It has been apparent recently that the game of football in the NFL is changing. With the upcoming season looking to be uncapped, more complex defenses, a new breed of athletes and many teams relying heavily on their passing games, there is no question that the league has changed significantly in the past decade and will continue to change. Of all the positions on the field, the running backs have and will be shown the least amount of mercy in this ever changing game.
The days of longevity in stars like Emmitt Smith, Larry Csonka and Jim Brown are over. The speed of the game has increased and the defensive players are bigger and hit harder. The running backs take a beating, taking the most hits of any player game-in and game-out. They get hurt more frequently nowadays, and plenty of talent in a team’s depth chart allow for them to be replaced quite easily. In fact, most teams are implementing a two or three back system so they do not have to rely on one back carrying the entirety of the loads. Common examples of this can be seen in Dallas’s triple threat in Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice as well as New Orleans’s depth of Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell.
Superstars do emerge in the league still, but it is both unfortunate and inevitable that they will be short-lived. Shaun Alexander was atop the most valued running backs in the mid-2000s, but after a few seasons got cut, had a short stint with the Redskins and now cannot find a job. He hit his prime in his mid-20s and was cut by the age of 30.
Age has not been as much of a factor in determining “how much fuel is left in the tank” though. It has been seen that player “mileage”, or amount of time he has played, is the most important factor in determining how good of a running back a player still is. A perfect example of this can be seen in Ricky Williams who is approaching 33-years-old and is still taking a great amount of the load successfully in Miami’s backfield. Williams has sat out a few seasons due to substance-abuse reasons and has also missed a significant amount of game-time due to injury.
Though some may be excited about Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson, they will soon share the same fates as the forgotten previous stars of Jamal Lewis, Tiki Barber, Corey Dillon, Priest Holmes, and the more recent LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson. History will repeat itself in today’s game of football. Unlike other positions such as quarterback, who can have long storied careers, there will be no Brett Favres in the halfback position.
This brings us to the current state of the league, with the looming non-salary cap season. In a non-capped season, several disadvantages can be seen in investing heavy money on once-great or uncertain running backs. Teams will spit money out to players they know will produce, not only for the current season but even down the road for several years to come.
For many players it is easier to see how they will perform. Jeff Garcia has jumped around to a few teams and seen a bit of success, as well as Ty Law has at cornerback. Law has been around the league, and although he is up there in age, each team that picks him up knows they are getting a decent cornerback that is sufficient enough if they are in dire need of one.
With the amount of depth at running back and several great free agents, it will be unlikely that a team will invest big money in such risky players at that position. Instead, smart teams will attempt to fill their other needs and be more willing to spend their new excess of cash to do so.
There are several decent backs that are free agents, in Tomlinson, Thomas Jones, Brian Westbrook, Chester Taylor, Kevin Faulk and Willie Parker, but it will still be a risk investing in any one of them. I agree that most of these players will be picked up at some point, but probably not at the price one might expect in an uncapped year.
With the growing talent seen in the league now, and even more so in years to come, it will be harder and harder for running backs to compete at such a high successful level. Defensive players will be even nastier in years to come and will be able to be drafted more effectively due to advances in scouting. Halfbacks’ years of success could drop from the current 5 or 6 to even less than that. While running backs will always have their place on the field, fewer and fewer will be categorized as legendary.