Death of the NFL Running Back

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Death of the NFL Running Back
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

The running back used to be the premier position in the National Football League, but in recent years teams have adopted a platoon or running back by committee approach. Not long ago we were talking about Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Herschel Walker, and players of that caliber.

Not anymore.

Every year there is a new young running back that breaks on the scene; Chris Johnson, Beanie Wells, and Ray Rice. Those names do not invoke the type of nostalgia, or even excitement for the most part.

Yes, Chris Johnson had a good season, coming close to breaking the single season rushing yardage record and many exciting runs of 50-plus yards along the way. But none of the players I named have any signature moments that will last for decades, because in the next four years most of them will have diminished playing time or looking for another team.

If you doubt this theory, see if you can name the backup running backs for Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Herschel Walker, and Eric Dickerson. But I am quite sure you can name the backups for the former three players I mentioned.

Teams are finding more creative ways to save money and maximize their talent, but to in essence de-emphasize a position across the board is almost unheard of.

This strategy has reached a new level in the past few weeks as Brian Westbrook, former standout running back for the Philadelphia Eagles, LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers, and Thomas Jones from the New York Jets were all cut by their respective teams.

If you had to name the top 10 running backs in the NFL a few years ago, all of these players would be in the conversation, but only a few seasons later all of them are looking for a new beginning with a new team.

There are inherent problems with this philosophy. Sure, any team with a good offensive line can put even a decent running back in there and he will have success. Having an elite running back is not just about running the football; the biggest thing young running backs struggle with is the pass protection and hot reads that are required from the running back position.

This is of paramount importance because your $100 million dollar quarterback’s last line of defense is most often times the running back blocking for him or catching a dump pass out of the back field. Now, in order to save a little change they want to roll the dice with inexperienced players protecting the backside of your highest paid one?

The myth that running backs get burned out at age 30 is a bit of a white lie. What has started to happen is teams migrate to run primarily a passing offense because the Colts, Patriots, and others have been successful with it. This is de-emphasizing the running game, as New England, Arizona, and Indianapolis have never really been known for their running game.

As a result, these teams have not given these running backs the same amount of carries that they had in previous years, so of course their numbers are going to drop. On top of that, teams have started to acquire pass blocking specialists at the offensive line positions, and some of these players are only average run blockers.

Thomas Jones did more to dispel the myth than anyone else last season; he rushed for over 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. This was the best season of his career, and he is 31 years old, so is Jones some type of exception to the rule?

His career was average before the past two seasons, and he all of a sudden turns in his rocking chair for a career season?  Even with all of that, the Jets still jettisoned him in favor of Shonn Greene, who has yet to play a 16 game season in the NFL.

I think Greene is a good player, but he does not have the experience of Thomas Jones and has not proven he can make it through an entire season healthy. He fumbled away the game against the Dolphins earlier last season, and had his moments where he was lost in pass protection.

Jones signed with the Chiefs, taking about a $4 million dollar pay cut in the process. All of these signs point to one truth; Emmitt Smith’s career rushing record will last for decades.  No running back for the foreseeable future is going to get the same opportunity to be the featured guy for over 13 years.

Emmitt Smith ran for a total of 18,355 yards during his 15-season NFL career; LaDainian Tomlinson (who just signed with the Jets) has rushed for only 12,490 yards and is now considered “over the hill.” There is no way Tomlinson will get another 5,000 or 6,000 rushing yards because he will not get enough opportunities to get to that number.

Looking at the statistics, the only active players who have over 10,000 yards are as follows:

LaDainian Tomlinson (Jets) – 12,490

Edgerrin James (No Team) – 12,246

Fred Taylor (No Team) – 11,540

Jamal Lewis (May Retire) – 10,607

(Statistics courtesy of http://www.pro-football-reference.com)

As you can see, none of them are even close to Emmitt and the only one that has a real shot is LT, but his contract in New York is only for two years and he isn’t the featured guy.

The NFL running back is now dead or in a state of hibernation depending on how you look at it. Maybe in the next five to 10 years the league will change back to a more balanced set of offenses that once again emphasize the run.

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