Where Have All the Running Backs Gone?

A running back wasn't taken in the most recent NFL draft until the back end of the second round.

Surprising?

Not really, given where the pro game is going, as in the way of the CFL.

The Canadian Football League (CFL) is known to be a passing league with three downs, a wider field than the NFL one, and motion permitted from receivers moving forward prior to the snap.   Passing dominates and the running game is given lesser notice.

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Implicitly, statistical evidence recognizes the trend in current NFL offenses:  while not up to CFL standards yet, the rise in passing the ball to running it is incontestable. (See my column Present has a Past).  The NBC web site, Pro Football Talk, went so far as to designate running back as a "devalued position."    

Just a few weeks ago, Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach admitted:  "Now you really have to get someone out of college who can throw," noting that teams "throw the ball probably 30% more than we did." (*Wall Street Journal, *8/30/14)  According to *Dallas Morning News *columnist Rick Gosselin, Denver lined up in a shotgun formation 59 percent of the time last year.  You're in the shotgun today, you're going to come out throwing.  And San Francisco, which has built its recent reputation on the backs of a running game, has often gone to a five-receiver set this year. 

The usual response from coaches that offenses must be a balanced split of pass to rush will, in time, be hard to prove if the statistics continue to dictate otherwise.  Moreover, the NFL hierarchy shudders with thoughts of a game ending in a 7-0 outcome or, worse, a 3-0 one.  (Hey, some CFL followers worry when evidence turns up that their league's scoring is down by one or two points and in the 40s, which it is early on this year!)    The heady days where a dominant NFL running back would carry the ball 300 times over a season are fast coming to an end. Plus, many more backs are expected to feature a pass-catching component on their list of attributes. The headwinds are growing. Further evidence reveals that the age of productivity of running backs is shrinking to short of 29 years of age now.

Enjoy photos from the career of Chiefs Hall of Famer, Priest Holmes

If the league continues to head to more of a passing game – whether it is an evolution or a revolution - the need for corners, wide receivers, and pass rushers becomes greater than it does for running backs.

One does not have to expend many mental calories to understand that catching the football, covering those that do, and sacking those that get the ball to them are what teams now seek.  Kansas City's addition of a pass rusher and a cornerback with their first two picks of the 2014 college draft provides evidence, if anyone needs it.

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As for running backs, they can be picked up later in the draft, or so the thinking appears to follow…at least today it does. 

Stay tuned.

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