Commentary

Running backs are back in style

Youth movement in quarterbacking fraternity restoring value in backfield

Originally Published: September 26, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The NFL's youth movement at quarterback has created more value for running backs around the league.

Teams are averaging 109.6 rushing yards per game, the highest figure since 2009 -- and 5.7 yards above last season's mark through three games. That's a small victory for a position that has been pushed to the background because of improved quarterback play and three- and four-receiver offenses. In recent years, backs have learned they are no longer headliners.

Running backs dominated the 1960s and 1970s. Bill Walsh's West Coast offense started chipping away at the value of backs in the 1980s. The 2000s changed everything. Peyton Manning made the shotgun and no-huddle a bigger part of the offense. More coaches spread the field with receivers.

But with 10 of the league's 32 starting quarterbacks hailing from the past two drafts, teams have to protect their investments. Blaine Gabbert has Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville. He's second in the NFL with 314 yards on 59 carries in three games. Seahawks rookie Russell Wilson has leaned on Marshawn Lynch, who is fourth in the NFL with 305 yards on 72 carries. Robert Griffin III has given Redskins rookie Alfred Morris 61 carries in three games.

It's no surprise to see the Redskins add Ryan Grant to the mix despite Morris' good start. After three games, Mike Shanahan knows RGIII has to do just about everything to make the Redskins' offense successful, and his body probably can't hold up for 16 games with his current workload. The Seahawks got too conservative with Wilson in the second half of Monday night's win over the Packers, perhaps because of the fact that Pete Carroll wants to bring Wilson along slowly.

The long-accepted formula among coaches still works. You need a combination of 48 to 50 rushing attempts and completions to be a decent offense. The more a team is over 50 the better, but it's difficult to ask a first- or second-year quarterback to complete 25 passes a game. If a young quarterback completes 16 to 19 passes, his team is going to need 29 to 32 rushes to hang in games.

We'll see how that adjusts as these young quarterbacks mature.


From the inbox

Q: What are the chances that players boycott Week 4 in order to force the NFL and the real referees to end the lockout? With the players refusing to play with all the mistakes the referees have made, and no improvement coming, the league and the owners would lose revenue. They would have to come to an agreement to put a stop to this. I don't want this to happen, but do you think players would do this as a scare tactic to fix the problems that the replacement refs have caused?

Mike in Levittown, N.Y.

A: There is no chance of that happening. The penalties would be severe for the NFLPA and the players. Plus, salaries for next year and every year are based on the previous year's revenues. Packers players talked about the subject on the plane home after their loss to the Seahawks. Most fans around the country believe replacement officiating cost them a game. Watching Green Bay's offensive players see the replay of the Golden Tate touchdown at the end of the game was telling. Jeff Saturday and others threw towels at the television set. If players are subject to fines for complaining publicly about the officials, can you imagine how bad it would be if players don't play because of the officiating?


Q: On the Immaculate Deflection: My understanding is that possession is established only after a player gets both feet down on the ground. Looking at the replay, while Jennings might have had both hands on the ball first, it appears that Golden Tate gets his second hand on the ball before Jennings lands. Thus it appears that at the moment Jennings establishes possession (by getting his feet down), Tate is also establishing possession. At the very least, I think the call is a lot closer than everyone is making it out to be, and it seems that none of the media are pointing out the requirement of being on the ground to establish possession. I agree officiating was horrible, and nearly every scoring drive in the second half was extended by a third-down penalty, but we should lambaste these refs for their entire performance -- not for one call that frankly might have been the right one.

Stephen in Auburn, Wash.

[+] EnlargeNFL officials
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesThe final play of the Packers-Seahawks game was as controversial as any in recent memory, but it helped to serve as the catalyst to end the officials lockout.

A: You're taking the NFL's interpretation, and that's how it will be officially recorded. The feeling of many, though, is M.D. Jennings of the Packers had clear possession as he landed on Tate. Understand that simultaneous possession isn't the same as a fumble. In a fumble situation, two players can wrestle for the ball and the best man wins. Simultaneous possession is established at an instant. Jennings didn't reach the ground. His body was on top of Tate, who was reaching over him to get a portion of the ball. It's a close call. The worst part is the referee never went into the end zone to compare notes with the officials. He went straight to the replay monitor.


Q: There is been much talk about L.A. getting a team within the next several years. Usually the Rams, Chargers and Raiders are the likeliest candidates mentioned. According to insiders, which of these clubs do you feel is most likely to move first or at all? Also, if the Chargers move, are the Rams or Raiders strong candidates to fill the San Diego market, or will football never return to that market?

John in Birmingham, Ala.

A: The Chargers and the Raiders head the list, but don't count them in for moving. The Chargers can get out of their lease at any time, but owner Dean Spanos wants to keep the team in San Diego. It would be dicey for the Raiders to move. They could share a stadium with the 49ers. If the option stays open for three or four more years, the Rams come into play. Trying to figure other moves is difficult. The league likes to keep teams in their current cities. You have to lose a lot of money to be in position to move. Current economics in the NFL make it tough to lose money.


Q: Perhaps this week marks the new era in Pittsburgh. For the first time in the Roethlisberger era, none of the blame can be attributed to him in a loss. Do you think it's officially time to admit the offense is better than the defense? If so, it can't be just one factor. Would you agree that it's a combination of lack of talent, Dick LeBeau's schemes and age, or am I missing something?

Adam in Washington, D.C.

A: I'm not ready to stick the fork in the Steelers' defense. One bad game against Oakland isn't enough. Plus, the Steelers didn't have James Harrison and Troy Polamalu in that game. Sure, the defense is getting old. Sure, there is slippage. That was expected. But it's also safe to say Big Ben has to carry the team more than he did in the past.


Q: Is it just me, or do sacks seem to be on the rise this season? If so, do you have any idea what might be behind the climb in the numbers?

Kevin in Louisville, Ky.

A: Believe it or not, sacks are down 13 from last year. After three weeks, the NFL has 217 sacks. Last year, there were 230 after three weeks. Both numbers are the highest since 2006, which justifies your feeling that sacks are on the rise. It's a passing league. Sacks will likely stay at a high level.


Q: Watching these games so far this season, it seems as if it has been a downward trajectory as far as officiating goes. Week 1 wasn't awful, but since, it has been far worse. I believe it has capped with Darrius Heyward-Bey's injury in the game between the Raiders and Steelers. The hit on him was to the helmet and should have been called a penalty. Doesn't the league have to step up and live up to its "protect the integrity of the game" and "protect the safety of the players" mantras? As a fan, I think we've all seen enough.

Jay in Chicago

A: The NFL has been on a tightrope for three weeks with replacement officials. Week 1 was acceptable. Week 2 was worse. Week 3 was a disaster. I fear it will get worse in Week 4. Each week creates more complicated problems that these officials aren't trained to handle. Games are too long. Some games are hard to watch because of the officiating. That's why I think the NFL will get a deal done soon with the current officials.


Q: What do you think about the Rams so far this year? Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins have excelled, as well as Robert Quinn and Sam Bradford. Danny Amendola tied a [franchise] record [in Week 2] with 15 receptions, 160 yards and a TD. Do you think they could pull off a winning record?

Peter in St. Louis

A: Jeff Fisher and Les Snead are building it right. St. Louis and Dallas are probably the most improved teams in the NFL at cornerback. Fisher is building a decent defensive line. Sam Bradford is a franchise quarterback who will be elite in a year or two. The key will be the next two drafts. The trade with the Redskins gives the Rams two first-rounders in each of the next two years. Fisher and his coaching staff have made them competitive and given the team a personality. The next two drafts should make them contenders.


Q: Earlier in the week, there was a lot of discussion about the shortened week for the Thursday night game. I don't have the details of the NFL CBA, which could easily say a 14-day break in between games is required once a year for every team, so my suggestion could be moot. What if teams had their bye week before playing on Thursday, so it is a 10-day break. I'm sure NFL Network, or whatever network, could do a doubleheader for midseason Thursday night games so the byes are fulfilled by Week 13 or 14 as they are done currently. Besides, every team should be in the spotlight across the country at least once a year.

John in Baltimore

A: That could work if the bye weeks were through the entire season. There are no bye weeks in the first three weeks of the season. The final six weeks of the season have no bye weeks. The bye-week season is only eight weeks. The Thursday night game gives the league the chance to showcase every team. The short week can be tough, but the long break after the Thursday game does give a team a chance to rest.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer