Walter Payton? Marshall Faulk? Brian Westbrook? Who do you think of when the phrase “most versatile running back” comes up?
Payton lives on film as an elusive, slightly built runner who could pretty much do anything. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry and 88 yards per game on the ground over his career. He caught almost 500 passes with an average of 9.2 yards per catch and amassed 15 TD receptions.
A football era later, Faulk had almost the same yards per carry and yards per reception. But he scored 36 receiving TDs (and an even 100 rushing). He averaged almost 70 yards every game on the ground and almost 40 aerially.
Faulk and Payton were the same height (5’10”) and only ten pounds apart at 200 and 210 pounds respectively.
And then came Brian Westbrook, who was an amazing weapon at 5’8”. Westbrook averaged 56 rushing yards every game and more than 35 receiving yards weekly during his time in Philly. In some ways, Brian heralded the era of the “mighty mite” running back.
In a half-century where the population as a whole and football players in general are getting larger and larger, the NFL running back has gotten smaller, faster and more versatile. Honestly, have you seen Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren Sproles standing in the huddle next to the O-linemen? They look like Hobbits.
How did we get from Jim Brown to Danny Woodhead? When Payton played, he was an anomaly: a skinny, slippery guy only a few years removed from the Brown era and playing at the same time as Washington’s pounder, John Riggins.
Riggins was 6’2” and 230 pounds. Now, that’s a traditional running back. He averaged less than 12 receiving yards per game. Uh-huh.
Then two amazing athletes hit the NFL in the 1980’s: Marcus Allen and Erik Dickerson.
Erik Dickerson was a freak of nature. The man was 6’3”, 220 pounds and could fly. And catch.
Over a ten-year career, Dickerson averaged 7.6 yards per reception. From 1988-1989, Dickerson caught 66 passes.
Head Coach Ron Meyer, who had worked with Dickerson in college, apparently knew what he had in this receiving threat. But Meyer was fired in 1991 and that was also the last year of Dickerson’s tenure in Indy.
Allen had almost the same body at 6’2”, 210 pounds. We all remember Marcus’ famous “running with the night” Super Bowl winning play, but how about the fact that he caught 68 passes in 1983 for the Silver and Black? In one year. Way before Aaron Rodgers was a gleam in his daddy's eye.
During the three best years of his career, Marcus Allen achieved between 64 and 68 receptions. Maybe that’s what really annoyed Al Davis. If there were ever anyone who did not want his running backs catching passes, it was Davis. That’s what those track-star wide receivers were for.
Often over-looked in the evolution of the pass-catching running back is Bill Parcells’ favorite David Meggett. For a coach who loved power, this allegiance to Meggett would seem a mystery if you didn’t notice that the diminutive dynamo concluded his ten-year career with 1,648 rushing yards, 336 receptions for 3,083 yards, 3,708 punt return yards, and 5,566 yards returning kickoffs. Isn’t that the definition of versatility?
A lot of fans outside of New York may not remember Meggett but I guarantee you that coaches took notice.
Of course, it was offensive genius and creator of the West Coast Offense, Bill Walsh, who systematized this use of the nimble runner as a WR. Super Bowl XVI proved that efficiency could beat sheer yardage. Joe Montana completed passes for a grand total of 157 yards. Yeah, forgot that didn’t you?
San Francisco attained their 1981 regular season record of 13-3 with a team whose leading WR was 6’4” Dwight Clark. But two running backs, Ricky Patton and Earl Cooper, had 78 receptions for 672 yards—not including their contributions to the running game. Walsh’s short passing game opened up the world of receiving to any running back with good hands and a good brain.
Today’s most versatile running backs exemplify both characteristics.