NFL Running Backs Are Coming Back in Style
- Underpaid and overexposed to injury, NFL running backs have seen less and less love in recent seasons. But as defenses adapt to stop spread offenses and motivated young backs enter the league, the ground game is experiencing a resurgence. Just survey its seismic impact in Week 1.
This story appears in the Sept. 18, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
“Anything but running back. There’s just nothing there.” So says Barry Foster, who was thriving in the Steelers’ backfield—he made All-Pro in 1992—when he tore ligaments in his left ankle on a screen pass in ’93, curtailing his career in his mid-20s. Twenty-four years later Foster is a middle-school teacher and football coach in Lewisville, Texas, and he makes himself clear: “If it was me, I would be a defensive back or a receiver or a linebacker. [Running back] is definitely a position I try to steer young kids away from because they’re not going to last long, and they’re not going to be completely appreciated.”
The stats back him up. Running backs, on average, have the lowest salaries ($1.5 million per year) outside of long snappers and fullbacks. And why not? They got fewer carries in 2016 than in any season since the ’02 expansion. Their careers are the second shortest (average: two years, five months) and often the most painful. They routinely take on players two weight classes up, and they land on IR at nearly double the rate, on a per-snap basis, of all other positions.
And yet there they are, shredding defenses for record yards, waves of them popping up in recent years, more of them thriving today than a decade ago. The Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt around left end for 58 yards at Foxborough . . . the Jaguars’ Leonard Fournette off right tackle for 17 in Houston . . . the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott for 30 on a wheel route at home against the Giants. . . .
Which brings us to: Why? Why keep running, given all that they face?
That’s exactly what Stan Drayton, the Bears’ running backs coach last year, wanted to know of Jordan Howard. So, in a quiet room before the rookie’s first practice, he asked.
The T-shirt, once white, is now yellow, verging on brown. The sleeves are gone, the sides slit low. And yet Jordan Howard wears it every game, under his pads, the words IN MEMORY OF MY DAD ironed on across the front.
Reginald Howard called his shots. I’m going to have a boy, he used to tell his wife, Flora. I’m going to name him Jordan. He’s going to the NFL. When Jordan tried out for peewee football in second grade, he was the biggest kid around, so coaches tried to steer him toward the offensive line, where Reginald had played at Tuskegee in the 1970s. Jordan resisted. He wanted to be a running back, and he won a literal race for the job, proving his size was no handicap.
Reginald—Doc to his friends—was just fine with that. His son would play the position like a lineman. The Bulldozer, other parents called Jordan when he hit the hole. On the sideline he’d run to Doc rather than his coach, and they’d talk football all the way home while Bone Crusher’s “Never Scared” blared on the stereo.
In middle school Jordan told his school’s librarian about his plans to go pro. She bet him $100 that he wouldn’t even get a college scholarship. Flora hunted down the librarian the next day: “I dare you to teach him not to dream.”
She knew that’s what her husband would have said. Pulmonary fibrosis had forced Doc from the sideline, so he watched his son’s games from a car parked atop a nearby hill. Doc was eventually confined to a hospital bed, which is where he died in 2007 with 12-year-old Jordan at his side.
Flora made the T-shirt shortly afterward.
Nine years later, on the second day of the NFL draft, Jordan, a junior on scholarship at Indiana, was disconsolate after failing to hear his name among those called. So Uncle Selwynn turned to a teary-eyed Jordan and channeled Doc. “It hasn’t been easy to this point,” Selwynn said. “Why should it be easy this time?” It wouldn’t be.
Howard wanted to be alone the next day, and he was lying on his bed, rap music in his ears, that fading cotton relic tucked away in a drawer, when the Bears, owners of the 150th pick, finally called. As a fifth-rounder he adjusted his expectations—he’d head to Chicago and prove himself, do anything, even try special teams. But then a hamstring injury kept him out of OTAs, and in June minicamp he wrestled with learning Chicago’s running and punt-coverage schemes. He cut 15 pounds amid questions about his fitness—questions that only intensified when coaches left him in for consecutive drives during a scrimmage against the Patriots. “The QB is giving the cadence,” one coach recalls, “and he’s back there with his hands on his knees, throwing his guts up.”
Even on special teams he was “average to below average,” says Drayton. “At best.” Halfway through training camp Howard sat fourth on the backfield depth chart. “I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I had my questions about Jordan,” Drayton says.
Through it all, the 6-foot, 224-pound Howard kept to himself. When the Bears hosted their rookie talent show, he shied from the stage and was never called upon. “I don’t know if maybe everyone forgot him,” says Paul Lasike, a fullback in that camp. “He was just so quiet.”
But then: Preseason Week 4, FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, fourth quarter, first-and-10 at the Browns’ 34—prove-it time for someone so far down the depth chart. On three consecutive plays, the running back with the stamina questions 1) leaped over a defender along the sideline for eight yards, 2) sidestepped one would-be tackler and spun around another for 10 more yards and 3) turned the corner and dipped his shoulder to shed a defender as he capped a 16-yard touchdown.
Over the Bears’ headsets coach John Fox said, “I’m not sure this guy isn’t the best back we have.”
Howard was throwing up again, this time on the sideline of Soldier Field, shortly after the national anthem. This was Week 4 and injuries had vaulted him, against all odds, into a starting spot. “I was nervous,” Drayton says. “You wonder, What’s going to happen? What’s this kid going to do?”
That anxiety was quickly allayed. During the next four months he would set Chicago’s rookie rushing record (1,313 yards) and pair with Elliott as the first newbies to finish one-two in the league in rushing. By the end, Drayton was getting nervous when his back didn’t vomit.
Yes, Howard became the first rookie runner to represent Chicago at the Pro Bowl since Gale Sayers, but he was also the latest tailback with the potential to foment a modern renaissance. Five other sub-25 backs—each in his first, second or third year—joined him on that All-Star roster: Elliott (who ran for 104 yards on Sunday), the Falcons’ Devonta Freeman (who ran for a touchdown), the Cardinals’ David Johnson (91 all-purpose yards before suffering a wrist injury), the Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi and the Chargers’ Melvin Gordon. Ajayi’s and Gordon’s class of 2015 has already produced four Pro Bowlers, more than any crop since ’08.
The 2017 draft class—four of whom were taken before pick No. 50, the most since ’08—may challenge that mark. On opening week, Hunt (a rookie third-rounder out of Toledo) racked up a debut-record 246 all-purpose yards in a shocking 42–27 win at New England, and Fournette lived up to his billing as the No. 4 pick (LSU) with 100 rushing yards to help whip the Texans 29–7. On Monday night, Dalvin Cook broke Adrian Peterson’s rookie debut record with 127 yards on the ground. Even Howard’s backup, Tarik Cohen (a fourth-rounder from North Carolina A&T), got in on the act, adding 113 all-purpose yards in a 23–17 loss to the Falcons that was decided on the final play.
So why have such talented athletes embraced such an imperiled position? Johnson will tell you he wanted a role that would allow him to do it all: run, block and catch. Ajayi was drawn by the importance of footwork, similar to his first love, soccer. Elliott craved the contact, but also the glory, the spotlight.
The best athletes in grade school still get plugged in more often than not at running back, and for those with long-term promise, switching positions means endangering a future. Gordon, a high school tailback, was first recruited to play cornerback at Wisconsin, “but I just didn’t feel comfortable there,” he says. “I would’ve been behind the eight ball.” Shortly after San Diego took him with the 15th pick, he found new reason to stick with the position when three-time Pro Bowler Steven Jackson, then with the Patriots, texted to congratulate him—and also to make clear the responsibility he’d inherited. “We have to set the mark for the guys coming in behind us,” Gordon explains. “We have to set the standard that we are valuable and shouldn’t be overlooked.”
“After that  draft class with Todd [Gurley] and Melvin . . . I’ve definitely seen [the value of running backs] go up,” Florida State running back Dalvin Cook said at the scouting combine in late February, two months before the Vikings snagged him at No. 41.
Such a resurgence is predictable, Drayton figures. As offenses have spread out and sped up, defenses have adjusted to slow them down, creating a premium on bruisers to control the game. “Ask a defensive coordinator what he wants out of [his own offense],” Drayton says, “and he’ll say: time to come off the clock. There’s only one way to do that. Run the football.”
Flora Hollis-Williams closes her eyes before every game her son plays. “I ask God to protect him,” she says. Then she tells Jordan to do the same. “I just want him to leave the game while he’s still healthy.”
Howard learned long ago how difficult that will be. When he showed up at Indiana in 2015, having transferred after Alabama-Birmingham shuttered its program, he was what former Hoosiers running backs coach Deland McCullough calls “dumb tough”—he’d always plow over a defender rather than avoid contact. McCullough tried to get Howard to expand his arsenal of moves, to consider perhaps pirouetting out of danger. Howard told him: “I don’t spin.”
McCullough insisted. Twenty years earlier he’d been a Doak Walker Award finalist at Miami (Ohio) who set the Mid-American Conference record with 4,368 career rushing yards. As a rookie in 1996 he was the Bengals’ preseason rushing leader, but then, with three minutes left in the last warmup game, he tore his right ACL and MCL. (Later, he would suffer two more ACL tears during a five-year pro career that included stops in the CFL and the XFL.)
Under McCullough, Howard came to embrace prehab. He found the toughest masseuse on campus—a Polish woman named Irmina—and begrudgingly learned to spin. On Nov. 14, 2015, he racked up 238 yards against Michigan, the second most the Wolverines have ever surrendered, but one run from that afternoon sticks out. Encountering traffic at the line of scrimmage on a first-quarter plunge, Howard stuck his left foot in the turf and twisted counterclockwise for the first time in meaningful action. “The whole running backs group was going crazy,” McCullough says. Howard returned to the sideline and smiled. “I had to do it,” he said.
Having torn his meniscus at Gardendale (Ala.) High (leaving him with just one scholarship offer) and having battled knee and ankle injuries throughout college (which led to his being the 10th back taken in the draft), Howard knows that longevity is crucial if his brethren backs are to regain value. Hunt knows it too. Before his first peewee game in Mentor, Ohio, he laid on the living room floor while his mother, Stephanie Riggins, stretched out the six-year-old’s legs, lifting them as high as they’d go and then pushing them to one side and the other. Her own father, Henry Neal, had blown out his left knee playing football while serving in the Army, and he was damaged goods by the time he tried out for the Broncos in the 1970s. So she’d do anything she could to help Kareem avoid the same fate, stretching him before every game and preparing a salt bath for him afterward. She still signs off every text, phone or video conversation the same way: “I love you—hey, did you stretch today?”
Ajayi knows too. He entered the draft with 678 college carries and, already, one torn ACL to his name, and he too dropped to the fifth round. As a pro, he has all but moved into a cryogenic chamber. Two-time Pro Bowler Le’Veon Bell, 25, went searching for the fountain of youth just north of Miami, where trainer Pete Bommarito—with his advanced degree in Sports Biomechanics and “medically based multidisciplinary approach”—has helped Frank Gore keep running well into his 30s by working muscles while protecting joints. (Bommarito is big on straight-line running with lots of acceleration and deceleration but no cutting—building strength without wearing out hamstrings and knees.) Gordon has pledged himself to the cult of Adrian Peterson, joining the 32-year-old at James Cooper’s camp in Texas. Those offseason workouts start two weeks after the season with a rehab phase—“[Peterson’s] shoulders, elbows, back, ACL, Achilles, it’s as if they are all injured,” Cooper says—and then they head up Mount Charleston in Nevada to rock-scramble 10,000 feet above sea level. Cooper compares football with combat and trains his players such that the season will feel easy.
No tool, no performance system, no regimen aimed at extending a running back’s career can be dismissed. The cost of failure—for the individual, for the group—is too steep.
My heart will always be at running back,” says Shaq Thompson. “I miss it.” The Panthers’ strongside linebacker still asks to join running back drills during practices every once in a while, but he never doubts the decision he made during his junior year at Washington to commit full-time to defense. He knows the stats. For example, 28 linebackers have played more than 200 career games. Only four backs have done it, and none of them entered the league after 1990. (Twelve of the ’backers did.) For Thompson, like so many others, longevity won out over love.
Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson made that decision in high school. “The lifespan of an NFL back is very short,” he said in 2013. “It was clear from Day One, I was playing defense.” In fact, Arizona’s starting secondary in ’16—Peterson and Brandon Williams, along with safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson—consisted entirely of former running backs. (Remember McCullough? His son, Deland McCullough II, is being recruited out of Junípero Serra High in San Mateo, Calif., to play defensive back. He left the offensive backfield before even high school.)
They all saw the facts and didn’t like what they saw. The last cluster of NFL backs as talented as today’s emerged around 2010, when Peterson, Jackson, Michael Turner, Ahmad Bradshaw, Arian Foster, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Rashard Mendenhall and Ray Rice each took on a full workload. Only one remains employed as a player. Compare that to quarterbacks, where on a yardage basis, according to Pro Football Focus, the average player peaks at 33. Even tight ends reach their statistical heights five years later than backs: 29 versus 24.
That’s why, while teams may have returned to valuing running backs on draft day, they still aren’t building around them financially. This spring, as Bell engaged in contract negotiations, Gordon shot him a text. “Hey, bro, I need you,” he said. “You’re setting the market. Don’t settle for less.” (Bell responded: “For sure. I know what I’m worth.”)
Ultimately the Steelers were unwilling to meet Bell’s demands, and he’ll play out this year on a franchise tag. “The running back market definitely took a hit, and I can’t be the guy who continues to let it take a hit,” he said in July. “We do everything. We block, we run, we catch the ball. Our value isn’t where it needs to be. I’m taking it upon myself to open up some eyes and show the position is more valuable.”
“I think about death a lot,” says Howard.
His well-worn T-shirt steers his mind that way, but so does the obituary he keeps for Greg Maclin, his UAB roommate who died in a car crash in 2015. A high school teammate he admired, Tavarius Lewis, died in a car accident as well. And another high school friend succumbed to liver disease. All of that has made Howard something of a grief counselor. At 22.
“People can be here one day and then be gone forever,” he says. Knowing that, Howard does his best to protect his future—but he also wants to maximize the present, to take advantage of the time he does have. That’s the challenge: to preserve and to capitalize. Sometimes you step out-of-bounds, sometimes you lower a shoulder. Or maybe you spin.
Howard has one more totem of loss: a green UAB wristband. Three days after he helped the Blazers qualify for their first bowl game in a decade, during Howard’s sophomore year, the school that first put its faith in him announced it was shutting down its football program due to financial concerns. But earlier this month, after two years of dormancy, the team was reborn, and coach Bill Clark says “there’s no doubt” Howard’s success, then and now—how he drummed up fan support and recruiting cachet as an alum thriving in the NFL—helped reanimate the program. In July, before heading to Chicago for camp, Howard visited the team’s new $22.5 million facilities. “This is unbelievable,” he muttered outside Legacy Pavilion.
Drayton, now the running backs coach at Texas, still thinks about his old pupil. He treasures a photo taken last winter of Howard in his NFC Pro Bowl jersey. “That pic can almost bring tears to my eyes,” he says. There stands Howard, after a rookie season born in anguish, marked by doubt and vomit, enjoying a picture-perfect ending. Maybe it can be a beginning, too.