It seems the NFL is running back to its roots.
Once upon a time, teams thrived off running the ball. Most elite teams in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s relied on a strong running game. Over the past decade, quarterbacks have basked in the spotlight. Because of it, the once famed position of the running back became somewhat irrelevant.
While guys like Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore, and Marshawn Lynch created their niche as potent runners, their success didn’t compare to the darlings of the league. Spearheaded by Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Brett Favre, a passing frenzy took over the NFL.
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From the rule changes to the style of play, the goal was clear. Make the NFL quarterback great again. In order to put bodies into seats, teams would have to score more. There is a reason the old cliché suggests offense sells tickets. Rule changes benefited the passing game, sometimes at the expense of the run. Due to the increase amount of passes, the rushing game took a hit.
Last season, only seven rushers ran for 1,000 yards or more. Dating back to 2002, there’s never been less than 13 total 1,000-yard backs in the league. That number hit its peak in 2006 when 23 players ran for 1,000 yards or more. Like rushing yards, touchdowns on the ground took a significant hit as well. In 2015, Adrian Peterson, Devonta Freeman, Jeremy Hill and DeAngelo Williams led the league with 11 touchdowns. That was the lowest mark since 1987 when Johnny Hector and Charles White accomplished the feat.
Thus far, 2016 hallmarks the comeback. Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott surpassed 1,000 yards in nine games and is an MVP candidate. LeGarrette Blount leads the NFL with 12 touchdowns, having already surpassed last year’s best total.
In addition to Zeke and Blount’s success, there are at least 12 players on pace to surpass the 1000-yard mark. While they don’t dominate as much as they did in ’06, running backs are trending upwards again.
It’s no coincidence that the decline in quarterback play has something to do with the recent success of the running back. While Brady, Brees, Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers continue to put up big numbers, the league is overflowing with pedestrian quarterbacks. Brock Osweiler, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Trevor Siemian are just a few that hold that honor in high regard.
Coaches around the league adapted to football of yesteryear, and for some teams, it’s paying dividends. When looking at individual division leaders, outside of the Detroit Lions, seven teams heavily feature their run games.
The NFL has always been a league of imitation. We saw teams replicate the “Wildcat” formation (a descendant of the single-wing formation of the 1920s), and we’ve witnessed others attempt to adopt a pass-first offense. As the style of play in the league has reverted back into a running back-led game, the concept will spread throughout.
It may also have an impact on the upcoming NFL draft. For college running backs such as Donnel Pumphrey, Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette, the renaissance of the position will profit them come draft day.
Although the shelf-life of NFL runners is short, it is becoming clear that top-tier backs are once again a necessity.
Just last season, the running game across the league was in need of a lifeline. As history repeats, the NFL rusher is back, and because of it, many teams are no longer in need of being resuscitated.
Columbus, Ohio born. Ron is a first-ballot healthy hairline hall of famer. He spent the summer of ‘08 eating calamari pasta because of OJ Da Juiceman. He also loves to write about sports while listening to Sada Baby. Follow him on Twitter @Ron_Hamp