Hands have become as valuable as legs for running backs in today's NFL

Rick Gosselin

I saw Joe Washington the other day.

He looked great – for a man born four decades ahead of his time.

Washington was a dynamic running back at the University of Oklahoma, posting a pair of 1,000-yard rushing seasons and earning first-team All-America honors in 1974. His college career earned him the fourth overall selection of the 1974 NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers.

Still, his size was a concern. At 5-9, 179 pounds, could his body hold up against the bigger, more physical defenders he’d face on Sunday afternoons? What kind of role would the Chargers create for him in the offense?

Well, it wasn’t necessarily a role that the Chargers created for Washington but rather one the NFL carved out for him. He played for four teams over a course of nine years and never did rush for 1,000 yards in a single season.

But his role evolved from college runner to professional pass catcher. Washington led the NFL with 82 receptions in 1979 for the Baltimore Colts. He added a 70-catch season for the Washington Redskins in 1981 and was selected team MVP. Washington wound up with more career touchdowns receiving (18) than rushing (12).

The NFL threw the ball to its running backs in the 1970s. MacArthur Lane (1976) and Rickey Young (1978) also led the NFL in receiving that decade. But the emergence of tight ends as offensive weapons in the late 1970s – most notably Hall of Famers Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow – started taking passes away from running backs in NFL offenses.

But there has been a resurgence of running backs in the passing game of late. A record four backs caught 80-plus passes last season. This came on the heels of a record-tying three backs with 80-plus receptions in 2017. Nine different backs have now managed 80-catch seasons in the last five years.

Little Joe Washington would be highly coveted in today’s NFL.

The Saints drafted versatile Alvin Kamara as a change-of-pace back in 2017 to complement their sledge-hammer-between-the-tackles Mark Ingram. Sean Payton envisioned Kamara playing in space – catching passes, returning kicks. Ingram would be Mr. Inside and Kamara Mr. Outside. Bingo. Kamara caught 81 passes in each of his first two seasons and also returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

In that same draft the Carolina Panthers selected versatile Christian McCaffery in the first round. He caught 80 passes as a rookie and set an NFL record for running backs with his 107 receptions in 2018. He also rushed for a 1,000 yards in 2018 but at this point has more career touchdowns receiving (11) than rushing (9).

Darren Sproles has enjoyed a lengthy career catching passes and returning kicks in the NFL. Like Washington, a lack of prototypical size for his position was a concern. At 5-6, 185 pounds, Sproles wasn’t going to survive on Suyndays as an every-down back. But over his 13-year career he has caught 547 passes for 4,816 yards and 32 touchdowns. He also has returned nine kickoffs and punts for scores and gone to three Pro Bowls.

The NFL game has evolved into an aerial circus and teams want running backs who can catch the football as well as run it. Every team is searching for a its own Kamara, McCaffery or Sproles. A couple teams have already found him.

Like Washington, James White and Tarik Cohen were fourth-round draft picks – White by the New England Patriots in 2014 and Cohen by the Chicago Bears in 2017.

White caught 40 of Tom Brady’s passes in 2015, 60 in 2016, 54 in 2017 and 87 in 2018. He has more touches in his career receiving (248) than rushing (207) and also more touchdowns with receptions (19) than handoffs (7). His greatest moment came in the 2017 Super Bowl when he caught 14 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for two more scores in that victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Cohen caught 53 passes as a rookie and 71 last season and has more career receiving yards (1,078) than rushing (814). Like Sproles, he also has returned kicks and punts in his first two seasons with the Bears and has another touchdown to show for his special-teams role.

The Dallas Cowboys hope to be the latest team to find passing-game gold in the fourth round. They selected Memphis running back Tony Pollard with the 128th overall pick last April and expect him to complement their resident sledge-hammer (and two-time NFL rushing champion) Ezekiel Elliott this season.

Pollard gained more yards catching passes (1,292) and returning kicks (1,616) in college than running the football (941). He scored 25 career touchdowns – nine by run, nine by reception and seven on kickoffs – with an average of 45.8 yards per score. He had a 100-yard receiving game against Houston and touchdown grabs of 42 yards versus UCLA, 41 versus Wake Forest and 30 against Missouri.

Pollard caught 78 passes at Memphis last season and elected to skip his senior season to turn pro. He knew there’d be a place in today’s NFL for a pass-catching back – as did Joe Washington 40 years ago.


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