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A New Generation of RBs Is Driving NFL's Epic Offensive Renaissance

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 4, 2018

New Orleans Saints' Alvin Kamara, left, can't make the catch in the end zone during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

The latest surge in NFL passing isn't driving running backs to extinction. Instead, they're evolving. 

That may be why offensive numbers are popping like never before.

For example, take Saints running back Alvin Kamara, who is on a record-shattering pace as a receiver. His 35 catches for 336 yards prorate to 140 receptions for 1,344 yards in a full season.

The all-time single-season reception record at any position is 143 catches, which Marvin Harrison set in 2002. The all-time receptions record for a running back is 104 catches, which Matt Forte set in 2014. Kamara is on pace to obliterate Forte's record and threaten Harrison.

Kamara has also rushed for 275 yards, putting him on track for 1,100 rushing yards this season. That would put him in the company of Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk, who are the only running backs in history to gain both 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in a season.

In other words, Kamara is having a historically unique season, but it isn't being talked about much because we've come to expect the Saints offense to erupt every year, and because passing totals across the league are currently through the roof.

Kamara may not even be the biggest story among this year's all-purpose backs. The Rams' Todd Gurley is averaging 12.9 yards per catch for the NFL's best team. The Chargers' one-two punch of Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler have combined for 362 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Giants rookie Saquon Barkley's 27 catches are the only thing keeping his team's offense from grinding to a halt.

So many running backs are having such a profound impact in the passing game that the secret to this season's offensive explosion and quarterback renaissance may be these modern-era ball-carriers.

There are currently eight running backs on pace to catch 80 or more passes: Kamara (35 receptions this season), Barkley (27), Gordon (24), Nyheim Hines (22), Christian McCaffrey (22), James White (22), Theo Riddick (21) and Chris Thompson (20). Last season, Le'Veon Bell, Kamara and McCaffrey were the only running backs to catch at least 80 passes.

Saquon Barkley is one of eight running backs on pace to catch more than 80 passes this season.
Saquon Barkley is one of eight running backs on pace to catch more than 80 passes this season.Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press/Associated Press

Running backs are also more effective on a per-catch basis than they were in years past. Seven running backs are averaging at least 10 yards per reception this season, with a minimum of two receptions per game: Kyle Juszczyk (15.25), Gurley (12.93), Ekeler (12.54), Ty Montgomery (12.27), Tarik Cohen (12.07), Dalvin Cook (11.89) and Bilal Powell (10.50). Last season, only Thompson, Gurley and Kamara topped the 10-yards-per-catch barrier among backs who were regularly used as receivers.

Quarterbacks are looking to their running backs more often in the passing game, and the backs are doing more once the ball is in their hands. It isn't all screens and swing passes, either. Even the stodgiest offensive minds are coming up with new-and-improved ways of using their running backs as receivers. Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett aligned Ezekiel Elliott in the slot Sunday (drawing a slow linebacker in coverage) for a clutch catch to beat the Lions, while Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner sent McCaffrey in one direction and fellow running back C.J. Anderson in the other direction to turn a screen pass into a 24-yard touchdown against the Bengals in Week 3.

There have always been running backs who could catch, from Craig and Faulk to Thurman Thomas, Reggie Bush and Tiki Barber. But the imaginations of offensive coordinators have limited running backs' roles in the passing game for decades. Even the backs who routinely caught passes did most of their damage on screens, swing passes and other rudimentary concepts, occasionally lining up in the slot as a tricky wrinkle.

Innovative young coaches like Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan have wiped those restrictions away. They motion their running backs all over the formation and allow them to run full route trees, such as Gurley running a seamer out of the backfield for a touchdown against the Vikings or Niners fullback Juszczyk lining up as a wide receiver against the Vikings.

This new generation has also erased the distinction between featured backs and pass-catching complementary backs. The 230-pound Barkley plays a role in the passing game only a nifty little scatback would have a few years ago. McCaffrey and Kamara, whose receiving skills were a known commodity in college, have proved to be rugged and durable as runners. Gurley, Gordon and Elliott all justify their status as first-round picks by playing multifaceted roles as receivers in addition to grinding out yardage up the middle.

Christian McCaffrey's ability to be a threat as a runner or as a receiver allows him to take advantage of slower defenders who often aren't as versatile.
Christian McCaffrey's ability to be a threat as a runner or as a receiver allows him to take advantage of slower defenders who often aren't as versatile.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The versatility of these backs is essential to their offenses. Elliott and Gurley get matched up against linebackers because opponents cannot automatically switch to a nickel defense without a changeup back in the huddle. McCaffrey and Anderson, Gordon and Ekeler and Juszczyk and a halfback can share the same huddle without tipping the offense's hand.

The impact of running backs on the 2018 quarterback revolution is showing up all over the stat sheet, including some unexpected places.

Through Week 3, four of the top five tackle-breakers on receptions (per Football Outsiders) were running backs: Kamara (10), Barkley (nine), Dalvin Cook (eight) and Alex Collins (eight). Running backs typically break more tackles on receptions than wide receivers, but in a league in which defenders are still trying to figure out how to tackle without getting penalized, it pays to toss a running back a short pass and see what happens.

Better all-around running back play is also having an impact on play-action passing. Per Football Outsiders, 10 teams averaged more than 10 yards per play on play-action passes through Week 3, including McVay and Gurley's Rams. Only four teams averaged over 10 yards per play on play action from 2015 through 2017, three of which (2015-16 Redskins, 2016 Falcons) had McVay or Shanahan on their coaching staffs. Again, versatile backs combined with creative ways to create mismatches equal better passing games, even when someone other than the running back gets the ball.

There's also lots of fluff in running back receiving data, as there always is: completions that go nowhere, meaningless catches against prevent defenses in blowouts and so forth. Theo Riddick has 21 catches this season but only 118 yards. Hines caught two touchdown passes Sunday against Houston but has netted only a yard or two (or lost yardage) on many of his 22 receptions. Barkley's 27 receptions this year are full of 3rd-and-long dump-offs and garbage-time production.

But whether they are cheesy or productive, tosses to running backs pump up quarterback stats. Eli Manning has a completion rate of 78.5 percent when throwing to running backs this year, helping boost his overall completion rate to a gaudy 74.2 percent. Andrew Luck has gone 30-of-36 (83.3 percent) while throwing to Hines and other Colts backs, elevating his completion rate to 67.2 percent.

Nyheim Hines' reliability as a pass-catcher has provided a boost to Andrew Luck on the scoreboard and in his personal stats.
Nyheim Hines' reliability as a pass-catcher has provided a boost to Andrew Luck on the scoreboard and in his personal stats.Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

In short, these next-generation running backs are making good offenses better by being hard to both difficult to scheme against and hard to tackle in the open field. They are also making weak offenses look better statistically, which puts the whole league on a pace to smash records and makes struggling quarterbacks look much better when the rating stats are calculated.

Injuries, cold weather and defensive adjustments may bring both running backs and passing stats crashing back to reality. Then again, Bell, Mark Ingram and Devonta Freeman are all returning soon, adding three more dynamic all-purpose backs to a league full of them.

And while Ingram may prevent Kamara from breaking records by siphoning off playing time, he'll also make the Saints offense even more explosive, much like Bell eventually will do in Pittsburgh and Freeman will in Atlanta.

The ground-bound running back may be a thing of the past, but its evolutionary successor is an offensive sight to behold.

                  

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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