Snapshot: A Quick Look Back at Why the Running Back Position Has Been In A State of Misfortune.
As always in the NFL their seems to be too much hype made of the next collection of superstar quarterbacks. Mahomes, Mayfield, and Sam Darnold are all being babbled about, but what about the future superstar running backs of the league? What happened to this once prestigious, and super stud filled position
What makes for great football? Big passing plays are always fun, watching a quarterback step through the pocket, throw a 69-yard pass, meanwhile, the wide receiver must make an outrageous hurdle as if he were LeBron and catches the pigskin torpedo with one stretched out a hand for a touchdown.
It doesn’t matter if you are a casual NFL viewer or alive or a die-hard fan. Both groups of People love dingers, you know, the big play!
However, this is only half of the tactics that can capture an amazing highlight play on offense. There happens to be a position on the offense that does not get as much attention as wide receivers or quarterback. This group of players has the shortest careers in the league, are treated much like cattle (at least a little more than the average NFL player), paid one of the lowest salaries, and play one of the most at risk positions for life lingering injuries post retirement.
Of courses, the group of players I have been describing is the running back. After that description, you would want your child to go into the porn industry rather than becoming an NFL halfback.
The Power of Coach
This era in football can be traced back to the man who played a significant role in devaluing running backs. Mike Shanahan, the man once called a quarterback guru, when he was a head coach he never drafted a running back in the first round. This is significant for a couple reasons:
Think way back. In the 1995, when Shanahan was named the head coach of the Broncos. At this time, NFL teams really relied on the running game. Remember: most quarterbacks did not have many complex route patterns to throw, there were a lack of specialists receivers, talented and enormous size receivers were not common, enforcement of contact against receivers running across the middle of the field helped offenses a lot, and now a large number of new schemes are being drawn up for quarterbacks today more than ever.
Try and wrap your mind around this: A running backs use to be the face of the NFL. Barry Sanders had a motor, unlike anything that was ever seen in the motor city. Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, Terrell Davis, all running back superstars. All these players were looked at as the faces of their franchises and are among the most popular players to ever play. Shanahan did not buy any running back stock, and it’s hard to argue with his rushing results.
Shanahan had 12 running backs that ran for over 1,000 yards. 6 of those running backs had rushing seasons that went over 1,500 yards. While statically the numbers are impressive, is import to remember that Shanahan did not value the running back position all too well.
Shanahan started a strong trend in the NFL. A trend that is all too much alive in the current league, I call it the Disposable Phone Trend. Just as some people buy a prepaid phone to handle “business transactions,” and then throw said phone into a lagoon, that same idea transfers over as to what Shanahan did to running backs.
Sure Mike Shanahan did a good job getting talented players that were looked over by other NFL teams, and yes he did get the most out of his running backs, but there is a very convincing argument to be made that perhaps he asked too much out of his half-backs. For example, in 1998 Terrell Davis played his 4th season in the NFL and ran for over 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns. This was the most productive season of his career. However, in just four seasons he had accumulated a ridiculous 1,343 carries. This overuse of Davis proved to be desaturase. The next 3 seasons of his career were retiled with injuries, he never would play 8 or more games again, which lead to his retirement. He played 7 seasons in the NFL.
Shanahan also was not too pleased of paying his running backs. Clinton Portis was one of the players that Shanahan found potential where other NFL executives did not. Drafted in the second round, Clinton Portis outperformed everyone’s expectations and proved once again the amazing evaluation skills of Mike Shanahan. Portis rushed for 1508 yards in his rookie year, and in his sophomore season he racked up 1591 yards. This man was on his way to becoming the next legendary running back in the NFL. And Portis knew it. Portis produced very fruitful results for Shanahan, and Portis wanted to receive payment that reflects his contribution to the team. On an unrelated note, Portis was placed in a blockbuster trade that sent him to the Redskins in exchange for fellow superstar Champ Bailey.
In a league that is known to copycat what is determined to be a good idea, it was not long before every team that did not have a Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, or some superstar at RB, that teams would foster a few good running backs that had specialties in some aspect or another. . Today’s teams often have specialty backs such as power backs (LeGarrette Blount), speed backs (Corey Grant), and receiving backs (Dion Lewis). Often a team will have two or three running backs on their roster, each of which has a specialty in something. The days of every team having a 3 down back that can only run into a pile of men for a few yards are gone. The number of players that can play running back and play it not great, but simply good enough for what offensive coordinators are looking for, has created a saturated market in the running back profession.
I am not saying that Shanahan was the first coach ever to overuse his running backs. I am also not saying he was the only coach to treat his running backs poorly. Here is what Shanahan did do. He was a fantastic scout, he understood who could play running back could, and who couldn’t. He was able to draft talented half backs that were passed upon by other teams. Other teams saw this as Shanahan just pulling running backs out of thin air when in reality, he had a good eye for talent, and great run blocking linemen. This is what creates the Disposable Phone Trend.
A highly respectable coach like Shanahan can set trends. This was a man who recorded the most wins in NFL history during a three-year era of pure dominance (46 in 1996–98). He won the most postseason games in the history of the NFL over a two-year period (seven, 1997–98). He has the highest winning percentage in Denver history (.646) and most wins in Denver history (138). People want to copy success, and this guy was a success.
He proved to the NFL that you don’t need to use high draft picks on running backs, oh and you don’t have to pay them much either. Get a better GM, get a better scouting staff, if your team drafts an HB with a high pick.
If a running back asks for money, either doesn’t pay him or just trade him away. After all, you can always find a back that is only a little bit less talented than the other expensive running back.
Of course, there are exceptions to this, just as there are with anything. But, the market for running backs is now one of the lowest paid positions in the league, behind punters and kickers!
This is the power a coach can have, reshaping an entire landscape of a position both financially, and in terms of relevance. Will it ever recover? Perhaps the pendulum will make a dramatic swing from QB to RB, but I wouldn’t count on that. The only way any significant change can happen is by following what Le'Veon Bell is doing.
After watching his former Michigan State teammate Kirk Cousins reshape granted money for top-tier quarterbacks, Le'Veon Bell is also looking to make a similar change for top-tier running backs. As of today, this is the best hope for current and future running backs.
If Le'Veon Bell does not succeed in reshaping the market it, then in a couple years we can say goodbye to plays and performances like this: