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(Not So) New-Age Running Backs

(Not So) New-Age Running Backs

01/08/2021
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By Andy Phillips
Special to the Pro Football Hall of Fame

For as long as the National Football League has been around, the terms “workhorse” and “bell cow” have been used to describe the game’s running backs. Those terms don’t mean the players themselves are as large as a horse or a cow, but rather they can handle an intense workload of carries and hits week in and week out. The game long has appreciated that style of back, and many reside in Canton today: Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Jerome Bettis and Barry Sanders to name a few.

Another term you often heard to describe a tandem backfield was “Thunder and Lighting” – the workhorse being the “Thunder” and the speed back supplying the “Lightning.” Think of the 2006 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers with Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker, the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins with Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris or even go back to the Lombardi-era Green Bay Packers with Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung.

Recently, however, the game has shifted to such a pass-happy league, making a workhorse such as Derrick Henry rare. Every team searches for its own “do-it-all” back in the mold of Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara who can combine the “Thunder” and “Lightning” into one.

McCaffrey and Kamara are the modern-day prototypes for exactly what every franchise seeks in the NFL Draft. These players not only can carry the ball 18 times a game, but they also can be targeted another 10 times in the passing game. What makes these two even more incredible in the passing game is they don’t catch the ball only on swing routes and screens; their teams split these guys out and let them run almost the entire route tree.

While today’s game certainly is more tailored to this style of back, let’s not get confused and believe this is the first era with this type of dynamic player. No, this story goes all the way back to 1958.

Lenny Moore, the Godfather of Receiving Running Backs, finished in the Top 8 in the league in both rushing and receiving yards to help lead the Baltimore Colts to the NFL Championship. To show just how dynamic Moore was during his Hall of Fame career, one statistic jumps off the page: He led the NFL in yards per touch each of his first six seasons to begin his career.

Simply stated: When the Colts put the ball in his hands, great things happened.

When Moore’s career was coming to an end, “The Kansas Comet” was beginning his great, yet quick, domination in Chicago.

Gale Sayers, who passed away in 2020, is known for being one of the greatest playmakers this game has ever had. While his career did not have the longevity of many of the all-time greats, his impact was by no means less. To give you an example of his dynamic ability, look at Sayers’ per-season averages for his first two years: 197.5 carries, 1,049 rushing yards, 31.5 receptions, 477 receiving yards, 15 touchdowns.

What’s incredible about those numbers wasn’t only that they came during a time with less passing, but also when there were only 14 games in a season.

Another player who shot onto the scene quickly was former Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen. He is well known for his majestic 74-yard touchdown scamper in Super Bowl XVIII that helped the Los Angeles Raiders win in a rout, but the entirety of his first four seasons is as good as the league has seen.

Here are Allen’s per-game averages during that stretch: 19.0 carries, 81.4 rushing yards, 4.2 receptions, 40.4 receiving yards, 1 TD.

The ability to average 120-plus scrimmage yards and a touchdown every game for a four-year period is part of what made Allen a Hall of Famer. The 16 seasons, 1985 MVP Award (the fourth season in his hyper-productive span) and a Super Bowl ring didn’t hurt, either.

While the Buffalo Bills of the late 1980s and early ’90s were known for the “K-Gun” offense they ran with future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, there is no mistaking that Thurman Thomas was the focal point of those teams.

During a five-year stretch (1989-1993), Thomas helped the Bills reach four consecutive Super Bowls and won the MVP Award in 1991 by averaging 360.2 touches per season. Imagine not only getting that many touches over a five-year span in the regular season, but also having all the additional touches and hits during four long playoff runs.

Thomas’ durability was freakish. To understand what it was like to watch him, look at Kamara today. Both players run much bigger than their size, run routes like a wide receiver and, most importantly, they have arguably the best balance the league has witnessed.

Hall of Fame Coach Marv Levy once said that when you tried to hit Thurman, you didn’t knock him down, you just moved him over. That phrase also describes Kamara perfectly.

When Christian McCaffrey became the latest member of the 1,000/1,000 Club for rushing and receiving yards in 2019, it made me reflect on the insane numbers produced by the catalyst of “The Greatest Show on Turf”: Marshall Faulk. He became the second member of the 1,000/1,000 Club, in 1999, but that might not even be one of his Top 3 statistical feats during his career.

For that, I give you my Top 3:

  • In 1998, Faulk was sixth in carries (324) and third in receptions (86) in the entire NFL.
  • In 2001, Faulk was Top 5 in both rushing (12) and receiving touchdowns (9).
  • From 1998-2001, Faulk recorded at least 1,319 rushing yards and 81 receptions.

Faulk’s statistics weren’t just gaudy numbers for a bad team. He was putting up those numbers while helping the St. Louis Rams to two Super Bowls, winning one in 1999. This former MVP (2000) and three-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year (1999-2001) ran his way straight into Canton.

Finally, before this new era officially began, there was one more player who provided both the “Thunder” and the “Lightning” by himself, and he happened to do it while wearing a bolt on his helmet most of his career.

LaDainian Tomlinson (L.T.) is still third on the all-time touchdowns list with 162, trailing only fellow Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith. He holds the single-season record for TDs with 31 in 2006. A true mark of consistency was Tomlinson’s first eight seasons in the NFL: He ran for at least 1,000 yards and caught at least 50 passes in each season.

It’s hard enough to stay healthy for a long period of time in the NFL, especially at running back, but L.T. was able to play at an elite level each year as well.

In today’s NFL, running backs like Derrick Henry often lead us to be nostalgic over the glory days of great workhorses or bell cows at the position. While on the other hand, many believe that the likes of Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey are truly “Not Your Grandfather’s Running Backs.” In reality, the do-it-all back has been around since the beginning, the game itself just wasn’t up to speed with them.

Before saying the guys of today are the “new era” or they have “changed the game,” it might be time to look back and realize the game already was changed by the guys noted above; the league just wasn’t ready for them.

Andy Phillips was a do-it-all Pop Warner star who played on the offensive line at Central Michigan University before a stint with the Green Bay Packers in 2015. He has a passion for the NFL, the history of the game and of the people who have made it the greatest league in the world. He will share that passion monthly on ProFootballHOF.com. Follow him on Twitter: @aphil66

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