A league-mandated focus on Defensive Pass Interference penalties. The diminished strike zone for a defensive player to hit the QB (or anybody with the ball, really). The evolution of the tight end from a block-first position to a big-body pass-catcher.
Whether it be changes set forth by the league, or adaptations by NFL teams, with every passing year, the consensus opinion is that the league is becoming more offensive minded, primarily focusing on the passing game. And with that logic comes the assumption that the running back position no longer carries the value it once did in the old run-heavy schemes that your father and grandfather grew up with.
But are running backs really going the way of the fullback? Or is the position simply evolving?
While the phrase “Running backs are a dime a dozen” is constantly thrown around these days, the perception that their value has diminished in a league geared more towards the pass may be a flawed one that deserves further review.
Based on league averages, it’s easy for any fan of the game to see the fall in the running game. Looking at the past three seasons alone, the league has seen rushing yards fall from 59,350 yards in 2012 down to 57,000 in the 2014 season. 2,350 yards less running the ball is a noticeable drop off.
And even the draft is a sufficient tell of the league’s overall value in the position. Looking back to 2010, the 1st running back off the board came with the 9th overall pick (CJ Spiller), which was pretty typical of the value teams placed on the positions in past years. The year after that, the Browns took Trent Richardson with the 3rd overall pick. Since then? The first running backs off the board have come off the board at the 31st, 37th and 54th picks – a steady decline to say the least.
So where’s the value of a running back these days? It’s all in the passing game.
Grab your hipster glasses and your calculator, because we’re about to get a little nerdy.
2014 proved to be a banner year in the passing game for running backs; we witnessed both Matt Forte and Le’Veon Bell break the 800 receiving yard mark, which hasn’t been done by a running back since Steven Jackson in 2006, and we saw history in the making when Forte caught an NFL running back record 102 passes, a record previously owned by Larry Centers of the 1995 Cardinals.
But Bell and Forte were not the only backs with an increased work load in the passing game. Across the entire NFL, we’ve seen a steady rise in every facet of the passing game for running backs, based upon a five-year model dating back to 2010. While the average yards per reception for a running back in the past five years has remained steady in the 8.0 yards per catch range (with a slight uptick of 0.42 ypc over the past season), the amount of receptions and the resulting total yards have increased at a steady rate.
Though the numbers have steadily increased for receptions and yards, the most glaring jump for running back production in the pass game comes in the form of touchdowns: in the past three seasons alone, we’ve seen nearly twice as many receiving touchdowns by running backs.
Rub your eyes, adjust those glasses and read it again: RUNNING BACK RECEIVING TOUCHDOWNS HAVE DOUBLED OVER THE PAST three YEARS. And while no one individual player shouldered the load of these touchdowns more than any other, we did have high hopes last season of seeing Ahmad Bradshaw smash the single season receiving touchdown record for running backs, prior to his broken leg that ended his season early. And while that record still stands at nine, there’s no doubt we will see this record broken sooner rather than later.
Despite the increase in catches by running backs, the residual effect on other pass catchers (how many TD’s are being taken out of their hands?) is marginal, at best; looking at total receiving TD’s versus those by running backs, the vast majority (96.1% in 2014) still go to guys who are paid to catch passes (wide receivers and tight ends) with the occasional to a sneaky O lineman.
While the trends are obvious, many mysteries still surround the future of the elusive running back. Will a point come where receiving is the primary function of a running back? And if so, will the title of running back eventually fizzle and a new hybrid receiver position will rise from the ashes? And based on the evolution of the running back in the pass game, is there a possibility that PPR will become a standard league format for fantasy football?
Okay, so that last one is more wishful thinking on my behalf than reality. But as a fan of the game, and a fan of watching the constant adaptation and change over the years, I can’t wait to see where this road will take the running back position in years to come.