The game of football, like any other sport, has seen big changes over the years, driven by a multitude of factors, such as evolving rules, tactics, player capabilities, and advanced statistical analyses.
One of the profound changes in the National Football League (NFL) has been the relative devaluation of the running back (RB) position compared to other key roles such as quarterbacks, offensive tackles, and pass rushers.
This change has been driven primarily by shifts towards more pass-oriented offenses and a deeper understanding of what truly contributes to a successful run play.
The Rising Importance of Passing Offense and Defense
The NFL has seen significant rule changes in recent years, which, when combined with the increased skill level of quarterbacks, has led to a more pass-dominant game.
Simply put, passing has become more efficient than running.
Due to these changes, resources, both in terms of player salaries and team development, are naturally flowing more into pass offense and defense as opposed to the running game (and the defense of the run).
It’s not that the running game is no longer important, but rather the value attributed to it relative to the passing game has diminished.
A Deeper Understanding of Play Success Factors
Another essential factor contributing to the devaluation of the running back position is the significant advancements in statistical analysis.
NFL teams have gone beyond the traditional metrics such as yards per carry (YPC), to evaluate the effectiveness of a player or a play.
They’ve looked deeper into “above expectation” or DVOA-like statistics, effectively trying to isolate the individual contribution of a specific player to a play’s success.
From such analyses, they’ve found that most of what goes into the success of running plays is more dependent on scheme and the talent of the offensive line than previously thought.
As a result, teams have started questioning the value of investing heavily in running backs when the extra value between a successful expensive vet and a cheaper mid-round rookie, as an example, doesn’t seem to justify the gap in investment, especially considering the other vital positions they have to address on the roster.
How Resource Allocation Has Shifted
Positions like quarterbacks, offensive tackles, and edge rushers are now getting a more significant chunk of the salary cap, reflecting their perceived contribution to the team’s success.
This shift, set against the backdrop of a rising salary cap, has led to these positions seeing a more substantial market growth, whereas the market for running backs has remained more or less stagnant.
The Exceptional Cases
Of course, like any trend, there are exceptions.
Running backs who offer a more diverse set of skills—those who can catch, block, and even throw in addition to running—still command respect and resources.
Players like Christian McCaffrey, who have multifaceted skill sets, can still demand top dollar and remain key components of their teams.
Aaron Schatz On DVOA, Modern Analytics, If Analytics Are Killing The Running Back
Overall, the devaluation of running backs doesn’t mean they’re not valuable. It’s just that their value, compared to other positions, has become less pronounced in the modern NFL.
With the continued evolution of the game and emergence of new strategies and player skills, it remains to be seen how the roles and relative value of different positions will further change in the future.