Running Backs: The Misconception About the Position


Dec 29, 2013; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans running back

Chris Johnson

(28) carries the ball against the Houston Texans during the second half at LP Field. Tennessee won 16-10. Mandatory Credit:

Jim Brown


I’ve been watching closely as to when Chris Johnson will get a new job, and a new home. Like most of the media outlets speculate, he’s on a short list to be the next New York Jet. Here’s the problem with Chris Johnson, and in short, what’s wrong with the running back position. People don’t know the difference between a good running back and an average one.

We are a statistics driven society, so once a guy tops the 1,000 yard barrier he is automatically an average starting caliber running back. If he tops 1,500 yards in a season he’s an All-Pro type of running back. If he tops 2,000 yards, he’s going to be a once in a generation kind of talent. On that same note, once that back hits 30, he’s automatically not worth the money. He’s got too many miles on him, not enough tread in the tires.

Where this comes into play with Chris Johnson is that he’s not at that magic number (30), but he has produced those once in a generation type of numbers. Most analysts I read feel that it’s a passing league, and the position of running back is one step from the fullback position. You can find one anywhere, for a cheap price, and they will all produce mostly the same results.

This is not true. The teams with a good running back don’t have to bring him out on third downs. He can not only run, but he can find cut back lanes, he can run patiently waiting for the play to develop. He can run with burst. He can get the edge and turn the corner. He can put his shoulder down and get a 1st down on 3rd and 2, and you don’t have to go the quick slants and trickery. That same back can pick up a blitz, or change blocking assignments on the fly when the defense overloads, stunts, or does some exotic blitzing. He can catch the ball out of the backfield, and be a reliable, or even dangerous threat catching a pass or running the ball.

If you stick any back in the backfield, after 16 games I’d venture to guess that most would be around or above 1,000 yards rushing. This alone doesn’t make a good back. However, when you look at players like Matt Forte, Adrien Peterson, Willis McGahee (in his prime), Lesean McCoy, or Jamal Charles those are guys that are worth the paychecks they earn. Sometimes, a back comes in like Legarrette Blount, and he makes it hard to distinguish as to why you pay a back five million a year, instead of just one million when it seems like you get just as much production.

Although everyone wants to believe this is a passing league (and it’s trying to be), the pass can’t survive without the run, and vice versa. Look at last year’s Super Bowl winning Seahawks. There is no way they make it that far without the legs of Marshawn Lynch taking the pressure off the pass and moving the offense with the run. The running game is far from dead, and the running backs that make a difference can’t be relegated to just another dime a dozen player to tote the rock. Chris Johnson still fits into that category. He’s a special talent, and a rare player. While it’s sad that draft stock, and free agent prices are diminishing the running back position, it still doesn’t mean that it isn’t one of the key three positions on offense. A Johnson-Ivory backfield may be one way to prove the necessity of the position, the role it should have on offense, and how the modern pass game is not always superior to the modern rushing attack.