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Alex Speier

In pass-happy NFL, the era of the disappearing running back

Since Corey Dillon led the Patriots in carries from 2004-06 no player has led them in more than two straight seasons.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Six offensive plays into the 2015 NFL season, the Patriots had yet to rush the ball. When they did rev up their running game against the Steelers Thursday night, they turned primarily to Dion Lewis, a player who, in four years with the Eagles, had just one game in which he rushed more than five times and accumulated more than 25 yards, and who hadn’t rushed in a regular season game since 2012.

Welcome to the NFL circa 2015, squarely amidst the era of the Disposable Running Back.

Running backs once ruled the earth, the notion of the “feature back” seemed appropriate on any number of levels as a representation of roster centerpieces. It was a prestige position, the destination for the game’s best athletes and biggest talents. Teams built around their backfields.


In a five-year span from 1977-81, running backs were taken with the first overall pick in the draft four times, with Ricky Bell, Earl Campbell, George Rogers, and Billy Sims all getting taken with the first selection. Of course, the brevity of their careers — along with that of subsequent No. 1 overall picks Bo Jackson and Ki-Jana Carter — might help to explain the predominant shift away from the running back as cornerstone.

Run to the top
When the first running back was taken off the draft board, 1967-2015.
Year RBs taken in 1st round Top RB pick
2015 2 10
2014 0 54
2013 0 37
2012 3 3
2011 1 28
2010 3 9
2009 3 12
2008 5 4
2007 2 7
2006 4 2
2005 3 2
2004 3 24
2003 2 23
2002 2 16
2001 3 5
2000 5 5
1999 2 4
1998 4 5
1997 2 12
1996 3 6
1995 5 1
1994 2 2
1993 3 3
1992 3 9
1991 2 14
1990 6 2
1989 5 3
1988 5 14
1987 7 3
1986 5 1 (Bo Jackson)
1985 3 19
1984 1 26
1983 4 2
1982 7 7
1981 6 1 (George Rogers)
1980 5 1 (Billy Sims)
1979 5 8
1978 3 1 (Earl Campbell)
1977 2 1 (Ricky Bell)
1976 6 3
1975 2 4
1974 6 2
1973 4 9
1972 3 13
1971 7 6
1970 5 8
1969 5 1 (O.J. Simpson)
1968 4 8
1967 7 2

Still, it would have been difficult to imagine how far the pendulum has swung. Carter, tabbed by the Bengals with the top pick in the 1995 draft, was the last running back taken with the first overall selection.

Whereas an average of nearly six running backs were taken in the first round of every draft from 1986-90, a total of six backs got nabbed in the first round of the last five drafts (2011-15), with 2013 and 2014 representing the first instances in the history of the modern draft (dating to 1967) in which the first round came and went without the selection of a running back.


That diminished representation is a product of diminished relevance. The NFL has become a pass-first league, elevating the significance of the quarterback and his receivers, the offensive linemen who protect him, along with the defensive players charged with stopping him.

In 2014, 58 percent of offensive plays were pass attempts or sacks, up from 55 percent in 2004. Even those figures are low, given that a growing number of multi-dimensional quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick are in charge of zone-read systems in which the running game is entrusted increasingly to the discretion of the quarterback.

The markers are everywhere. From 2000-06, the NFL averaged 10 300-carry runners per season; that number dropped to six per year from 2007-10 before plummeting to just under three per year from 2011-14.

The dynamics of the move away from the run have resulted in diminished salaries for running backs. At a time when Jay Cutler has a contract for $126.7 million, the largest contract conferred upon a running back (in terms of total dollars) is Arian Foster’s $43.5 million deal, an amount that is exceeded by at least one player from every other offensive and defensive position save for right tackle.

LeSean McCoy, one of the more impactful runners in the game, has the largest salary guarantee of any running back in the NFL at $26.5 million — a mark that falls below players at quarterback, defensive tackle, wide receiver, linebacker, defensive end, cornerback, left tackle, and safety. McCoy was traded this offseason from the Eagles to the Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonso, who missed all of 2014 with a torn ACL. The Herschel Walker trade it was not.


“The running back has definitely devalued. If you look at teams, we’re in a very pass-efficient league today,” said NFL agent Sean Stellato, whose clients include former Patriot Jonas Gray as well as two other running backs. “I definitely think there’s a lot of concrete evidence out there that points to the running backs’ devaluing.”

The reasons are diverse and go beyond just the shift towards more passing.

Top draft picks receive four-year deals with a fifth-year team option. For other skill positions, players tend to develop through those first contracts to reach their primes by the time they near or arrive at free agency. For running backs, whose job mandate of getting hammered by giants on the defensive line isn’t entirely dissimilar from that of a bug tasked with a windshield collision, the expectation of sustained production is radically different.

While there are outliers (Marshawn Lynch certainly comes to mind in today’s NFL), running backs who remain productive even into their late 20s represent exceptions. Former All-Pros such as Chris Johnson and Larry Johnson enjoyed great peaks but fell off dramatically before lapsing into journeyman status, drained and crumpled like juice boxes.

“If you look at the overall positional average playing career in the NFL, the average career in the NFL is 3.3 [years], the average career for running backs is 2.57,” said Stellato. “You’re at the bottom of the food chain.”


As such, while the more talented backs might get significant financial commitments, those commitments tend to be short-term to protect teams from the risk of precipitous decline, with the guaranteed earnings down accordingly. An elite running back such as McCoy received a five-year, $40 million deal, while the man who replaced him in Philadelphia, DeMarco Murray, received a five-year, $42 million contract. Yet those marks pale in comparison next to the eight-figure deals of six, seven, and eight years that have found their way to virtually every other position.

Another offshoot of the vulnerability of running backs is that teams tend to focus as much if not more on building a wealth of options rather than concentrating their resources on one back. Given the frequency with which running backs are shattered, there’s wisdom to a strategy of accumulating a number of serviceable backs rather than building an offense around a single player.

Meanwhile, the importance of running backs is being defined increasingly by their ability to contribute to the passing game. The emergence of the pass-receiving specialist out of the backfield further undermined the market worth and prevalence of the bell cow back.

And then, there is the ease with which running backs can be replaced. In some ways, the die was cast in Denver under then coach Mike Shanahan at the end of the 1990s.


Reigning MVP Terrell Davis was lost for the season early in the 1999 season, his career never the same.

But rather than seeing their running game evaporate, Denver enjoyed nearly 100 yards a game on the ground from Olandis Gary. The next year, Mike Anderson nearly amassed 1,500 yards; two years after that, Clinton Portis had the first of two consecutive 1,500-yard rushing seasons before getting traded to the Redskins for shutdown corner Champ Bailey. From 2003-06, Denver had a different 1,000-yard rusher for four consecutive seasons, with Portis followed by Reuben Droughns, Anderson, and Tatum Bell.

In many respects, the Patriots have opted for something akin to that Denver model. Antowain Smith led the team in rushing attempts from 2001-03, and Corey Dillon was likewise a three-peater as the rushing attempt leader from 2004-06. But since then, no player has led the team in carries in more than two straight seasons.

With 2014’s leading carrier Shane Vereen (96 carries) now gone, the Patriots will feature their third leading carrier in as many years, no real surprise for a franchise for which “lead back” is often a slippery term.

Running away from backs in the draft
Running backs' draft position, 1967-2015
Period Total 1st rounders No. 1 overall picks
2011-15 6 0
2006-10 17 0
2001-05 13 0
1996-2000 16 0
1991-95 15 1
1986-90 28 1
1981-85 21 1
1976-80 21 3
1971-75 22 0
1967-70 21 1

During the first 15 years of the Bill Belichick era from 2000-14, the Patriots have had just four seasons of 1,000-yard rushers — and no instances of a single back producing multiple 1,000-yard seasons.

The Patriots, Raiders, and Buccaneers are the only teams in the NFL since 2000 that haven’t had a running back with multiple 1,000-yard seasons. On the other end of the spectrum, the Patriots have had 42 instances under Belichick of players running for 200 or more yards in a season — tied for the third-most in the NFL, behind only the Broncos (45) and Eagles (44). The running back position has been handled with a host of relatively low-cost players who have collectively offered a sufficient complement to Tom Brady and the passing game.

“The Patriots have been very good over the years being able to find running backs that aren’t necessarily the upper echelon running backs but who come in and find their niche,” said Stellato.

Perhaps there will come a time when the Patriots’ offense is no longer built around one of the passing greats of all-time, at which point there’s at least a chance that the team will redefine how its offense is built. But even in a post-Brady universe, league-wide trends suggest that it may be some time before another Curtis Martin or even another Dillon becomes a lasting staple of the New England offense.

Alex Speier can be reached at Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.