Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith (center) laughs with running back Steven Jackson (39) and wide receiver Roddy White (84) during Minicamp at Falcons Training Complex. (USA TODAY Sports: Dale Zanine)
Don’t be fooled by rumors that running backs are becoming extinct in pro football. Based on analysis from reporters on every team, there are plenty of backs able to supply excitement in the NFL.
The demise of the running back’s importance on NFL teams has been greatly exaggerated. Too much has been misconstrued based on isolated factoids that are twisted to fortify inaccurate points.
Topping the NFL’s list of runners is the Minnesota Mensch, Adrian Peterson, whose brutal style defies the laws of physics and human endurance. Hard on his heels is Philadelphia’s entertaining LeSean McCoy, whose abilities and the coaching of Chip Kelly are a match made in football heaven.
The next tier includes Kansas City workhorse Jamaal Charles and Seattle’s not-so-subtle Marshawn Lynch, whose work is aptly nicknamed Beast Mode. Then a step lower are Matt Forte, Chicago’s Mr. Versatility, then Washington’s Alfred Morris and San Francisco’s Frank Gore, who managed his seventh 1,000-yard rushing season in eight years in 2013. Can he possibly do it again?
Those are the more-or-less elite names that are often tossed around, but by no means the only runners with talent. There are others with enormous talent who, if they can overcome age, injury or a recent down trend, can steal the show at any moment. They include Chris Johnson, now of the New York Jets, who still thinks he can put the 2k in CJ; Houston’s injury-hampered Arian Foster, Oakland’s maybe/maybe not over-the-hill twosome of Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew, Baltimore’s perplexing Ray Rice, and Philadelphia’s always dangerous new sidekick for Jackson, Darren Sproles.
Even beyond those fairly well-known names there are talents that might blossom in 2014 just because they may get a chance. Buffalo’s depth chart is probably stronger than so-called conventional wisdom dictates as incumbents C. J. Spiller and Fred Jackson may not be that much better than free-agent acquisitions Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown, who were previously stuck behind Gore and McCoy, respectively. Dixon is more than a pure power back and Brown has the full array of God-given physical ability that many backs only dream of.
So take time to enjoy those players before being suckered into the mindset that running backs are heading to extinction in the NFL. Yes, the passing game has taken over, with a series of rules to help it out while runners are still eligible to be legally beaten to a pulp.
But history shows that victory is not guaranteed through the air. There must be troops on the ground. This country bombed Vietnam to smithereens, but with the infantry unable to gain a foothold, it was all for naught.
Last season Denver edged Dallas, 51-48, as Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning threw for 414 yards and four touchdowns and Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had 506 yards and five scores. But although Dallas once led by 14 and Denver by 15, neither team seemed to have enough confidence or conviction to allow its foot soldiers to run down the clock in the interest of victory.
So there is plenty of ammo for the nabobs of negativity to shoot down the current importance of the running back if they want. For the first time in history, no running backs were drafted in the first round in 2013 and then again this year. And some of the best runners in the league today were bargain-basement finds either overlooked or almost so in the draft — Washington’s Morris, as a sixth rounder; Houston’s Foster and the New York Jets’ Chris Ivory, both undrafted.
Then in free agency, the average price to entice a running back to jump teams — or even stay with his own — averages only about $2.5 million a year, a paltry amount for star athletes these days.
But it is all just a coincidental blip in the history of running backs. The draft reflects college football’s swing to the passing game, even in almost-as-tough-as-the-NFL Southeastern Conference (Hello, Johnny Manziel). This year’s free-agent class was less than spectacular, headed by Johnson at $4 million plus per year for two years, then Donald Brown (San Diego), Toby Gerhart (Jacksonville) and Ben Tate (Cleveland) at about $3.5 million per season.
Yet, as noted earlier, there are still plenty of talented running backs. And as defenses keep spreading wider to account for the pass, watch for some offense to swing the pendulum in the other direction and use runners to shred defenses who became too light and too fast. Oh, wait, Seattle did win the Super Bowl while in Beast Mode, right?
—RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Steven Jackson, FB Patrick DiMarco. Backups - Devonta Freeman, Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith, Josh Vaughn, Jerome Smith, FB Maurice Hagens, FB Roosevelt Nix.
Jackson suffered a soft-tissue injury for the third consecutive season in 2013 and may be nearing the end of his illustrious career. This time it was a hamstring injury. He didn’t rush for more than 1,000 yards, snapping a streak of eight consecutive seasons reaching that number. The Falcons appear set to see if there’s anything left in the tank. They did draft Freeman out of Florida State and made note of his ability to run between the tackles. Rodgers has been just a guy (3.6 yards per carry) in three seasons. Smith flashed in a backup role last season and Vaughan contributed on special teams. DiMarco is functional as a lead blocker.