The decline of the running back: what does it mean?

4/26/13 in NFL   |   droth   |   127 respect

Coryell was the San Diego Chargers head coach in the late 70's and early 80's.  He arrived in a league that was dominated by hard-nosed, old-fashioned offenses centered around the I formation and power running with downfield passes sprinkled in.  He turned that formula on its head and introduced a strategy that revolutionized the game: the vertical passing game as the heart of the offense.  Then Bill Walsh came along and mastered the West Coast offense and the rest was history.

The game became more exciting and the quarterback position began to be recognized as the most important position in sports.  And gradually that change gets reflected at all levels of football.  More and more kids want to be Joe Montana, not Walter Payton.  So more kids are playing quarterback or wide receiver, rather than fullback and halfback.  

Hence, fewer elite running backs moving up the ranks and fewer running backs get taken early in the draft.  We really see the drop off of running backs in the first round of the draft in the middle part of the 1990's, roughly a decade and a half after the vertical passing game became the NFLs new big fad.  Coincidence?  I think not.

Dec 30, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA;  Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (28) against the Green Bay Packers at the Metrodome. The Vikings defeated the Packers 37-34. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY SportsIt's not that we don't value running backs anymore.  In fact, just this year we saw a super human running back in Adrian Peterson single-handedly carry his team to the playoffs and last year we saw theTrent Richardson taken with the third pick in the draft.  When there's a star running back we still value him like we'd value a star receiver or tackle, they're just few and far between these days.

Fads come and go and the longterm shifts in what is the "cool" position is fluid.  It might take another decade or two, but if the influx of corners and pass rushers start to make passing games less effective, perhaps the 2028 draft will be loaded with running backs and signal to some the death of the quarterback position.  Only time will tell.
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