Imagine being a high caliber running back in the NFL. You’re known for being a bruiser, always making it tough on defenses when they try to tackle you.
Now imagine this…..
It’s the Super Bowl and your team is down 28-24 with 26 seconds left to go and the ball is on the one yard line. At this point everyone across America has the same thought of where the ball will be going. Now enter the mind of a running back—this situation is ideal; everything you ever wanted and asked for. You have the chance to score the go ahead touchdown to help your team win a Super Bowl. Nothing will stop you at this moment.
You’re in the huddle waiting to get the play call and for some odd reason your coach calls a pass. It may be baffling but as a good teammate you run the play as called—besides, if all fails, you’ll have two more downs to be the hero.
As the quarterback hikes the ball, everything seems to unfold in slow motion as the unthinkable happens….
The ball is intercepted and your chances of not only being a hero but also being a Super Bowl champion are shattered.
This was the story for Marshawn Lynch during Super Bowl 49 when the Seattle Seahawks were defeated by the New England Patriots.
After watching that series of events unfold, I really took some time to sit back and question, “How valuable is an NFL running back nowadays?”
Over the last few years or so I’ve considered the NFL to be more of a passing league than anything. Respect to all quarterbacks around the league, it’s a hard job and there is a lot to go along with it. Nowadays, the more common offenses you see on the field are centered around the spread rather than pro-style, in which it isn’t uncommon to see a QB attempt 50 passes or so during a game. Not only that, but a QB’s part of the game has evolved into dual threat options, so that they are able to rely on their feet just as much as their arms—which, once again, takes away from the value of running back.
When you select a quarterback for your team, you look for him to be the face of your franchise. There was once a time when running backs were looked at the same way—to have longevity and to be able to lead your team to a Super Bowl. I remember watching “Remember the Titans” as a kid, and being drawn to this one particular scene that has stayed with me to this day, in which the players are doing roll call. One player stood out to me more than anyone with his reply, “Petey Jones. Running back, the running back y’all.” I miss this sense of pride for the position that was once played a bigger role in the game. The difference now is that with the game evolving and players becoming bigger, faster, and stronger, running backs take more of a beating now than ever, which makes players in the RB position more expendable.
My concern about the issue is this… I truly think the value of a running back has gone down. In today’s game it’s more common to see a running back be more of an asset to his teams passing game than their running game. While at the end of the day I enjoy good football so I don’t mind seeing this, I miss the days where I could see running backs like LaDanian Tomlinson score 28 rushing touchdowns in a season (which is an NFL record).
I’m a big fan of two running backs in the NFL; Ezekiel Elliot and Le’Veon Bell (I’m opposed to popular opinion so Zeke tops my list) because I feel as though these two competitors hold on to the mold of what a running back is supposed to be in a league that has catered to an air attack over the years. They are complete backs, and by complete I only mean in the sense of running the ball.
Here are some key points I’d like to touch on about the two.
To be honest, in my athletic career I was always a running back and a fan of Ohio State, so this section may come off as biased, but I promise that it is strictly coming from the side of me that is simply a fan of the game itself. Ezekiel Elliot possesses the features of a running back that I haven’t seen in a while. Although a lot of credit must be given to his outstanding offensive line, this kid deserves just as much praise. In my eyes, he has the combined skill, strength, speed, and agility all in one, where most other running backs lack in at least one, if not more, of those categories. When I watch him run, it almost gives me a feeling of nostalgia; it reminds me of the reason I chose to play the position.
As a Redskins fan, of course I was upset when Zeke was drafted by the Cowboys. However, one thing that I was sure of was that he was going to be Offensive Rookie of the Year. Though he conceded the award to his fellow teammate quarterback Dak Prescott, I still think he deserved the award more than anyone else.
My argument for Zeke winning the award is based upon what he did last year as a rookie to contribute to a very effective rushing attack. I honestly never saw a reason for having him come off the field, ever. His style of running downhill, between the tackles, is something that isn’t coached anymore. Last season he was the NFL rushing leader with 1,631 yards along with 15 touchdowns, and despite his team, I never once got fed up with watching him carry the ball.
Some may argue that what he did was very much expected, considering he was a first round draft pick, but I don’t believe that they could’ve argued that he would rise to the level that he did. You had a 21 year old kid literally come out and make us as viewers remember what the definition of smash mouth football was. In the fourth quarter, Dallas’ offense still relied on his running ability, no matter what the score was. Also, his playing time wasn’t contingent on what he could do in the passing game to compliment his running abilities compared to how most of these other running backs try to make themselves more marketable. He embodied the name of his position “running back,” which is something that other players within this position in the league have a hard time of doing. While to each their own, it’s still a pet peeve of mine when a running back is being utilized in a passing game just as if he were a receiver.
Over the past couple years it was hard for me to get excited over the run culture in the NFL. Not taking away from his accomplishments, even while Adrian Peterson was at his peak in performance, I still think his game lacked a downhill dominance that I’ve seen from Zeke. The ultimate difference between these two is that Peterson choose to run around you rather than through you, which he was more than capable of doing. Nothing is wrong with that, and I still consider him to be one of the best to do it, but I think his running style was more accredited to his freakish human nature and abilities. With that being said, ten times out of ten, in a pool of running backs that I’ve watched over the years, I’m taking Zeke all ten times—and remember, this is solely based on what I’ve seen from his rookie season.
To convince you all that my approach is unbiased, I will now discuss my thoughts of a player with which I have no ties to—Le’Veon Bell. Ironically, the style that Bell has that makes him such an impactful player is somewhat of a contradiction to what makes me a fan of Zeke. With that being said, I’m going to disregard everything that he contributes in his teams passing game (which is actually more productive than any other running back in the league) and focus strictly on his running style.
Growing up as a kid and playing running back, every year, every practice, every game, and every film session I always remember my coaches having three rules for carrying the ball: be patient, follow your blockers, and don’t stop your feet. The thing about these three rules is that they all are more so based on instincts than something that can be coached. In Le’Veon Bell’s case, he only follows two of these three rules because his instincts are unmatched.
When I watch Le’Veon Bell play, every time he breaks a big run and they show the replay, I always try to break it down and check off those instinctual rules as they happen. Without a doubt, he always makes it through the first two with no question but I can never check off the third rule, don’t stop your feet. This is what amazes me the most about him. While I think Zeke’s running back abilities are based more on his skill set for the position, I feel that Le’Veon’s abilities are more based on his instincts. His instincts have become second nature to him so much so that because he follows the first two rules so perfectly, he can break the third and stop his feet, all the while still knowing how the play is going to develop right before him.
Bell is inventing a new style of running back, and what makes it so exclusive is that I honestly do not think there is another player in the league that I have seen yet that has been able to emulate what he has created. While it may seem like he is more of a scat back because of this, once he is able to pick where exactly he wants to go, he is able to plant a foot and get up field the same way Zeke does when he first receives the handoff. Once he is able to do that, I’d consider his running style more balanced than anything. Another observation about Le’Veon Bell’s instinctual running style is that while he takes a new approach to how he runs the ball, he still doesn’t shy away from the more foundational downhill, between the tackles running style that I argue is what ultimately makes a player at the position legit. I didn’t want to bring up his abilities in the passing game, but I really hope Bell’s production in the backfield doesn’t diminish because of what he can provide. At that point there won’t be too many true complete running backs left.
After playing the running back position for the majority of my life, I’ve grown to not be a fan of a majority of the rushing attacks I’ve seen in the NFL. I understand times have changed, and the nature of the NFL is evolving, but I do believe that running backs are truly undervalued in today’s game. Call me old school, but now when I watch players at that position, I really try to evaluate them strictly on what they provide to their teams rushing attack rather than their passing game (besides blocking). Ezekiel Elliot’s running style stands out to me because he is resurrecting what a running back truly stands for in the NFL; what I would call a downhill, hard nose, between the tackles workhorse. Le’Veon Bell’s running style stands out to me because as progressive as he is in running style with his patience and stop ago ability, he also shows how much of a true running back he is in the same ways that I see from Zeke.
NFL.com contributed to this article