SI Vault
 
PART 1: Crash Course
TIM LAYDEN
August 23, 2010
Once the face of the game, the feature back is falling victim to the harsh laws of physics and economics. Brutal hits and a brief shelf life are turning the elite runner into the league's most endangered species
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 23, 2010

Part 1: Crash Course

Once the face of the game, the feature back is falling victim to the harsh laws of physics and economics. Brutal hits and a brief shelf life are turning the elite runner into the league's most endangered species

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3 4 5

Eddie George had a tough soul. And a tough everything else. The 1995 Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State, George played for the Titans from 1996 to 2004 and was a Big Back by every measure—a 6'3", 235-pound bulldozer whose 21.4 carries per game over the first eight years of his career is among the highest in league history over such a span. He would have looked perfectly at home in a leather helmet. When George entered the league, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders were still active, and running backs were still giants.

"Over the course of my career I saw that change," says George. "The NFL became a quarterbacks' league. A passing league. And the business of the league changed with all of that. After quarterbacks, the important positions were left tackle, pass rusher, wideout, cornerback—all the positions associated with the passing game. Running backs have become less important." Salaries reflect that. The 2010 franchise tender—the average of the league's top five salaries—is lower for running back than for any other position except defensive tackle, safety, tight end and kicker--punter.

As franchises deemphasize the search for the next Marcus Allen or Earl Campbell, they recycle the familiar concept of sharing carries among two or three backs. On the unbeaten 1972 Dolphins, Larry Csonka carried 213 times, Mercury Morris 190 and Jim Kiick 137 (in a 14-game season). On the Super Bowl champion '76 Steelers, Franco Harris had 289 carries and Rocky Bleier 220; both went over 1,000 yards.

The reasons now are the same as the reasons then. First, to lessen the pounding on a single back. "Think about how much bigger and faster defensive players have gotten in the last 20 years," says Gailey. "But the field is the same size. So for running backs, the field is shrinking every year."

And second, to stock an offense with complementary talents. Ryan offers this explanation for dumping Jones's salary and then grabbing Tomlinson to run with Greene. "Thomas and Shonn are very similar," says Ryan. "They're both that battering-ram-type runner. LaDainian gives us a little more flexibility."

Ray Rice, Ravens, 3rd season

Status: learning

• "Here's the difference between college and the NFL," says Rice, 23, who rushed for 1,339 yards and caught 78 passes last year, his second season out of Rutgers. "In college it's all instinctive. If I want to have a long career in the NFL, the fundamentals are going to carry me." But those fundamentals aren't simple.

Ravens running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery, who played nine years in the league, has been teaching Rice how to read the outside zone running play. "It's all about the triangle," says Rice, who takes a notebook and begins animatedly diagramming. "The points of the triangle are the three technique [defensive tackle] and the [inside and outside] linebackers. As I'm running outside, I have to see the three, feel the inside linebacker and move the outside linebacker. As simple as it sounds, your feet are moving fast and your brain has to move just as fast. [In the NFL] there are 100 things like that."

For the modern back the game is a race to earn money before the tires fall flat, a reality that often doesn't hit until deep into a career. "When you're young, you don't see past your youth and strength," says Priest Holmes, who played for 10 years and gained 8,172 yards with the Ravens and the Chiefs. "You don't see the toll on your body, and you don't worry about it. But as you get older, you have to get wiser. You realize the game is [about] getting first downs and winning, not dishing out some big hit on the sideline so you get on ESPN."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5