Catch this: Running backs are catching the ball again

With just under one minute remaining in the first half of last Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium, Carolina tailback Nick Goings motioned out of the backfield. He ran toward the right sideline, then came to a stop nearly 25 yards from where he had broken the huddle, aligning essentially as the third flanker in a three-wide receiver formation.

Goings broke up the right seam on the snap, ran right past Cincinnati Bengals' cornerback Tory James, and easily gathered in a 20-yard touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme, a pretty nifty way to celebrate the 100th catch of a workmanlike, six-year NFL career.

"I think," said Goings, referring to the incredibly facile manner in which he navigated past James, a Pro Bowl cornerback in 2004, "he was just shocked to see me out there."

Increasingly over the first half of the season, defenders have suffered such moments of bamboozlement, as running backs are again becoming a factor in the passing game. Throwing to the backs isn't quite as much in vogue, it seems, as it was even three or four years ago. But neither is the practice of using backs as receivers as buried in NFL playbooks as it's been the past couple seasons.

Backs are, well, back again in the passing game. And even though many offensive coordinators still prefer to flood the field with three- and four-wide receiver spread formations and stretch opposition secondaries vertically, many have carved out a place again for the tailback as a receiver.

The rethinking of the running back's role in the passing game has meant, through the first seven weekends of the season, a resurgence of sorts for backs who catch the ball well.

No one is suggesting that retired fullback Larry Centers, who in 1995 posted a 101-catch season and who concluded a solid career with more receptions than rushes, is poised for a comeback. But compared to the past two seasons, when the role of back-as-receiver was notably diminished, this has been a golden time for tailbacks with dependable hands.

"First off, you want the ball as many times as you can get it, and in as many ways as they can get it to you," acknowledged San Diego star tailback LaDainian Tomlinson, arguably the best all-around back in the NFL. "If you've got a (back) who can catch it, can get out in space and makes plays, it just makes good sense to throw it to him. You think (defensive coordinators) want to be thinking every week about me or some other (tailback) hooked up on a linebacker?"

Tomlinson's career track over the past few seasons has been reflective of a trend in which some offenses wandered away from using backs as receivers. He caught 100 passes in 2003 but, in the ensuing two years, totaled just 104 catches. This season, with 32 receptions, Tomlinson is on pace for an 85-catch campaign.

No running back in 2005 had more than the 70 catches recorded by LaMont Jordan of Oakland. In fact, there were only five backs in the league with 50 or more receptions last season, the fewest in more than a decade. There are currently a half-dozen backs on pace for more than 65 receptions in 2006. And three of those are on pace for 80 or more catches, led by New Orleans rookie Reggie Bush.

The Saints' first-year star and Heisman Trophy winner isn't the Garden (District) variety back-as-receiver, certainly, and is frequently used in the slot or as a wideout. There are some scouts who insist that had Bush been in the 2006 lottery as a wide receiver instead of as a tailback, he still would have been a first-round selection. But with 38 catches in six games (the eighth most catches in the league), and on pace for a 101-reception season, Bush has refocused attention on a role that had been disappearing the last three years.

"It would be a waste," Bush noted earlier this season, "not to throw me the ball."

And he's not the only New Orleans back who is involved more in the passing game under first-year head coach Sean Payton. Veteran tailback Deuce McAllister has 13 catches in six games. That might not seem like a lot, but it's a 35-reception pace, and that would represent his most catches since 2003. Of the 138 completions by Saints quarterback Drew Brees, 62 have been to backs, a 44.9 percent quota.

Around the league in general, the completion distribution rate is up, with backs accounting for 26.5 percent of the total catches. For the 2005 season, the rate for backs was 24.1 percent. In 2004, it was 24.3 percent, and was 24.6 percent in 2003.

Certainly, as spread formations became predominant on third down, the role of backs as receivers suffered a de-evolution of sorts. Even when backs were on the field on third down, they were often utilized more as blockers than receivers. Warrick Dunn of Atlanta, who last week publicly requested to become more a part of the passing game, averaged 49.4 receptions over the first seven seasons of his career. But playing now in a design in which Falcons' offensive coordinator Greg Knapp rarely gets the backs involved as receivers, and where the scrambling of quarterback Michael Vick eliminates some check-down routes, Dunn had just 29 catches apiece in 2004 and 2005.

This season, Dunn has just four receptions, and Atlanta has completed only 17 passes to backs. Then again, the Falcons only have 77 completions, period, tied with Oakland for the fewest in the league.

Still, there are 17 teams in the NFL with 30 or more completions to backs in the first seven weeks. Eight of those franchises, oddly all of them in the NFC, have 40 completions or more to running backs. Seventeen teams have completed more than 25 percent of their passes to running backs, and nine of those franchises have a completion distribution rate of better than 30 percent for running backs.

"A lot of it is just the offense you're in, the emphasis they put on it, you know?" said Detroit tailback Kevin Jones, who totaled 48 receptions his first two seasons in the NFL but now, playing in the offense designed by former Rams head coach Mike Martz, is on pace for 85 catches. "Most backs, I think, like it. They want to be involved. And if you're a good receiver, teams ought to find a way to get you involved."

Through the first seven weeks of this season, it seems, they have.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.