Cosell Talks: The Running Back Conundrum

From the Desk of Greg Cosell, Greg Cosell, Inside the Game

It has now been accepted as gospel in the new NFL that running back is no longer a position of great value. The argument is usually presented like this: it’s a passing league, driven by quarterback play. You must throw the ball often, and effectively, to win consistently. More often than not, the conversation ends there.

A cursory look at statistics reinforces that notion: more attempts, more completions, and more yards than at any point in NFL history. Why? Here are just a few of the reasons: more passing in high school and college than ever before, more spread formations, bigger and more athletic receivers and tight ends, changes in the rules that encourage and promote passing. A dissertation could be written on the evolution of the passing game in the last decade.

Trent Richardson (AP)

The corollary to this passing explosion has been the de-valuation of the running game, and running backs in particular. That argument takes this form: teams can’t compete for championships with the running game as an offensive foundation. In this era of yards and points, you won’t score enough to win important playoff games against top level quarterbacks and high-powered passing games.

As a conceptual paradigm, this makes sense. I don’t necessarily disagree. It’s why teams often reach for a quarterback in the draft. Yet, I don’t believe it’s so unambiguous. Like all things in football, it’s a function of probability. Nothing is 100%. You can argue that it raises more questions than it answers. What do you do offensively if you do not have one of those quarterbacks? Is there no correlation between a strong rushing attack and an explosive passing game? What impact does throwing the ball 35-40 times a game have on the rest of your team? There’s much to consider, and it’s not as simple as reciting the quarterback-driven league platitude.

This rant resulted from my extensive college film study over the past month preparing for the NFL draft. I believe the best player in this draft class is Alabama RB Trent Richardson, not Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III. Richardson is the best back to enter the NFL since Adrian Peterson in 2007. I know Richardson won’t be the first pick, and I know an elite quarterback is a far more important component. But as I said, there’s more to it than that.

Colt McCoy (AP)

Let’s transition from the philosophical to the practical, and look at some of the uncertainties I postulated a moment ago. The Cleveland Browns have the fourth pick this year. It appears Colt McCoy will be their quarterback. McCoy has limitations as a passer. He cannot threaten the entire field due to his average arm strength. Is it possible to put him in the shotgun as your foundation, and make first downs and sustain offense with the short quick rhythm pass game? Theoretically, yes. Is McCoy capable of that? Can he consistently execute a one-dimensional pass offense against defenses specifically designed to match up? How many quarterbacks can? Tom Brady, but he’s a Hall of Famer.

Why not draft Richardson, and add a sustaining, explosive run dimension? Think of it this way:  You align with run personnel in run formations with an elite runner. The tendency, in normal down and distance situations, will be for the defense to add that eighth player into the box. It’s always a numbers game. More defenders allocated to play the run, fewer in pass coverage. Better matchups in the pass game. Defined reads for the quarterback. You give McCoy a higher percentage chance to be efficient. I remember McCoy’s first start in his NFL career, against the Steelers in 2010. Play action was featured on first down, and it had success, against a very good defense.

Vincent Jackson (AP)

Let’s take it a step further. You’re the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the fifth pick in the draft, and you just signed Vincent Jackson. You have to understand where Jackson came from, and what he is as a receiver. He played for Norv Turner in San Diego. Turner is predominantly a base formation offensive coach. He utilizes “21” personnel (2 backs and 1 tight end) and “12” personnel (1 back and 2 tight ends). He is outstanding manipulating the safety as an add-in run defender. The result was a high percentage of what we call single high safety coverages, which is one safety in the deep middle of the field. Almost always, in that alignment, the corners play off coverage. Rarely do they play aggressive press man-to-man with only one deep safety.

That brings us back to Jackson. He’s a free access vertical receiver, a big long strider at his best when he’s able to release cleanly off the line of scrimmage. You put Richardson in the backfield, and you accomplish a number of things. First, you force the defense to defend the run first. You likely dictate eight in the box and single high safety coverages. Secondly, Jackson’s strengths as a deep receiver are maximized. It helps your passing game.

And this doesn’t even begin to address Richardson’s impact on the Bucs defense, arguably the NFL’s worst over the last half of the 2011 season. He’s a foundation back, a tempo setter for an offense. What that does is shorten the game. The clock moves when you run the ball. The ancillary benefit is your defense is on the field for fewer plays. A back like Richardson therefore not only makes your passing game better, he helps your defense.

For the Browns and the Bucs, and there are a number of other teams in similar situations (the Jets immediately come to mind), the value of a big-time runner cannot be overstated. It does not mean that Richardson is more important than an elite quarterback. But there are not many of those, and never will be. It’s a mistake to blindly accept the notion that running backs have less value in the NFL. Just like quarterbacks, it’s always a function of the player and the team.

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