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Running games, feature backs have become almost nonexistent in NFL

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 9:48 p.m.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles hands off to running back LeSean McCoy as the Eagles warm up for a preseason game against the Chicago Bears on Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, in Chicago.

NFL running backs once judged themselves by how well they ran on second-and-5, how they ran during the second half and how successful they were with their second effort.

That's changed in the era of the disposable running back. Now an elite runner is considered to be one who makes it to a second contract.

Not that long ago, running backs carried star status just below that of quarterbacks and boasted a salary to match. Not anymore.

In these days of four receiver sets and fast-tempo offenses, the NFL isn't a run-to-daylight league. Rather, this appears to be the twilight of the feature back, those durable and dependable runners who manufactured 25 carries and 110 yards every week.

“There are still running backs? In the NFL?” said Hall of Famer Franco Harris, the Steelers' career rushing leader. “I thought that was extinct. You really don't see the running game anymore.”

Teams still run the ball. Marshawn Lynch (1,257 yards, 12 touchdowns) was a primary reason the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl. But the importance of the running game is in decline, as are running back salaries and the number of running backs selected early in the NFL Draft. No running back was drafted in the first round in 2013 or '14, and none went until well into the second round this year.

Forty years ago, teams ran 57 percent of the time. Last season, it was 41.7 percent. What was a run-heavy league has become a catch-and-run league.

With so much more emphasis on the passing game, and stopping it, teams are devoting their prime picks to wide receivers, cornerbacks, pass rushers and quarterbacks and the linemen who protect them.

Only two running backs — No. 11 Adrian Peterson ($11.75 million) and No. 31 LeSean McCoy ($7.65 million), the former Pitt star — rank in the top 50 in base salaries this season, according to Spotrac, a website that tracks contracts.

“A running back coming out of college, you might be paying him $300,000,” former Denver Broncos star running back Terrell Davis said. “A (second-contract) veteran gets $1 million. So teams are getting rid of the older back. Running back has the shortest shelf life of any position in football, so are you going to go with a 22-year-old running back or a 30-year-old back?”

ESPN stats show the average running back's production drops sharply after he reaches age 27. Peterson's yardage fell by 40 percent (2,097 yards to 1,266) last season when he was 28.

A drafted running back who plays all four college seasons and enters the league at 22 can't negotiate a second contract until he is 26 — or just one year away from when his numbers figure to drop. Some teams sign a back, use him for three or four seasons or fewer, then look elsewhere.

“One thing the National Football League proves to all of us is that backs explode onto the scene every year, and they come in different forms, free agents and so forth,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

A prime example is Alfred Morris, a nondescript sixth-round pick by the Washington Redskins from Florida Atlantic in 2012. He is second only to Peterson with 2,888 yards the past two seasons.

Of the NFL's 13 1,000-yard rushers last season, only 30-year-old Frank Gore (1,128 yards) of the San Francisco 49ers was older than 28. And of the past five Super Bowl champions, only the Seahawks had a feature back.

“As we've seen through time, the running game has gotten less and less, and that takes away from the game, the excitement of the game,” Harris said. “It takes away from the execution of the game, the blocking and the tackling and timing. I just feel a running game adds so much to the game and the mental attitude of your players.”

As NFL teams shop for free agents, sometimes the low-mileage backs are preferable to the high-yardage backs.

Toby Gerhart of the Jacksonville Jaguars was one of the few running backs to sign a nice-sized contract ($10.5 million, three years) in March. He carried only 86 times during the past two seasons as Peterson's backup.

Backs with more production but also more wear and tear, such as the Steelers' LeGarrette Blount ($3.85 million, two years) got much less.

The new criteria are young, fresh, fast and cheap.

Eddie Lacy, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year from the Green Bay Packers, signed a $3.39 million, four-year contract last year. But with only $1 million guaranteed, he is wary of piling up big bills before he gets a second contract, which can't come until 2017.

So last season, he still drove the 20-year-old car he had at Alabama, and he spent part of his offseason living in his parents' house trailer.

Fullbacks — remember them? — are all but gone from the league, their blocking roles now filled by bigger tight ends. (The Steelers still have a fullback, Will Johnson, on their roster, but he has spent training camp working with the tight ends.)

However, the Steelers are trying to become the exception, a team that builds around not only the pass but also the run. Doomed to an 0-4 start last season partly because of an injury to Le'Veon Bell, they signed Blount and plan to use him often.

“It's a luxury to be able to have a guy like that,” NFL Network analyst Solomon Wilcots said. “You're not going to run your offense through him. … It's an add-on. It's not your staple diet. It's your dessert.”

Harris, who was 50 yards short of averaging 1,000 yards per season during his 12 years with Pittsburgh, is delighted to see his former team commit to the run — and a balanced offense.

“Wouldn't it be interesting if a couple of teams said, ‘You know what? Our game is now the running game. We're going to totally dominate with the running game,' ” Harris said. “It would freak everybody out. It would throw all the defenses. They wouldn't know what to do.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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