Finance, Physics Overshadow Running Backs

For a long time the running back was the face of many NFL teams. Senior writer Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated talks to Linda Wertheimer about the diminished role of running backs in the NFL. Layden argues that the NFL has become a quarterback's league, with many coaches emphasizing the passing game.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

For a long time, the running back was the face of many an NFL team: Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith - as a fan, I have to mention John Riggins. The running back, of course, takes the ball from the quarterback and tries to evade defenders, grinding out the yards on the ground.

Now, though, the running back has become the league's most endangered species, according to Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden. He joins us now.

Good morning.

Mr. TIM LAYDEN (Senior Writer, "Sports Illustrated"): Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So you write that running backs are endangered because of finance and physics. So let's start with physics.

Mr. LAYDEN: Well, what's happened - as one coach described it to me - is that the serious evolution, physically, in the game of football has taken place on the defensive side of the ball. Athletes have become much bigger, much faster, much stronger and much more dangerous to the offensive players.

As a result, the running back - who carries the ball 15 or 20 or 25 times a game - is taking a great deal more punishment. And, as Larry Johnson of the Washington Redskins said to me, you have to remember that the running back is the hit-ee on every play...

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Right.

Mr. LAYDEN: ...whether he's running with the ball or blocking.

WERTHEIMER: And what about the finances? Are teams just less willing to shell out for star running backs these days, considering that they're just going to get torn up?

Mr. LAYDEN: Yeah. It's the fact that they're going to be abused. And it's also the fact that there has been a gradual belief, among front office general managers and coaches, that running backs - as one running back said to me - are recyclable. In other words, if you have good offensive line and a good quarterback, any running back can get you the production that you need, and you don't really need a star there that you will overpay for that production.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that part of this is that passing is just some how more glamorous these days? I mean, as the defensive line has gotten bigger, so have quarterbacks.

Mr. LAYDEN: Yeah, Linda, it's interesting. I mean, I spent two years prior to the season writing a book on the evolution of the game. And one of the things that came out very strongly was the change from a running-based game - which the NFL was for many, many years - to now a passing-based game, where teams pass the ball more than 60 percent of the time. And all of the money the teams spend is on pass-base positions: the quarterback, the wide receiver, the defensive back, the blocking left tackle. And the running game is almost become an afterthought.

WERTHEIMER: Can you think of any running backs that you think do have staying power, or do have glamour, do reach out to the fans?

Mr. LAYDEN: The young man from the Tennessee Titans, Chris Johnson, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards last year - only sixth running back in history to do that - is a very exciting, very fast and dynamic player. And - now, he did touch the ball more than 400 times last year, which would indicate that he will have a short shelf-life. However, he's very shifty, very fast and has some of these ethereal, difficult-to-quantify qualities where he doesn't seem to take explosive hits all the time.

He gets skinny, as they say in the business, which means he makes his body small right before impact. So I guess there's a chance he could last longer than some. But history tells us that running backs come with an expiration date stamped on their helmet, and they won't play much beyond that.

WERTHEIMER: Tim Layden writes for Sports Illustrated. He's senior writer, and his new book is called "Blood, Sweat and Chalk."

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