Why Feature Runningbacks Can Never Go Extinct

“The NFL is now a passing league.”

I put quotes around that phrase even though I have no idea who actually coined it, who we are all repeating when we say it. Yet I seem to know it as a truth, as if it were something I learned as a kid in Sunday school. Everybody who writes about the NFL seems to say it about 234 times a week, but why?

Why, readers, does this statement seem to ring true? See if you recognize these common explanations.

  • Rules protecting defenseless receivers eliminate the fear of big hits from unseen defenders, so now more receivers are leaping through the air for catches, undeterred, while defenders have to run alongside and watch.
     
  • Players entering the league grew up in passing leagues and are therefore raised with pass-first instincts.
     
  • Video games like John Madden Football, where 500-yard passing games are commonplace, have raised everybody’s expectations, hence the rise of pass-happy “X-Box offenses” in places like New England, Green Bay, and New Orleans.
     
  • The public loves seeing long-bomb passes flying all over the field; they are so exciting.
     

I have read about the impressive statistical evidence. The 2011 season seemed to confirm the “passing league” portrayal, with two passers suddenly breaking Dan Marino’s single-season yardage record and two more falling short but still cracking the 5,000-yard threshold. A passer also set the single-season record for passer rating. This was pretty staggering.

 

If you accept that the NFL is now a passing league, you can deduce two more truths about the “new” NFL. First, that “Defense wins championships” is a saying of the past, given the new restraints on defensive players that free up passing. Second, that workhorse running backs will soon be extinct, given the superiority of X-box throwing to basic running.

But here is another list. This is a list of things my brain tries to tell me even though I try to ignore it. See if you recognize any of these.

  • 2011 was the “year of the pass,” but it was also the “year no team had an offseason to prepare because of a player lockout.” Notice what those record-breaking passers from last year all had in common? Almost zero turnover in their teams’ offensive skill players from 2010. Take talented passers with team continuity, pit them against the rest of the league in disarray, and guess what might happen?
     
  • Look how the “year of the pass” ended up. The pass-happy Packers racked up a 15-1 regular season record and gaudy pass statistics, then lost their first playoff game to the defensive-minded Giants. The pass-happy Saints lost to the defensive-minded 49ers. This led to an NFC Championship Game between two defensive-minded teams. The pass-happy Patriots did defeat the defensive-minded Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, but then they lost to the defensive-minded Giants in the Superbowl. Sure, the Giants had a strong passing attack too… but defense wins championships.
     
  • And look at 2012. No more gaudy passing statistics. There are still strong passing teams, not to mention some stellar rookie quarterbacks, but nothing seems out of whack like last year. Every team got a full offseason, and suddenly no single-season pass records are in jeopardy.
     

So much for “pass-happy” chuckling smugly at “defensive-minded.”

 

But what about the plight of running backs? Are the Minnesota Vikings doomed because Adrian Peterson is an obsolete creature, a dinosaur in a league of wooly mammoths? Do the 49ers just have to accept that Frank Gore is slowing them down? Are suave, poetry-writing hybrid runner-receivers like Arian Foster the only future for featured backs?

The Minnesota Vikings will not struggle because of Adrian Peterson; they may struggle because Adrian Peterson cannot play all 11 positions at once. Football is about skill and will. No matter what the play call, pass or run, the skill and the will of the team are what win.

Furthermore, it’s about time I get to the point of this article. I have something to say about this rumor that NFL fans are lovestruck by long-bomb passes every down. Watching Tom Brady or Drew Brees or Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers air it out 50 times a game can be fun. It can be. But it’s also something like empty calories. Here are my gripes in another bullet list.

  • Long passes tend to stress me out now, with all the additional rules protecting receivers. I don’t think a pass enters the air where I’m not gritting my teeth, waiting for flags to hit the grass. Pass plays are so legalistic these days. Fun is about release. Where is the release in that? True, this doesn’t happen when a quarterback hits an open receiver rather than one jockeying for position, but…
     
  • Sometimes the medium of television interferes. I will give you an example. I watch my Vikings play the Packers twice a year. Here is what I am used to seeing when Aaron Rodgers has the ball: The ball is snapped to Rodgers. The pocket almost immediately collapses. Rodgers rolls to his right, buying time. The camera follows him as he meanders toward the sideline. He’s looking up the field, to an area TV viewers can’t see. Finally he unloads a bullet, just as Jared Allen crashes down from behind. The camera swings laterally to keep the ball in frame, and suddenly a Packers receiver has the ball. A tackle occurs, and the play is over. What did viewers really see there? We saw Rodgers pass a ball to a person who essentially just appears from off screen. It tends to feel very random if you’re watching on TV and can’t see all the down-field activity.
     

Compare this to a carry by a running back. First, the entire play unfolds dead-center in the screen. It is very easy to follow with the eye, even if many people miss how the blocking springs the play.

 

But even better than that, even higher than that, what is a great running play? I contend that a great running play is routinely the most exciting play football has to offer. A great run by Adrian Peterson, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Gayle Sayers, Jim Brown, and the rest achieves what Jackie Chan pretends to do in movies. Go watch Jackie Chan’s Supercop. Amazing action movie, full of knick-of-time reactions and superhuman agility. All scripted and staged. Go watch this highlight reel of Adrian Peterson. Every fricking percent of that video is real. The NFL running back is the action hero of real life. Real knick-of-time reactions, real agility, real unlikely escapes. When a running back breaks a play, the fans are transfixed by the action. The initial chances can seem dim, then a brilliant cut or spin suddenly leaves the runner with daylight, and it feels like there has been a minor miracle. This past weekend, I watched the Vikings play the Packers at Lambeau Field. The Packers led 10-7, the Vikings had the ball, and Adrian Peterson took a handoff right. The Packers defenders swarmed to that side of the field. With very little field remaining before the sideline, it looked like a common 4-yard gain. A Packers defender leaped at Peterson, grasping around his waist – and Peterson shook him off. With another quick cut, more defenders skidded past him, grasping at air. I went from watching a common 4-yard run to watching the longest run of Adrian Peterson’s career, all because of the real-time genius of his athleticism and vision. I’m not just being a homer here.

Watch this if you’ve never watched Jim Brown run before. Here is Walter Payton. Here is Gayle Sayers. Here is Ray Rice. And of course, here is Barry Sanders. Long-bomb passing plays are fun (especially when they end in helmet catches) – but really, NFL? You think passing offense is all people want to see? Is that why Adrian Peterson was recently voted the third best player in the NFL?

If running backs go extinct, I don’t know if I will take the game as seriously any more. A great passer is great to watch too, but nothing seems so impossible as one man with the football jumping headlong into the center of a defense and living to tell the tale. Those are the plays I talk to my friends about at the end of the game. They’ll be the ones I tell my son about when he’s older. And that is exactly why, if there is an Adrian Peterson out there with the ability, there is an NFL team out there for him, no matter what kind of “passing league” it is.