“First you establish the running game”. Most Super Bowl aspiring teams start -and rightfully so- with that motto. And most teams who stay loyal to it, have some sort of success. Despite that common ground though, the past decade we’ve been witnessing two trends that seemed to ignore this premiss.
For starters, the running back position -during the first 5 years of the current decade- has been vastly disrespected. Proof? A) The running backs are the lowest paid football players by position. Really hard to swallow. With all the APs and Le’Veons of this world. And B) For a minute there, you couldn’t find a running back picked on the first round of the annual NFL draft. I guess executives thought they could scoop up yearly a Le’Veon Bell on the second or third round.
Furthermore, we’re all witnesses to the trending RBBC phenomenon (if you play fantasy football those dreaded four letters on any notification mean trouble). The running back by committee seems to be working nowadays. Football is a sport of specification and special skills by position. And team successes like New England’s or Atlanta’s got a lot of decision makers trying to imitate that recipe.
There is reason behind that rhyme though. It doesn’t mean that they are right, just that everything has a logical explanation. Running backs are the heart of smash mouth football. They collide. Usually with 300 pound defensive linemen who look like they escaped from a fighting cage. And they get hit. Often. And they get concussed. And they miss games. And usually -unfortunately so- they have shortened careers. I guess you follow the lead…
Apart from that, these days the NFL is a TV spectacle and nothing is more spectacular than the forward pass. The bomb. The long play. Cue to the primadonna wide receiver and his nemesis: The shutdown corner. That’s where the fat pay checks go. Thats your highlight reel makers. It’s like the wide receiver is the director of the blockbuster and the running back the poor special effects guy who stays over a pc rendering for hours, so that an explosion or a monster look realistic.
But all that looks to be put aside. And baring an unexpected setback the new running back era in the NFL is here to stay. Courtesy of the last three draft classes that included Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, Jordan Howard and of course the 2017 draft class who is amazing on its own right. Leading the way is Kareem Hunt, who started with a fumble and then crumbled the record books, Leonard Fournette, who backed up his early proclamation that the NFL is easy (!), Alvin Kamara, who’s playing the complimentary role of the newly formed two headed monster in the Big Easy, Dalvin Cook, who had a chance to flash his skills before his season ending injury, Run CMC (Christian McCaffrey), who i’m sure will find his way, in a team who tries to find its way and the list goes on and on (Aaron Jones ran for 129 yards in Jerryworld, Tarik Cohen and Samaje Perine work their way into their teams’ playbooks).
What explains this turnaround? For starters, all these young stars can catch the ball off the backfield. Thus solving problems their head coaches might have (and fantasy owners too…). The Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk phenoms are now a common theme for any young buck who dreams of an NFL chance. Those skills are a must. And so is the ability to pass protect. Apart from the athletic skills which undoubtedly are more and more jaw-dropping, the ability to have an extra guy on the blitz is priceless.
The other thing is this. And its based on just an observation of someone who has never played football but watches franticly. The running back is the player who relies more on instincts, vision, momentary flash, improvising on the fly and less on playbook knowledge, reading defences before the snap, religious route running and devotion to be on the same page with the… orchestra director. All that make an acquisition of a young raw talent easier to adjust than a Tight End for example. The latter has to learn both to prorect his QB and to receive passes from him. That’s why most of them are late bloomers.
So lets enjoy our newfound NFL reality. Where young running backs are the new treat of their new town. Where Gurley or Hunt can catch a 40 yard slant and take it to the house. Where Zeke (when on the field) makes Dak better by picking up blitzes and rack up first downs. And of course where the team without a player with that skillset, keeps dreaming of landing Saquon Barkley come next draft in Dallas.