As NFL offenses have evolved, so has the runningback.
Most football fans can vividly remember a time approximately five years ago in which the running back (RB) position in the National Football League (NFL) was written off and declared “extinct” by most analysts. With so much of the game being weighed on the passing attack, being punctuated by an NFL record of three quarterbacks throwing for over 5,000 yards, the runningback was seen as useless or as just another receiver in the backfield. In both the 2013 and 2014 NFL college football player draft, not a single running back was taken in the first round of the draft. Some fans and analysts, including myself, not only viewed this, not only as an anomaly, but as the entire game of football changing or adapting to a high-flying aerial show rather than a strategic, counter-attack game that I grew up with. Then Adrian Peterson’s monster 2012 season happened. One year after writing off the running back position as a whole, Adrian Peterson returned astonishingly after six months of rehab from a torn ACL and had the most rushing yards (2,097) by anyone in the NFL since Eric Dickerson in 1984 (2,105). Peterson was the first running back, and non-quarterback, to win the NFL most valuable player award since Ladanian Tomlinson won it in 2006. Peterson’s 2012 season was huge in terms of revitalizing the running back position because it was the first time in a long time a single back was able to carry his team to success with his performance.
Peterson’s MVP season, along with other breakout performances following it, such as Jamaal Charles’s 2013 season or DeMarco Murray’s 2014 season, made most teams re-evaluate the running back position as a whole. Teams are now looking for every-down one-man wrecking crews like Peterson, that can also be more dynamic within a team’s offense as a whole. Peterson and others opened up new doors for the runningback position and other young runningbacks entering the league. David Johnson is the 24-year-old work-horse from Northern Iowa who is carrying the Arizona Cardinals’ offense. Le’Veon Bell is considered by many to be the most well-rounded running back in the league, and often carries most of the offensive load for the now-offensive-powerhouse Pittsburgh Steelers. The two superstars viewed as the representation for the position in today’s NFL are Todd Gurley, the already bright star who took his shortened rookie year and became one of the top runningbacks, and Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott is arguably the most-hyped rookie since Tim Tebow. Elliott was the number one jersey seller in the NFL during the offseason and was expected to not only shoulder the offensive load for the traditionally successful Dallas Cowboys as a rookie, but also to be one of the best running backs in the league right off the bat. Leonard Fournette, the future top-10 NFL draft pick at Louisiana State University is considered by many to be the best running back prospect at the collegiate and NFL level since Peterson.
The running back position will never be what it once was, and that’s a good thing. The position has adapted to become more versatile and dynamic, and, with that, we now have more versatile and dynamic athletes lighting up the field on Sundays. One thing to take away from the evolution of the runningback position over the last five years is that if analysts or experts make such a bold claim as to consider an entire positon in football extinct, you should be skeptical.