Much has been written recently about the decreasing importance and ultimate devaluation of the running back position in the NFL. It was a central theme in March and April leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft, primarily when it came to the evaluation of former Alabama star Trent Richardson. Almost everyone agreed that Richardson was an outstanding prospect; many felt he was a special talent. I know some teams had him rated as the best overall player on the board. Yet, many believed strongly that Richardson should not be drafted in the top 10, despite universally high grades.
This devaluation mindset has continued through the summer with Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice and Matt Forte — all outstanding (and versatile) feature backs feeling underappreciated by their respective teams, despite top-level production over time. The Jaguars, Ravens and Bears don’t seem willing to pay up. It appears they just don’t want to commit their offense to a running back, regardless of performance and — in most cases — durability.
Why would an outstanding back, a true foundation back, not be seen as the building block of an NFL offense, and by extension, an entire team?
The more important question, the one that places the conversation in a larger context, is: Why do teams choose not to structure offense around a great runner, as was the accepted model for so many years? Clearly, organizations and coaches have decided that is not the most effective way to play offense. Money always dictates the reality, and the reality is this: Thirty of 32 teams entering 2012 have quarterbacks either drafted in the first round or playing under a contract worth at least $20 million guaranteed. The only two teams that don’t fall into that category are the Cincinnati Bengals with Andy Dalton (and Dalton certainly looks like he has a chance to be a higher-level quarterback) and the Seattle Seahawks. Although the signing of Matt Flynn signifies a meaningful investment in the position for Seattle (even if it’s only $10 million guaranteed).
Let’s delve into this. If you have a top-level quarterback — let’s say Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Eli Manning or Drew Brees — you have a much larger margin for error throughout the rest of your team. A top-tier signal caller can compensate for both offensive flaws and defensive weaknesses. The Packers, Patriots, Giants and Saints all ranked in the bottom third of NFL defenses in 2011, with Green Bay and New England fielding the two worst defenses in football. We can debate potential explanations (big leads, etc.), but the film clearly showed deficiencies. And those inadequacies would have been further exposed, in fact laid bare in the form of defeats, if the quarterbacks were not capable of both camouflaging and compensating for them, week in and week out.
We know there are always exceptions. Certainly, the San Francisco 49ers come to mind. Alex Smith, once the first overall pick in the draft, threw the least amount of interceptions of any 16-game starter, but the more illuminating metric is that he attempted the fewest passes. The 49ers had a +28 turnover ratio in 2011; that kind of differential is more exception than rule. They had a top-five defense in terms of yards allowed, although I believe, based on film study, it was the best in the league. Only two teams ran the ball more. And lastly, their special teams play was outstanding. Smith was not required to mask and overcome weaknesses in other areas. The opposite was much closer to the truth: The play calling recognized — and minimized — Smith’s limitations, and the overall excellence of the rest of the team propelled the 49ers to their fine season.
This is really a discussion about the evolution of offensive thinking through the years. An NFL once defined by the running game is now undeniably a passing league. The shift took place over time, and the reasons are too many to enumerate here, though I would submit rules changes dating back to 1978 as the catalyst. That was the year in which both pass-coverage and pass-blocking rules were liberalized to benefit and enhance the passing game.
There are other strategic factors, as well. Think of it this way: When you run the ball as your offensive starting point, you shorten the game, since the clock continues to move; when you pass the ball, you lengthen the game, since incompletions stop the clock. Fewer plays when you run, more plays when you pass. In addition, completed passes, based solely on percentages, consistently gain more yards than running plays. The addendum is that you are far more likely to generate explosive plays (20-plus yards) throwing the football than running it. Thus, you give yourself greater opportunity to score touchdowns when you pass.
Teams that feature the run as their foundation generally don’t score as many points. They tend to play closely contested games that are within one score in the fourth quarter. Those kinds of games can be decided by one play. In fact, too often better teams lose to less-talented teams simply because the game is close and that single play becomes magnified. That’s a tough way to play every week. But that’s the profile when you’re a running team built around a great back. Your margin for error as a team is very small, which is exactly why you have to be extremely good in all phases, like the 2011 49ers. That’s very difficult in today’s NFL.
In fact, I strongly believe most organizations recognize that kind of team-building is not truly viable in the salary-cap era. That’s not the best approach to compete for championships. You will not consistently beat the top quarterbacks and the top offenses by playing conservative football, with the emphasis on shortening the game, and as a result, limiting the opposing offense’s snaps. I always debated this with coaches as it pertained to Peyton Manning. For years, the Indianapolis Colts had the fewest overall possessions in the NFL, usually eight or nine per game. That’s great as an abstract number. But they would score touchdowns on three, four or five of them. If your offense controlled the ball, and the clock, but did not score touchdowns, as was often the case, then all you’ve accomplished is shortening the game for yourself. You get fewer opportunities to score and you’re not built to aggressively attack with the passing game. It’s a catch-22 that ultimately fails.
The pass cannot primarily be a reactive tactic, used in long-yardage situations against defenses specifically designed to stop it, both from a pressure and coverage standpoint. It’s too hard to sustain offense that way. You must be proactive throwing the ball, without regard to down and distance. You can do that out of base personnel (1 RB and 2 TE or 2 RB and 1 TE) or you can do it out of multiple-receiver sets and shotgun spread formations. That’s not as important as the simple fact of attacking aggressively with the pass.
Yet, no matter how effectively you throw the ball in normal down-and-distance situations, you will face third-and-long. We all know that third down is the most important down in football for one reason: It’s the possession down. Those plays inherently take on greater significance. Make no mistake, third-and-long is the quarterback’s down. He has to make tough throws, often in tight windows, against the best of what defensive coordinators have to offer. If you do not have a quarterback who can do that, you have no chance to contend for anything meaningful. That may be the single most consequential reason the quarterback must be the centerpiece of both your offense and your entire team. You cannot structure your offense around a running back and a running game … and then expect your quarterback to make difficult reads and throws in the most critical and demanding situations. That’s totally unrealistic.
This is not meant to intimate that a quality running game has no value. Certainly the ability to run the ball well is a necessary part of good offense. This speaks more to the relative importance of the two positions in creating and maintaining winning offense. The quarterback’s efficiency must be the No. 1 priority, not the running back’s — no matter how special the running back may be. Different quarterbacks require different approaches, but it does not alter the essential point. No matter how special your running back is, he does not have the same impact as a quarterback. That’s the ultimate irony for Jones-Drew, Rice and Forte.