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College football: Could Adrian Peterson be the end of the feature back era?

BY CODY STAVENHAGEN, Staff Writer, cstavenhagen@opubco.com Published: August 20, 2014
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“(Running backs) were hard to get, because there’s still not many elite guys,” Jones said. “Now when everybody, the high schools in this state, were running the wishbone, there were more guys who lined up at that position. How good they were is debatable, but there were more guys that lined up at running back.”

Schematics or not, there’s no denying running backs dominated the game.

A telling fact: A back won the Heisman Trophy every year from 1972-83. Only two (Reggie Bush and Mark Ingram) have won it since 2000 — and one of those was vacated.

“In one era, you had Billy Sims, Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Thurman Thomas, all about the same period of time,” Jones said. “There’s a bust in Canton of every one of them, but it all goes in cycles as far as elite guys.”

TAILBACK DEPRESSION

So why are so few of these thoroughbreds left?

First, running back is likely the most physically demanding position in football. The average career expectancy for NFL running backs is 3.1 years, and the number continues to shrink. A recent Washington Post study predicts Peterson himself has less than three seasons left in the tank.

“No. 1 is more punishment,” Long said. “Defensive players are getting faster, they’re stronger. So something’s got to give.”

And of course, there’s the influx of pass-heavy offenses. In 1980, the NFL’s run-pass ratio was nearly 50-50. Since 2000, playoff teams had a combined ratio of 46 percent run and 54 percent pass.

Defenses have changed, too. The advent of amoeba eight-man fronts with versatile linebackers and safeties makes it difficult to scheme for the running game.

Those reasons alone have caused NFL contract values to gravitate away from running backs. This offseason, the top 10 free-agent running backs signed for an average value of $2.47 million per year. The top 10 receivers signed for an average of $4.8 million.

There’s also a continuing shift toward running-back-by-committee approaches in college and the NFL. In the pros, backfield tandems such as Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller with the Buffalo Bills are commonplace.

Last season, top-10 college teams had their lead back receive close to 40 percent of the team’s total carries. From a historic scope, that number is a decline, but not radically low.

However, OU and OSU are both schools rich with tradition at running back, and both have used committee approaches in recent years.

OSU sophomore Rennie Childs said he joined the Cowboys knowing he’d be used in some sort of committee, and sees the benefits of it.

“I feel like it just brings different types of running styles to the game and throwing different things at the defense,” Childs said. “Then we can have fresh legs by switching out running backs.”

But the old guard contends if elite backs were around, they would be used as such.

“When you have Adrian Peterson or Billy Sims or somebody that you need to have touch the ball 30 times a game, they need to play where they can touch it 30 times because they’re difference makers,” Switzer said. “They separate themselves from the committee and they become chairman of the board.”

And there’s little basis for the idea that players who once would have become Hall of Fame running backs are now playing other positions.

“I ask if you’re going to put Earl Campbell at wideout,” Jones said. “Then I get a bunch of blank stares. Are you going to put Eric Dickerson or Billy Sims and play them at wideout? Hell no you’re not.”

Teams at all levels are going away from the idea of using one feature back for a variety of reasons, but in the rare cases like when Peterson walked through the doors at OU, special talent prevails.

Feature backs might be an endangered species, but there’s little reason to think they will be extinct anytime soon.

“You’re going to have a Marcus Dupree, Emmitt Smith, Adrian Peterson coming down the road,” Long said. “Everybody was talking about Michael Jordan, who’s going to be the next Michael Jordan? Well, LeBron James is pretty good. I still think there’s going to be those guys, those special backs in the future. You could be in that cycle where there’s not right now, but there will be soon.”