Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Debunking the Death of the Running Back in the NFL

“With the first pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals select… Ki-Jana Carter, Running Back, Penn State University.”

This phrase undoubtedly sends chills through the spine of any self-respecting Cincinnati Bengals fan.  1995 was of course the last time a running back was selected with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. Making the cut even deeper is the fact that Curtis Martin was available until the 3rd Round, and Terrell Davis was available well into the 6th Round. Not to mention Warren Sapp, Ty Law, and Derrick Brooks were all taken later in the draft. Further proof that the NFL Draft is the ultimate crap shoot.

With no running back having been selected in the 1st Round for two drafts in a row, it is often asserted that the running back position is in perpetual decline in terms of relative importance. While there is certainly some credence to this statement, especially in light of the rule changes that favor the passing game, the position’s devaluation is being significantly over exaggerated.

Are teams really deemphasizing the importance of the running back position, or are they simply factoring in the Trent Richardson effect? Since he was selected in 2012 with the 3rd overall pick, teams haven’t selected a running back with anything higher than the 37th pick. Coincidence? I doubt it.

Not to mention the fact that running backs have the shortest average career length of any position, at 2.57 years. It’s hard to justify making a significant investment in a position with such a short shelf life. This does not mean they are any less valuable, but rather simply reflects a wiser investment model.

Saying that the running back is no longer relevant is, well, just wrong. There is plenty of proof that a top-tier running game is a prerequisite for a team’s success. Need proof? Last year was supposed to be the embodiment of the trivialization of the running game right? The reason why no team drafted a running back until 54th overall in this year’s draft.

Last year, 6 of the 12 NFL Playoff teams had individual players ranked in the top 12 for total rushing yards. 8 of those 12 teams were ranked in the top half of the league in team rushing yards. 10 of them were ranked in the top half of the league in rushing touch downs. 3 of the 4 teams that made it to their respective conference championship game were in the top 10 in total team rushing yards.

Not convinced? Maybe it’s more appropriate to look in the cellar to see who dwells there.

The worst rushing teams in the league last year were Miami, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New York Giants, Baltimore, Jacksonville, and Atlanta. Reads like a who’s who of decrepit and pathetic seasons doesn’t it? Needless to say, none of those teams made the playoffs.

As for the NFL Draft, sure it was the latest a running back has ever been selected. But, we should probably look a bit deeper to see what was really at play.

Over the past 10 years, the average number or running backs taken in the first two rounds of the draft is right around 5.5. In 2013, 5 were taken off the board by the end of round 2. In 2014, only 3. While that may seem like a case against my argument, maybe it’s actually because this year’s talent pool at that position was overwhelmingly average. There clearly was no transcendent, Adrian Peterson type of player available, so why waste an early pick? This same logic would hold for any position. And there really isn’t more to it than that.

So, next time you hear someone say that the running back is becoming immaterial, ask them what Marshawn Lynch meant to his team’s Super Bowl run. Ask them if Eddie Lacy made an impact for a Packers team that has been dying for a solid running game for years. Ask them if LeSean McCoy’s 100.4 yards per game took any pressure off their young and vulnerable quarterback.

Those are rhetorical questions. No need to answer. I’m out.


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