Ray Rice and the 4 Most Versatile RBs in the NFL
George Rose/Getty Images
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.
Ray Rice: Baltimore Ravens’ Not-so-Secret Key to Success
Larry French/Getty Images
In his first NFL season, Ray Rice carried the ball 107 times for 454 yards with 33 receptions totaling 273 yards. And he was the backup. The rest is history.
Ray Rice was not drafted to be an every-down back. He was drafted as a change-up scatback who could catch in a pinch. But the 5’8” New York product has proven so durable that he is now the centerpiece of the Baltimore offense.
As the Ravens have struggled to develop a vertical game, Rice just keeps hauling in the passes and racking up the rushing yards. With Torrey Smith finally stretching the field for Joe Flacco, Rice has even more opportunities in the range of 40 yards.
In 2010, No. 27 finished with 1,220 rushing and 556 receiving yards. This year he’s getting an average of 17.3 carries per game for just under 78 yards weekly on the ground. We all remember his 204 rushing yards versus Cleveland a couple of Sundays ago, right?
He’s also averaging almost ten yards per reception and is ranked 20th in the NFL among all WRs. And he doesn’t play WR. Yeah.
He’s ahead of Larry Fitzgerald in receiving yards. Yes, I know, there are extenuating circumstances in Arizona. But, still.
Rice also has more receiving yards this season than A.J. Green, who is being heralded as the next “big thing” at WR. And who actually is a WR.
Approximately one-quarter of the times that Rice touches the ball, it is as a receiver. He averages 4.5 yards per carry and nine yards per reception. How can you average nine yards per catch when everyone on the defense knows that you are the checkdown ballcatcher?
Cam Cameron has adjusted his offensive play calling as the season has worn older (and colder). The plan is now for Rice to get 25-35 touches. And they want him to get a large percentage of Joe Flacco’s 25-ish planned passes.
That isn’t versatile. That’s a team MVP.
Darren Sproles: Chargers’ Loss Is New Orleans Saints’ Tremendous Gain
Can't Touch This
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Again. How do you let both Drew Brees and Darren Sproles leave town? Well, it’s those stellar decisions that have the Chargers’ in their current predicament.
Mr. Sproles is my favorite player. Actually, he’s been my favorite player for a few years now.
The pride of Waterloo, Iowa was ten pounds at birth. Wow. Well, I was nine pounds and I ended up at 5’2”, so there’s just no telling how you’ll turn out.
But, true to his nickname of “Tank,” Sproles ran for over 5,200 yards and 79 touchdowns in high school. His success continued at Kansas State and he ended up fifth in Heisman voting. Not bad for a guy who barely cracks 5’6.”
And don’t start giving me that you-know-what about how short players have an advantage in the running game. Yes, I know that they get lost in the scrum. Yes, I know that they can squeeze into tight holes. But they can also be squashed in a heartbeat. So, give me a break.
Drafted as a return man, Darren was the first NFL player to return a kickoff and a punt for his first two NFL touchdowns.
On Sept. 4, 2008, Darren had 53 yards rushing, 72 yards receiving and 192 yards in the return game. In Week 7 of his first year as a New Orleans Saint, Sproles broke 1,000 all-purpose yards for the year.
He is too small to play professional football and he just keeps on sprinting for first downs, touchdowns and killer field position every week.
I hope that A.J. Smith has fleur-de-lis nightmares.
LeSean McCoy: Philadelphia Eagles’ MRP (Most Reliable Player)
Nick Laham/Getty Images
Playing running back for Andy Reid is an exercise in versatility. It has to be.
Reid doesn’t know how to manage QBs or develop WRs. I do not care what people say about how he’s such a great QB coach. As a Head Coach, he’s been very lucky to end up with generational QB talent—twice. I will give him that he is an excellent judge of QB skill and comes up with some dynamite backups.
But, for the past 12 years, the Philly offense has run through two RBs with extraordinary abilities: Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy. McCoy has picked up exactly where Westbrook left off when it comes to straight rushing, nifty-move running and receiving yards.
He has racked up a run of 20 yards or more in 11 of the past 12 games, takes it in from inside the five and catches anything whatever QB throws in his direction.
Last week he rang up 84 yards rushing and almost 50 receiving. That’s the Eagles’ offense.
I don’t know where Reid finds them, but “Shady” McCoy is nothing short of incredible. This man is putting up an average of 94.5 rushing yards and 23.1 receiving yards every week this season. Oh, and he has scored 15 TDs. So far.
Forget Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson. Give me McCoy any time.
Reggie Bush: the Miami Dolphins’ New Star
Miami's new favorite son
Marc Serota/Getty Images
He wanted to be the “featured” back. He wanted to be the star, not a star. I admit it; I was skeptical.
Bush had not proven to be the most durable of football players, although his talent is undeniable. I don’t know if he’s gotten tougher or stronger, but his push-ups after that brutal Aaron Curry tackle last week were rather impressive.
Evidently, Reggie arrived in Florida committed to proving his doubters wrong and rising to the occasion. He reportedly won over his teammates early on and is now winning over the rest of us.
Dolphins’ defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is certainly sold, "When he gets outside, he's tough. As I see him making plays for us, he's every bit as explosive as he was with the Saints."
It took Brian Daboll too long to figure out how to use Bush in his offense, but they’ve gotten there. In the last five weeks, Bush ranks as the third RB in the AFC. He is behind the resurgent Chris Johnson and, you guessed it, Ray Rice.
At six feet (although some claim he is more like 5’10”) and 203 pounds, Bush isn’t one of my favorite little guys, but he is undeniably dynamite on the field.
Bush has an average of 4.3 yards per carry through the year, but that’s deceptive, as he’s broken a few long ones recently.
He can bend his body into so many different shapes on a rush that former teammate Joe Horn named him “Baby Matrix.” I’m sure Keanu Reeves is flattered.
During the Saints’ Super Bowl run, Bush played in 14 games with 70 carries and 47 receptions for eight TDs. And that did not include his punt return yardage.
I guess Miami figures that every-down back plus punt returner is too much to ask, but I think they are missing at least a couple of opportunities there.
I realize that Mr. Bush is a multi-millionaire, Super Bowl-winning superstar. But I have some very, very serious advice for him. Stay away from Kim Kardashian.
Danny Woodhead: New England Patriots’ Three-Way Player
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Nobody brought Woodhead to the Combine, but he was timed elsewhere at 4.48 in the 40 with a vertical jump of 38 1/2”. Which is more than half of his 68” in height.
In his 35 professional football games, Danny has averaged 5.1 yards per carry and has scored five TDs. He has 56 receptions for almost 600 yards and one TD.
But here’s the truly awesome part: He plays defense too! This season alone he has seven tackles in 11 games.
I just want to know how he convinced Pats’ defensive coaches to let him play. I mean, what do you say, “Gee, coach, I know I’m less than 200 pounds soaking wet, but I’d like to go out there and hit someone?”
I am so totally sure that the Jets’ front office kicks themselves at least twice a year for letting Woodhead become a Pat.
Under the Radar: Redskins' Roy Helu and Seahawks' Justin Forsett
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
The one bright spot in a truly dismal season for the Redskins is the emergence of Roy Helu at running back. The only offensive player since Tim Hightower got hurt to show any consistent production, Mike Shanahan wouldn’t even acknowledge him as the first-string rusher until this week. Don’t get me started.
Shannys senior and junior may be missing the point with Helu, but fantasy players are in heaven. Sure, he rushed for 100 yards, but he also came up with 42 yards worth of receptions against the New York Jets’ defense.
Here’s some trivia: Roy’s dad played for the U.S. in the 1987 Rugby World Cup. So, I guess toughness comes from his genes as well as his Tongan heritage.
Overlooked out of Nebraska because of some college injuries, Mr. Helu is “hurdling” onto the NFL scene with back-to-back 100-yard games. Facing the Patriots this week should lead to more carries since the Redskins are down to playing water boys at WR.
As for Justin Forsett, you are not going to start at running back on a team featuring Marshawn Lynch.
However, as a dual threat to rush or receive, Forsett averages 3.3 on the ground and 5.9 yards per catch. This will get you some playing time on a team quarterbacked by Tarvaris Jackson that just lost star WR Sydney Rice.
In fact, this will probably get you a lot more playing time for the rest of the year.
No, I Didn’t Forget: Maurice Jones-Drew, Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
I can hear the outrage now—what do you mean, MJD isn’t the top of this list?
Well, Jones-Drew is in no way a slouch when it comes to receiving. He can deal with catching the football. He has had to.
The Jacksonville offense is so pathetic that Maurice is the offense. So of course he catches the ball.
Both Foster and Lynch are quite effective as receivers, also. Lynch ranks third in yards after the catch and Mr. Foster did score on a 78-yard TD reception.
But, let’s face it, all three of these guys are most known for putting the “run” in running back.
Thanks for the Memories: Great Versatile RBs No Longer Ascending
Mr. Third Downs Strikes Again
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Chester Taylor, Kevin Faulk and LaDanian Tomlinson gave defenses fits for years with their combination of good hands, quick feet, agility and vision.
They carried the line of the versatile back down from Walter and Marcus to Darren and Danny, with a lot of first downs in between.