The Rise of the Replaceable Running Back

Maurice Jones-Drew tallied 343 carries and 1606 rushing yards in the 2011 season, a superlative output that earned him the NFL rushing crown. Jones-Drew should be elevated to the Rushmore of rushers; instead, he begins the year as a third down running back, playing second fiddle to a guy with less than 700 rushing yards in his career. Why aren’t feature backs valuable commodities anymore?

Since the league’s inception, running backs were the most valuable players on the field. Backs like Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, and most recently LaDainian Tomlinson have owned the league in their prime, filling highlight reels with surreal runs under fan adoration and scrutiny. But the game has shifted radically. Ball carriers been rendered discardable pawns in the game, their careers ticking time bombs with every hit escalating imminent detonation. Statistically, they’re plagued with the shortest career spans, an abbreviated blip on football’s radar.

Mike Shanahan is the Victor Frankenstein of this horror story for fantasy owners, grafting together a nimble offensive line and a one-cut zone blocking scheme. Shanahan’s innovation spawned Terrell Davis, Monster incarnate and essential cog in the late-90s success of the Denver Broncos (having John Elway under center didn’t hurt.) Davis was a 6th round pick who made the Pro Bowl three of his first four years, initial success that was historically unprecedented. His shooting star fizzled out due to injuries, and his stunted career collapsed after only 7 NFL seasons, a mirage of unfulfilled greatness that dimmed as fast as it appeared.

Other running backs to thrive under Shanahan’s wing? Forgettable pros Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns (who later had a pedestrian stint with the Browns,) and Tatum Bell all eclipsed 1000 yards on the ground in a season with Denver. Clinton Portis, aka The Mad Scientist, aka Kid Bro Sweets, aka Dolla Bill, aka Sheriff Gonna Getcha and many other elaborate characters, rushed for over 3000 yards in his rookie and sophomore campaigns under Shanahan. Fans pined for Portis’ success, because increased production led to an uptick in schizophrenically surreal press conferences.

The many faces of Clinton Portis

Today, Shanahan is a fantasy football menace, confounding owners of Redskin backs with his perpetual oscillation of starters. Over the last year, Roy Helu, Tim Hightower, Evan Royster, Ryan Torain, and Alfred Morris have ridden the Shanahan carousel of cyclical production. All found temporary prosperity, and all have a muddled outlook for the future.

Meanwhile, more traditional bosses have copied the Shanahan system of old, featuring untouted backs excelling in the celebrated role. Arian Foster, signed by Houston as an undrafted free agent, has found time in between penning poetry and insulting fantasy owners to become arguably the premier rusher in the league. Foster is one of my favorite players; he has eclectic interests and innate intelligence reminiscent of Ricky Williams. In the near future, I plan on explicating a poetic work of Arian Foster, bridging the gap between genius and blue-collar proletariat. For now, consider Foster’s backfield acumen as his crowning achievement, coming from obscurity into success.

Of the elite players who tote the ball in the NFL, most hail from a humble draft spot. LeSean “Shady” McCoy and Ray Rice, reigning members of the premier RB triumvirate, were both chosen late in the second round. Same with Maurice Jones-Drew and Matt Forte. Jamal Charles, DeMarco Murray, and Frank Gore are products of the third round. Michael Turner was on the board until round 5; Ahmad Bradshaw lasted until round seven. And even first rounders often slid. Chris Johnson and Steven Jackson both lasted until pick 24, with plenty of teams that could use their production forgoing them early on.

A few celebrated backs were taken early on, but all are outliers with troubles. Adrian Peterson and Darren McFadden have both excelled when healthy, but each has missed significant time in each of the past two seasons. Both had backups (Toby Gerhart and Michael Bush, respectively) fill in for extended absences without missing a beat. Marshawn Lynch was a high pick who fizzled in Buffalo before finding his stride in Seattle with the help of both rushing guru Tom Cable and the taste of the rainbow.

Fred Jackson, the man who outperformed Lynch in Buffalo without performance-enhancing treats, calls Division III Coe College his alma mater. After not being offered a college scholarship and ignored by NFL teams in the draft, Jackson played in an American indoor league, followed by a stint in Germany with NFL Europa’s Rhein Fire. Jackson dazzled at Bills training camp and rendered early first rounder Lynch expendable. Then, because they’re the Bills, they wasted another first rounder, this time on backup C.J. Spiller.

So why did the Cleveland Browns buck the trend and trade up to select Trent Richardson third overall? Other franchises have grown hip, yet the perpetually-rebuilding Browns seem hesitant to emerge from the cave and embrace the light. I place the blame on an unlikely culprit, Shaun Alexander.

It’s the year 2000, the not so distant past, and the Seattle Seahawks are on the clock. A short but stout running back from the University of Alabama is available. This player wowed for the Crimson Tide while splitting time as a freshman, before setting many school records as the feature back. The Seattle Seahawks make a trade to acquire this guy (sound familiar?), sending stud WR Joey Galloway to the Cowboys for the pick. The player they take is Shaun Alexander, who became a three time Pro Bowler and the NFL MVP in 2005. The man at the helm of the organization? Mike Holmgren.

I don’t know Holmgren’s karmatic beliefs on reincarnation, but I do know that he recognizes these parallels. The problem is that Holmgren is of the old guard in the NFL, and hasn’t adapted to the new principles governing the drafting of running backs. He wasted a choice on Montario Hardesty, an injury-prone back from the University of Tennessee who Holmgren chose in the second round despite a torrent of injuries (surprise, surprise, Hardesty can’t stay healthy.) Also from Tennessee, a product of the same backfield, is undrafted dynamo Foster. Holmgren needs Richardson to replicate Alexander’s successes if he is to validate his reign in Cleveland. As the refrain goes on Erie shores, don’t get your hopes up.