Since football’s inception in the nineteenth century, the position of running back, also known as half-back, has largely remained the same. The running back lines up either behind the quarterback or to his side, gets the ball stuck in his gut and either runs between the tackles or outside of them. This was the norm pretty much until the turn of the millennium.
For generations, football fans had become used to seeing this type of ‘bell cow’ running back dominate the gridiron. From Jim Brown in the 1950s to Walter Payton in the 1980s and even to modern day with Adrian Peterson. Altering the way the running back played was almost like reinventing the wheel – you just didn’t do it. But with all things evolution, although slowly and sometimes unnoticed, did take place.
Marshall Faulk, the former Indianapolis Colt, St. Louis Ram and current Hall of Fame running back is often credited with being the first ‘all-down back’, a player so versatile he could run the ball effectively and catch it.
This skill set allowed Faulk to stay on the field for all 3 or 4 downs. Faulk was such a distinct player that the great Bill Belichick deemed him the focal point of the early 2000s Rams offence, appropriately nicknamed the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’. When coming up against Faulk in Super Bowl XXXVI Belichick’s defensive game plan was shut down Faulk and the Patriots won the game. Belichick was quoted saying “In Super Bowl 36, our game plan was defined by two words — Marshall Faulk.”
Faulk’s emergence was a watershed moment for the NFL. Offences became trickier to read. No longer was it easy to distinguish between a pass play and a running play pre-snap just by looking at which running back was on the field. Offensive playbooks got deeper, offensive coordinators jobs got easier and the NFL underwent a change which saw it become the pass-happy, high scoring league it is today.
However, Faulk was not the first satellite back (named that due to their ability to excel in space) the NFL had witnessed. A decade earlier in 1983 the San Francisco 49ers, hot off their first Super Bowl victory, drafted Roger Craig, a running back out of Nebraska University.
The Niners at this time were coached by offensive maverick Bill Walsh. Walsh was famous for implementing the ‘West Coast’ offence. A system which focused on short intricate passing, rhythm, timing and play-action, the football equivalent of death by a thousand paper cuts. Walsh’s system had obviously worked the year before, winning the 49ers their first Lombardi Trophy, but the system could be improved.
In 1985, Craig became the first ever player in the history of the NFL to gain at least 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving. The West Coast offence is built on sacrifice. In theory, it allows for no individual stars, the whole offence must move as one. In the 1980s very few running backs would have accepted the job Craig had for the 49ers, they wanted him to run the ball 30 times a games – a sentiment that still remains in some parts around the league today. Craig is one of the most underappreciated players in NFL history. A true innovator.
Belichick himself implemented much of the West Coast philosophy into his own offence. Tom Brady has become a master of the short passing game aided by the ability to utilise the running-back in passing situations. New England utilise a scat-back every chance they get. This season James White and Rex Burkhead are tasked with being the Patriots main third-down backs. Whereas in the past Belichick has utilised the skills of Dion Lewis, Shane Vereen and the franchise’s greatest ever running-back Kevin Faulk. All were third down specialist running-backs being used on first and second down.
When examining the NFL offences of today, you’ll notice often times teams with the most efficient offences usually revolve around running backs who can catch. Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Todd Gurley and the LA Rams, Alvin Kamara and the New Orleans Saints, Kareem Hunt and the Kansas City Chiefs are all great examples of this. Imagine your 260lb linebacker in open space, 1 on 1, trying to tackle Alvin Kamara. Yeah, bad news.
But the effects of the third-down back can not only be seen on the offensive side of the ball. As always, the defence must react to the offences innovation. Linebackers have become slimmer and faster in order to keep up with receiving backs coming out of the backfield. Deion Jones with the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawk, Bobby Wagner, are the best examples of this. Safeties moved down to play as extra linebackers in the box, Keanu Neal (Atlanta Falcons), Harrison Smith (Minnesota Vikings), and Patrick Chung (New England Patriots) all excel at this and are vital to their team’s success.
For each and every different offensive action, there is a defensive reaction. And the best defences are the ones who can adapt to best counteract their opponents offensive strengths.
The evolution of the running back is a strange one. For most of the 20th century the position remained unchanged. But thanks to the innovation of head coaches like Bill Walsh and Dick Vermeil combined with the talent and hard work of Roger Craig and Faulk the landscape of the NFL evolved to being the fast-paced, pass happy, entertaining league it is today.
Throughout this article, I referred to these pass catching running-backs as ‘third down backs’, but as the NFL continues to evolve and move forward these ‘third down backs’ will become the chief and primary focal points of offences. Maybe even surpassing the rank of the quarterback?
As these every down and all purpose backs become more and more of a commodity, it won’t matter if your QB can’t throw the ball more than 5 yards. Just drop the pigskin to Kamara, Gurley, Elliot, Bell, Marhsall Faulk and Roger Craig and watch them tear up the gridiron with the most beautiful synergy of finesse and power.