The League

Michael Oriard
Author

Michael Oriard

An English professor at Oregon State University and the author of several books on football, including Brand NFL Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport and The End of Autumn Reflections on My Life in Football

Not Dead, Just Resting

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Is the Feature Back Dead? Has running back by committee replaced the premier back in today's NFL?

I don't know, but some thoughts come to mind. My own memories of the NFL begin in the 1960s, when fullbacks were bruisers who ran over people, and halfbacks were smaller and ran around them. Except for Jim Brown, who did both. Every team had one of each, probably even Cleveland, though can anyone remember who lined up next to Brown?

Brown was the rarest of rare talents -- not just the Browns' but the entire NFL's "feature back." He carried the ball 305 times in 1961, 62 more than anyone else. The model for the rest of the league was in Green Bay, where Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor shared the ball and executed to perfection the famous Packer sweep, while every other team tried to replicate it. Fullbacks were the "workhorses" (Taylor carried the ball almost twice as many times as Hornung in 1961, 243 to 127 in a 14-game season). The leading rushers were all fullbacks: Brown, Taylor, Alex Webster, Nick Pietrosante (the perfect name for the position). Brown's mantle passed to Gayle Sayers and then O.J. Simpson, but through the 1970s running back combos like Czonka and Kiick in Miami (with Mercury Morris to provide outside speed) and Harris and Bleier, in Pittsburgh, continued as the norm.

The West Coast offense that emerged in the 80s had room only for one in the backfield. With defenses expecting a pass on every play, these solo runners had the element of surprise, and, no surprise, the 1980s ushered in an era of great running backs: Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, Marcus Allen, Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, et al. Halfbacks became bigger and fullbacks faster, until the distinction disappeared or became irrelevant.

Did the system make the backs, or were the backs of that era truly exceptional? Tough question; the answer, probably, some of both. Systems matter, but so do players. It's like the NBA, where you couldn't win a championship without a dominant big man, until Michael Jordan arrived.

That era of the feature back does seem to be passing, but don't tell the Vikings, who probably are not inclined to have Adrian Peterson share the ball with anyone. Peterson may turn out to be the true heir of Brown (and Marion Motley before him), Sayers, and O.J. But rare talents, after all, are rare, probably made rarer by the extraordinary athleticism on the defense. Three-hundred-fifty-pound nose tackles cannot be run over, no matter how bruising the runner. Lawrence Taylor was unique when he joined the Giants in 1981, but he became the prototype for everyone's outside linebackers today. Unless NFL players start becoming smaller, slower, and weaker, rare talents at running back are going to remain rarer.

But football is still played by the players, and the truly great ones come and go on no predictable schedule. The feature back can never be dead, only hibernating.

By Michael Oriard  |  August 17, 2009; 7:52 PM ET  | Category:  Coaching , Fantasy Football , Michael Turner , Minnesota Vikings , Reggie Bush , Running Backs Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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