The NFL game has changed. In seasons past, the most dominant teams in the league had a premiere running back.
Think of the best teams in the 1990s. The Dallas Cowboys had Emmitt Smith, the Buffalo Bills had Thurman Thomas, the Kansas City Chiefs had Christian Okoye followed by Marcus Allen, and the Denver Broncos had Terrell Davis.
In order to win, teams felt like they had to have a running back that could carry the ball 20 or more times a game. Now teams are passing the ball 60 percent of the time. This change in philosophy has certainly had an effect on the numbers running backs produce.
Right now Jerome Bettis is eligible for the Hall of Fame and LaDainian Tomlinson will be in a few seasons. Both figure to be locks to eventually make their way into Canton. The question is who would be the next group of running backs to be considered?
Adrian Peterson is on pace to be considered, but he is now 29-years-old. That may not seem old, but think about players like Shaun Alexander. At 28 Alexander had an All-Time great season. He rushed for 1,880 yards, 27 touchdowns, and averaged 5.1 YPC. At 29, he played in only 10 games and averaged 3.6 YPC. The season he turned 30, played in 13 games and managed only 716 yards.
Alexander was never considered the physical freak that Peterson is, so maybe his number should be taken with a grain of salt. Barry Sanders is considered one of the best to ever play the running back position. When Sanders hit the age of 30, his yards per carry fell from 6.1 to 4.3. A two-yard drop off is a significant amount.
The question is, will any back be able to avoid the dreaded 29 to 30-year-old drop off that seems to happen to most running backs.
Running backs like Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy are both coming into their primes, however, as next season they will be 28 and 26-years-old respectively. Both have solid career numbers, but will they do enough in time to be considered Hall of Fame worthy?
Marshawn Lynch is built in the mold of the traditional running back. He carries the ball almost 20 times a game. (18.8 attempts per game) He is now 28-years-old and seeking a new contract. Will his production drop off? He would need at least three more All-Pro-type seasons to be considered for the Hall of Fame when his career is over. Due to his physical style of play, it is highly unlikely that he would be able to manage that.
Frank Gore has managed not to have a huge drop off, yet. He has played his 29 and 30-year-old seasons already averaging 4.7 and 4.1 YPC. respectively. Gore has 9,967 yards for his career and 60 touchdowns. Those are good numbers, just not Hall of Fame numbers. The San Francisco 49ers have a few running backs that are fighting for more carries. Gore’s number could drop due to the need to get more players involved.
The NFL is full of talented young running backs that are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before. The problem is running backs’ careers seem to plateau quicker than before as well.
Ray Rice was a premiere running back in the NFL just two seasons ago. Last season, he managed only 660 yards.
Chris Johnson ran for 2,000 yards in 2009. He hasn’t been close to the same player since.
The NFL has recognized that running backs are not as useful as they used to be. No team in the NFL has selected a running back in the first-round of the draft in two seasons. This is the new NFL.
The criteria for what is a Hall of Fame running back may have to change in the near future.
Photo Courtesy: Josh Hill