, an artistry of passing—both from quarterbacks and schematically—has risen. Receivers such as Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker, Larry Fitzgerald and others have taken the artistry of receiving to a new level. Road-grading linemen have taken a backseat to tall, long tackles who can mirror pass-rushers in space. Tights ends rarely see the line of scrimmage anymore, spending most of their time in the slot or coming out of the backfield.
The NFL, however, is a cyclical creature. Schematic dominance and positional importance ebb and flow as coaches punch and counter-punch—looking to find the smallest amount of edge against one another.
Running backs will have their day again. The artistry of the running back position may have been misplaced, but it is not lost, and it is not forgotten.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."