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

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

The NFL has evolved into a passing league with a great emphasis on protecting the quarterback and attacking opposing quarterbacks, as we saw in the first round of the NFL Draft yesterday.  The Joe Flaccos and Tony Romos of the world are getting monster contracts, teams are using a running-by-committee approach, and last Feb 3, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco warms up before Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sportsyear, for the first time, picking a quarterback first in fantasy football wasn't a crazy move.

All of this seems to suggest the death of the running back position.  The fact that not a single running back went in the first round of the draft adds to this belief; teams simply don't value running backs like they used to.

But lets not write an obituary for running backs just yet.  Could it be possible that no running backs were taken in the first round because there simply weren't any great running backs, rather than this notion that you can plug and play any old running back and get comparable production?  

When there have been a bunch of talented running backs coming out of school, they've been taken in the first round.  Last year, three running backs were taken in the first round including Trent Richardson, who went third overall.  In 2008, five running backs were taken in the first round.  In 2011, only one running back was taken in the first round, Mark Ingram at 28.  It happened like that in 2011 because there just weren't highly-regarded running backs, not because backs were ignored based on their position.

Over the last ten drafts before this year's, there were 29 running backs selected in the first round.  So 9% of first round picks since 2003 have been running backs, while 9.6% have been quarterbacks and 11% have been offensive tackles.  

Peyton Manning in the 2000's, Tom Brady and the Patriots record setting offense in 2007, and Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers winning Super Bowls without a running game are seen as the proof of this shift away from the running game and evidence that the evolution will only become more pronounced.  

But the shift in focus towards the passing game is not a new phenomenon.  It has been creeping up on us for decades and suggests a long-term trend, not evidence that coaches and GMs don't value the running game anymore.

The numbers speak for themselves.  In the 1970's, the average NFL Draft saw 4.9 running backs go in the first round and in the 1980's, an average of five running backs went in the first round.  In the 90's, that number fell to 3.4 and in the 2000's it went down to 3.2.  I believe that all of it -- the lack of running back talent at the top of the draft, the fewer number of running backs drafted in general, the record numbers put up by quarterbacks in the last few years -- is all related and all can be traced back to one man: Don Coryell.

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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