Star RBs might soon become ancient history
You remember Chris Johnson, don't you? He burst onto the NFL scene in 2009 with the fifth 2,000-yard rushing season in league history.
As his Tennessee Titans get ready to play host to the Steelers tonight in Nashville, Tenn., Johnson is the 25th-ranked rusher in the league and barely mentioned when it comes to identifying the top backs in the game today.
A lot can change in three years. After rushing for 2,006 yards in his milestone year, he ran for 1,364 in '10 and 1,064 a year ago. Through the first five weeks this season, he has 210.
Johnson's carries have decreased every season since '09. He had 358 carries that season followed by 316 in '10 and 262 last year. He is on pace for 233 this season.
Other backs around the league are getting the same treatment. Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, regarded by many as the top back in the league, has seen his carries decrease each of the past four seasons. After rushing for a career-high 1,760 yards in '08, Peterson has not reached 1,400 yards since.
Their recent histories raises a question: Are there any star running backs in the NFL today?
Johnson and Peterson are former first-round draft picks, which might soon be as rare as a 2,000-yard rushing season.
There has been a gradual de-emphasis on the running game for years in the NFL as teams have drafted quarterbacks higher and invested more money in them. The Titans and Vikings drafted quarterbacks in the first round last season.
Jake Locker and Christian Ponder were two of four quarterbacks drafted among the top 12 picks in '11. In April, four quarterbacks were selected in the top 22, including the first two choices --Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.
The opposite is true for running backs.
In '11, one running back was taken in the first round -- Mark Ingram with the No. 28 pick by the New Orleans Saints. It was the latest a running back had been chosen in the first round since the '70 merger.
In April, only one running back was among the top 30 -- No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson.
"Running backs just aren't much of a factor anymore," said Gil Brandt, a former team executive with the Dallas Cowboys now a columnist at NFL.com. "Teams think they can get running backs in the later rounds or guys who were undrafted. And those types of guys have been pretty good."
The top five rushers in the league so far this season are Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, Houston's Arian Foster, Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, Washington's Alfred Morris and New England's Steven Ridley.
Only Lynch was drafted in the first round. Foster was an undrafted free agent and Morris a sixth-round pick.
Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson first came into the league in '99, and he has witnessed how the game has changed in recent years. He said it's not that the skills of running backs have diminished as much as their skills have changed and their opportunities to produce have decreased.
"They're not asked to carry it a lot anymore," Wilson said. "That's because of the offensive systems some of the running backs are playing in. Today's emphasis is so much on the pass that you're not going to have the patience to have a running back run it 22 to 27 times a game like you have in years past, like Earl Campbell in the '70s and Walter Payton in the '70s and '80s.
"Even when I came in the league, you still had Thurman Thomas and guys who carried it 20-25 times a game. You had Curtis Martin. You had Edgerrin James, Emmitt Smith, Stephen Davis. Now you have guys carrying it 12-17 times a game.
"In today's climate, I don't know if the NFL culture is patient enough to allow a running back to be a featured player anymore. It's not cool in some people's eyes to see that brand of football. You still have a handful of teams that believe in a balanced offense and get runners who carry it 17-22 times a game, but, in today's climate, it's hard to get that."
Wilson said he is coaching a different type of back today than a decade ago. That is due to a fundamental change in the way the game is being coached at the high school and college levels.
In the late '90s and early 2000s, spread offenses became popular in high school and college. It started small, but, when teams started to have great success, others began to copy it.
It's to the point now the majority of teams in college football are running the spread offense or some variation of it to fit their system.
"The 7-on-7 passing camps at the high school level have developed players that suit the passing game," Brandt said. "At Oklahoma, which at one time was the bastion of the running game, in 2010, they threw the ball 633 times. They didn't throw it that much in the entire decade of the 1960s."
The NFL has felt the trickle-down effect. Teams have incorporated some spread influences into their offenses, but most still run a traditional pro-style offense. That has made it challenging for general managers and coaches to find running backs to plug into their systems.
"It's hard because, when you evaluate guys, you don't know if they're going to be able to read things from an I-formation," Wilson said. "They're used to running sideways and having the decision already made for them basically because of the numbers count. So, when you get into this league, it's an adjustment for them because they've been running that offense from the time they've been 7 and 8 years old.
"You can't all of a sudden flip that switch and now they're reading plays from an I-formation, putting the pieces together, making the decision and putting the ball in the proper place. It is a work in progress, but these guys are such great athletes. They can adapt. It just takes them a little bit longer than it has in the past."
It's not only the running backs that are changing. The colleges are producing different types of offensive linemen, too.
The linemen entering the NFL today are typically stronger pass-blockers than run-blockers because that's what they did most in college. This was not the case a generation ago.
"Eight rookie offensive linemen started on opening day this year," Brandt said. "Ten years ago, it would take two years to become a starter because linemen had to be trained. Now these guys come into the league and start because they're pass-protectors."
The previous time the NFL's leading rusher played for a Super Bowl winner was '98 when Denver's Terrell Davis ran for 2,008 yards.
The past four Super Bowl champions did not have a 1,000-yard rusher. The leading rusher for the New York Giants last season was Ahmad Bradshaw with 659 yards, the lowest total for back on a Super Bowl-winning team in a non-strike-shortened season since the '81 San Francisco 49ers.
Former Steelers running back Merrill Hoge, an analyst for ESPN, has been a champion of the running game in recent years, even when teams have gone away from it in a big way. He was a lone voice in the wilderness for a few years, but some early trends this season suggest he had a point all along.
Hoge believes the running game is making a comeback this season, and his case in point is New England. After failing to win a Super Bowl since '04, Hoge said Patriots coach Bill Belichick is rediscovering the importance of offensive balance.
Through the first five weeks of the season, the Patriots are ranked third in the league in rushing with 165 yards per game. Only Kansas City and San Francisco have rushed for more yards.
"They run the football as well as anyone in the league," Hoge said. "Just watching how they run the football, they have more creativity and balance in their running game this season. To win Super Bowls, you have to be balanced. The last time they won the Super Bowl they had Corey Dillon. They haven't won a Super Bowl being the one-dimensional team they were the past few years."
Dillon had 1,635 yards in '04. Hoge is convinced Belichick changed his approach because of the Patriots' recent playoff failures. He believes the tipping point came last year after the Steelers and Dallas Cowboys set the blueprint by playing five and six defensive backs for the entire game against the Patriots. Hoge said the Steelers never had any concern about stopping the run in their 25-17 victory at Heinz Field.
"They worried about one thing and that was the passing game," Hoge said.
The Giants had the same approach in their two victories against the Patriots last season, including a 21-17 victory in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots of this season relish when teams attempt to play them with five and six defensive backs. When that happens, they line up and play smashmouth football.
Ridley is the fifth-ranked rusher in the NFL. In a game against the Buffalo Bills last month, Ridley and Brandon Bolden became the first New England tandem to rush for 100 yards in the same game in more than 20 years.
"If you play the Patriots with five or six defensive backs now, they say, 'Good, we're going to gash you until you bring your regular personnel back on the field.' " Hoge said. "Then, when you do that, we're going to throw again."
Ridley was a third-round pick out of LSU in '11. Bolden is a rookie free agent from Mississippi. They might never sniff the Hall of Fame, but they fit the system.
Hoge agreed that star running backs who are featured players in offenses might be a thing of the past, but he is convinced now more than ever that having a strong running game is paramount to having a championship team.
In addition to the Patriots, he pointed to the run-oriented Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers as proof that the running game is coming back into vogue.
"I know there has been this drought or this transition in the league with the running game for a few years now, but this will never be just a passing league," Hoge said. "If you look at all of the 5-0 or 4-1 teams in the league, everything is set from their ground game."
First Published October 11, 2012 12:00 am