THEY'RE BAAACK...

September 07, 2015

FOR YEARS RUNNING BACKS SEEMED HEADED FOR IRRELEVANCY—DRAFTED LOW, PAID LESS AND INTERCHANGEABLE WITH EACH OTHER. FORGET ALL THAT. IN TODAY'S NFL, THOSE WHO RUN (AND RECEIVE) RULE

BENEATH THE HILLSIDE of Murphy Canyon, under a dogged morning sun, the Chargers' offense lined up for a dry run of its foundational rushing plays. It was late July, the first day of training camp. In the backfield was rookie running back Melvin Gordon. Split out wide, Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd. In the slot, free-agent pickup Stevie Johnson, a three-time 1,000-yard receiver. The formation had all the signs of a pass play. But upon taking the snap, quarterback Philip Rivers turned around and ... handed off to Gordon.

The first-round draft pick started right, slashed left and cut up to the linebackers' level at nearly full speed. From there, with one juke, he shot into the open field. It was easy yardage, obtained not just with explosive movement but also because the offense had spread out with three receivers.

Murmurs and wry smiles passed around the field. Onlookers had just seen the cutting edge of pro football strategy.

ABOUT 15 YEARS AGO NFL fullbacks started to disappear, having become irrelevant as offenses used more three-receiver, single-back sets. Today the position is not quite extinct, but like the giant panda or the mountain gorilla, it is on the endangered-species list for the foreseeable future. When no running back was selected in the first round of the 2013 or '14 draft, it was widely suggested that this position too—a marquee one since the league's inception—was drifting toward the fullback's fate. By last season, running back was only the 10th-highest-paid position (based on the average of the top salaried player from each position per team). It was common to hear about runners' interchangeability.

But this past off-season brought a minor resurgence for tailbacks. Four were drafted among the first 54 picks, including Todd Gurley (No. 10, by the Rams) and Gordon (No. 15). Meanwhile, veteran backs DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy signed with new clubs for fat average annual salaries of $8 million apiece.

One season provides too small a data sample to establish a running backs tide, but stop and examine the broader NFL landscape. Notice how many upper-tier quarterbacks are on the back nine of their careers, approaching (or already on) the wrong side of 35? That lot includes Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. Other stars such as Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan (we've now accounted for every active All-Pro QB) have quietly entered their 30s. They're by no means nearing the end, but they're also no longer part of a youth movement.

So who is? Andrew Luck, soon to be 26, is a verified superstar. Russell Wilson is as accomplished as any other 26-year-old, though his game is very unorthodox and he's benefited from playing with the NFL's best defense and its toughest running back. Matthew Stafford and Ryan Tannehill, both 27, have improved steadily the past two years, but how much more can they grow? Derek Carr (24) and Teddy Bridgewater (22) are encouraging, but the jury's still out on them. History says that between Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota (both 21), only one will succeed. Colin Kaepernick (27) and Robert Griffin III (25) have not developed as passers; Cam Newton (26) is talented but wildly inconsistent; Andy Dalton (27) and Nick Foles (26) are average; Johnny Manziel (22) is a train wreck. And 23-year-old Blake Bortles? Intriguing, but still with question marks.

One could argue that the running back is not endangered; the drop-back quarterback is. "It's not that the league is losing drop-back passers so much," says NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell. "It's that with the nature of the college game, where so much of the spread passing concepts are played on the perimeter, quarterbacks enter the NFL with a steeper learning curve for drop-back passing. They're not being asked to do in college what they'll be asked to do in the NFL, which is throw the ball primarily in the middle of the field."

Drop-back quarterbacking has always been king in pro football because sturdy pocket passing is the easiest thing on which to build an aerial attack. Coaches love designing plays around stable geometry; as Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman likes to say, "Geometry doesn't have bad days." A straight drop-back passer provides the steadiest fulcrum in the design of pass plays, making field spacing easier to control.

But in recent years the league has seen less-refined passers—guys who excel at running—and this has changed some of the passing game's geometry. Receivers' routes that once attacked north and south are now more inclined to go east and west. This leaves coaches drawing up plays with the understanding that their QB might leave the pocket, altering his throwing angles. Many passing concepts are being simplified, with more one-read defined throws and fewer multiread drop-back throws.

Altogether, this doesn't mean the NFL passing game is abating—the modern rules are too skewed in its favor, and the league overflows with electrifying young receivers. Rather, more and more balls are being caught within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. To accommodate this, teams are using more three-receiver sets.

Which is where the running back fits in. When a third receiver is on the field, the defense must replace a linebacker with a defensive back (i.e., play nickel). When that third receiver spreads out and a DB—often a backup corner—follows him, a run defender has now been removed from the box near the line of scrimmage. And removing a run defender is even better than blocking him.

Aligning in pass-suggestive formations is partly a response to modern-day defenses too. "The old 49ers' go-to running play used to be the split backs—they always found a way to get to the edge," says Chargers coach Mike McCoy. "Well, the game's changed. The speed of the defense is [improved]. It's just not as easy to do that."

There's a legitimate question to be asked here: Why don't offenses just spread out with three receivers on every snap? "Because coaches are stupid," laments one NFL offensive coordinator.

That might be a bit harsh, but there's a case to be made for using more three-receiver running packages. Besides creating more room for the ground game, the widening effect of three-wide spreads can limit coverage disguises: A pass defender who's feigning one look must now traverse more ground to reposition himself after the snap. This increased simplicity helps all those twentysomething QBs with the steep drop-back learning curve to which Cosell referred.

THERE'S LONG BEEN an assumption that spreading out means you can't establish a power-based rushing attack. Not true. McCoy's Chargers, who have one of the league's best-built three-receiver offenses, provide a great illustration. This off-season they drafted Gordon, re-signed 330-pound left tackle King Dunlap and acquired both 320-pound Broncos guard Orlando Franklin and 326-pound Rams right tackle Joe Barksdale in free agency. In 2014 they drafted 310-pound center Chris Watt in the third round, and in '13 they used a first-rounder on 339-pound D.J. Fluker, who this year will play right guard. This season the Chargers will run a predominantly three-receiver offense featuring a first-round running back and a mauling front five, the largest in the league according to one projection of '15 starting lineups.

"If you've got a big front and the [defenders] are smaller, it doesn't matter if you're in a two-back set or a single-back set," says Mike McCoy. "The offensive line is going to pound you regardless."

This discredits the notion that spread-system running backs must have elite speed and quickness to capitalize on the space around them. It seems almost silly that we ever assumed this; simple logic says that even the most plodding back is better when running against thin air—of which a spread creates more—than he is running against even defenders he could easily barrel over.

A perfect snapshot of this type of offense is Chip Kelly's Eagles. Kelly employs a simple, quick-firing spread scheme, but at his core he's a run-first coach who wants to pound the rock. Over the last two years Kelly has gotten rid of elite (and expensive) receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, and this past off-season he traded away the league's most agile runner, McCoy. This created room to sign the bruising former Cowboy Murray along with ex-Chargers back Ryan Mathews. Among NFL teams, only the Vikings, Bears and Bills dedicate more of their payroll (based on percentage of 2015 cap money) to running backs than Kelly's high-octane offense, which, by the way, ranks 21st in receiver payroll. (In '16 they'll be No. 1 for backs.)

Bottom line: Murray and Mathews fit Kelly's system better than the more nimble McCoy. As Kelly said back in 2008, when he was with Oregon, "We want [the back] to jam the ball into the hole and be a tough runner. We do not want a jingle-footed back trying to hit a home run. We want him to hit the ball into the line and get the tough yards. We are a blue-collar guy going to work."

What Kelly understands—and other coaches are just coming to realize—is that by spreading out the box, rushing lanes become more defined. When a tailback runs behind fewer blockers (and against fewer defenders), there's less for him to sort out and fewer chances for something to go wrong.

Last season the 10 leading rushers out of three-receiver sets were mostly backs who can win with power (sidebar). Collectively, those backs averaged more yards out of three-wide sets (5.1) than they did out of more traditional two-receiver looks (4.0). Granted, some of this was situational: A meaningless 10-yard draw on third-and-16 tends to come out of a three-wide, and some two-receiver runs come in short-yardage situations. But these are only snippets of the data. Overall, the evidence backs up the common sense that running from spread sets against fewer box defenders presents significant advantages.

As a counterpoint, proponents of old-school running games featuring tight ends and fullbacks (and occasionally a sixth lineman) might argue that the extra blockers give a ground game more diversity. The more blockers you have, the more running gaps you create. But isn't a gap merely a conduit for getting a ballcarrier into space? Why rely on a conduit if a spread formation creates space inherently?

Other antiquated offensive thinkers might point out that many slower-developing play-action passes (which are how offenses influence safeties in order to take deep shots) rely on having two backs: one to carry out the fake handoff built into a play-action, the other to provide the extra blocking that the QB's deeper drop requires. This is true, and it's a good reason to keep base running packages in your playbook. But there's a flip side. Big passing plays don't have to be restricted to balls that sail 45 yards through the air. More and more of them involve runs after the catch. And these are best set up in spreads, through mismatches created by the offense's formation.

WHICH BRINGS US back to the tailback. The most valuable backs today are the ones who can contribute as runners and receivers—and not just receiving dump-offs and screens but splitting into the slot or even out wide. Typically we've considered these hybrid players to be guys with dynamic speed and quickness—Reggie Bush, C.J. Spiller, Darren Sproles—but the most valuable multifaceted backs in today's NFL aren't necessarily the quickest; rather, they're the most fundamentally sound and, often, the most patient.

The poster child is Le'Veon Bell. The Steelers' second-round pick in 2013 is more nimble than he appears, but that's not the crux of his game. Bell thrives on versatility, vision and a nose for angles. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley thinks Bell could be a starting NFL receiver.

In the NFC the best example is the Bears' Matt Forte, who caught 102 balls last season to go with his 1,038 yards rushing. When Forte aligns at receiver, the defense, if matching the offense's personnel, will often put a linebacker on him. That's a mismatch favoring Chicago. If the defense guards Forte with, say, a safety or a No. 4 corner, Forte can return to the backfield and take a handoff against a lighter (and now physically weaker) box.

This sort of chess match really favors an offense that plays up-tempo, getting to the line quickly after plays—something that new Bears coordinator Adam Gase did in Denver and could bring to the Windy City. More and more offenses are playing up-tempo these days, leaving defenses less time to diversify their fronts.

Even at 29—elderly for a running back—Forte is an excellent new-age back. He's steady and smooth, laterally quicker than expected and just explosive enough. With him Chicago can align in spread three-receiver sets, obtain a clear picture of the (now spread out) defense and either hand the ball off or throw quickly to a receiver, depending on the look. It's not a bad way to rein in quarterback Jay Cutler; everything is clearer, roomier and easier thanks to that lighter defensive box.

The times, like offensive geometry, are changing. The college game always trickles down to the pros. And, as Bill Parcells likes to say, you can only take the players that colleges feed you. That trickle-down won't save the fullback—but it will revitalize the position that, for the longest time, the fullback served to chaperone.

WHY DON'T OFFENSES SPREAD OUT ON EVERY SNAP? "BECAUSE COACHES ARE STUPID," SAYS ONE COORDINATOR.

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WIDENING THE FIELD WITH THREE RECEIVERS PROVED ADVANTAGEOUS IN 2014 FOR EVEN THE LEAGUE'S BIGGEST BACKS

3-WR SETS 2-WR SETS
LESEAN MCCOY Eagles 947 yards 317 yards
208 lbs. 4.6 ypc 3.6 ypc
ARIAN FOSTER Texans 800 yards 284 yards
227 lbs. 6.3 ypc 3.8 ypc
LAMAR MILLER Dolphins 798 yards 201 yards
224 lbs. 6.6 ypc 3.1 ypc
EDDIE LACY Packers 751 yards 251 yards
230 lbs. 5.2 ypc 4.2 ypc
MATT FORTE Bears 634 yards 216 yards
218 lbs. 4.1 ypc 3.7 ypc
MARSHAWN LYNCH Seahawks 609 yards 422 yards
215 lbs. 5.2 ypc 4.2 ypc
LE' UEON BELL Steelers 585 yards 249 yards
244 lbs. 4.4 ypc 3.8 ypc
DEMARCO MURRAY Cowboys 505 yards 914 yards
217 lbs. 4.5 ypc 5.2 ypc
C.J. ANDERSON Broncos 473 yards 226 yards
224 lbs. 5.3 ypc 4.0 ypc
CHRIS IUORY Jets 465 yards 161 yards
222 lbs. 5.2 ypc 2.8 ypc
PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPhoto Illustration by Stephen SkalockyTIM IRELAND/AP (MILLER); HEATHER AINSWORTH/AP (MCCOY); DAVID E. KLUTHO FOR SI (LACY, FORTE); AL TIELEMANS FOR SI (BELL); KATHY WILLENS/AP (IVORY); ROBERT BECK FOR SI (LYNCH)GROUND WARFARE With wider spaces in defenses, tailbacks are booming again, led by (clockwise from top) Miller, McCoy, Forte, Bell, Ivory, Lacy and Lynch. PHOTOLENNY IGNELZI/AP (GORDON)SPACE ACES Newcomers like Gordon (above) can learn a thing or two from the likes of Forte (left): Get in the open and go. PHOTOCHARLES REX ARBOGAST/AP (FORTE)[See caption above] PHOTOJOE SARGENT/GETTY IMAGESWHAT A STIFF Putting the 244-pound Bell out in the open against smaller bodies—here he had 30 pounds on Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro—is a no-brainer. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)