RB Extinction

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Are running backs an endangered species?

NFL football is undergoing a transformation.  It is no secret that teams have for many years been gradually passing the ball more and running the ball less.   The inevitable result has been a gradual decline in the draft position and bargaining power of running backs.  Consider the following chart, listing the average number of running backs chosen in the first round of the NFL draft over the last 34 years:

Decade

Annual Average Number of First Round Running Backs

1980's

4.8

1990's

3.2

2000's

3.1

2010's

1.8

As you can see, the 1990's, with the widespread use of the West Coast offense, saw a significant decrease in the number of first round running backs.  The 2000's saw things stabilize, only to be followed by another precipitous drop in the 2010's, which roughly corresponded with rule changes favoring the passing game.  In 2013, for the first time in NFL history, no running backs were chosen in the first round, and 2014 is likely to make it two years in in a row.

The league has largely moved away from a feature back system and towards a two or three back rotation system.  No NFL back averaged even 20 carries per game in 2013, and only five NFL backs averaged even 80 yards rushing per game.   The decline in the feature back system has led to an even more precipitous decline in running back star power, for lack of a better term.  The top five running backs in 2013 in terms of rushing yards were LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles, Alfred Morris and Adrian Peterson.  Which of those backs, outside of their team's metropolitan area, would ever be recognized by the average fan on the street?  Which of those backs, outside of possibly Peterson, would even have their name recognized by anyone who isn't a fairly serious football fan?  LeSean McCoy won the rushing title by a wide margin.  How many average Americans could answer that question correctly? How many of these backs have you ever seen in a major advertising campaign?  We have come a long way from the days of O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton, Bo Jackson, Eric Dickerson, Tony Dorsett, Barry Sanders, et al.  To put it bluntly, running back is no longer a glamor position.  Instead, the position is manned by increasingly anonymous and interchangeable role players who come and go with little in the way of recognition, endorsements or fame outside a very small world of hardcore football fans.

Further pushing running backs into the background is the rise of the running quarterback.  With quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Michael Vick garnering 6-10 carries a game, there are fewer carries to go around for the running backs, further diminishing their role in the modern NFL offense.  In addition, the best athletes at the schoolboy level used to be overwhelmingly shepherded into the running back position.  If a kid could throw and run better than the other kids, chances are he would gravitate toward being a running back, because being a quarterback would mean he'd be taught to stay in the pocket and give up his running.  In decades past the quarterback at the high school level would also nearly universally spend most of every game handing the ball off, only passing in third and long situations.  As a result, if you wanted to impact the game on the offensive side, running back was the place to be.  Those days are gone.  Now high schools are running sophisticated passing attacks, and high school quarterbacks are not being forced by coaches to stay in the pocket.  Now quarterback is the position where increasingly the best athletes are being placed, at the expense of the running back position.

With quarterbacks who run more, running backs who run less, and offenses which rotate backs freely, it was inevitable that the running back position would eventually take a hit in terms of compensation.  The 2014 free agency period produced evidence of a sea change in how teams value the running back position.  No position in football has seen such a rapid free fall in compensation than running back.  Veteran backs entering free agency in 2014 were uniformly forced into short term deals with minimal compensation and little guaranteed money.  Shockingly, even kickers are now paid on levels commensurate with solid, productive backs with years of productive play ahead of them.

The NFL's rookie wage scale has played a major role in this swift decline in running back compensation.  Running back is one of the only NFL positions where rookies are capable of stepping in and playing a feature role.  Unlike other positions, running backs face a minimal learning curve in the NFL.   Rookies usually need to learn to protect the QB in pass blocking roles.  Other than that, they're good to go, and by the second year most running backs are as good as they will ever be.   The result is running backs have their most productive years during the course of their below market compensation rookie deals.  They also take more punishment and have a shorter shelf life than nearly any other position.  The result is that unless you are one of the handful of elite, feature back types that are increasingly rare in the NFL, it has become a better financial investment in the eyes of NFL GMs to simply use you and replace you every four years.  Since as a running back you are now unlikely to be a first round pick, that means four years of laboring under near league minimum wages, during which you get beat up and the best years of your career are played out, after which if you're good and if you're fortunate you have a couple more years of kicker level compensation to look forward to before you are cast aside before the age of 30 in favor of the latest crop of college studs.

Given this state of affairs, the question for the elite athlete arises, why become a running back?  And the answer would appear to be, there really isn't much justification for that choice anymore.  If you can throw the ball, better to try to be a quarterback.  Quarterbacks have long careers, rarely get hurt, and make the  most money with the best earning power in terms of outside endorsements and other opportunities.  If you're a small, fast scatback type, why not become a defensive back?  They have much longer careers, get drafted in the first round, and get paid in free agency.  If you're a little bigger and can catch, why not become a wide receiver?  They have much longer careers, don't get beat up, and get paid in free agency.  If you're a bigger, stronger back, why not become an outside linebacker?   Bottom line, why would any elite athlete with options choose to become a running back these days?  Any athlete, parent, coach or mentor should take one look at the current state of affairs and try to find some other position to utilize the athlete's talents.  There is simply no rational basis for choosing to be a running back if you are an elite athlete, unless of course it is the only position in which you can compete at the highest level.

What does all this imply about the future of the running back position?  It would seem that we are looking at years of a constant talent drain from the position, as kids who can make it at any other position would be well advised to steer clear of becoming a running back.  As the position is inexorably drained of elite talent, NFL teams will value it even less, creating a negative feedback loop.  Will the position become extinct?  That is very unlikely.  Football still has a role for talented backs who can move the chains and drain the clock on a fourth quarter lead.  But absent some major rules changes that hurt the passing game, or revisions to the collective bargaining agreement that change the way running backs are compensated, it is difficult to see how the current trends will be reversed.  The days of the glamor back appear to be over.  Running backs appear to be in an irreversible slide into the realm of disposable role players, unloved stepchildren to be used for their cheap labor, chewed up and spit out by an NFL that has no more place for them at an otherwise sumptuous banquet hall.

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