It’s one of the most exciting weekends of the year in the world of sports: the opening weekend of the NFL playoffs. Eight of the NFL’s top teams battling it out in a win-or-go-home format. Great fans, great coaches and great players. Such as Detroit Lions running back Zach Zenner. Wait…who? When you’ve never heard of a starter at a prominent skill position for a playoff team in the NFL, you know there’s a problem. Recently receiving the “high praise” from outspoken Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett of being hailed as the league’s best white running back, Zenner is one of the many no-name starting running backs dotting the NFL landscape today.
Adrian Peterson and everyone else. That’s how I would best describe the state of the running back position in the present-day NFL. Of course, there are burgeoning stars, such as Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and David Johnson, but the recent history of starlet running backs indicates that their peak years will be limited. But running backs just don’t matter anymore. In a league that embraces fast play and plenty of passing, running backs are no longer a valuable commodity. So, even though free agent running backs complain every offseason about the low-ball contract offers that they receive, why should they be paid more?
And it’s not the running backs’ fault that they’re essentially patsies in the NFL at this point, which makes what Peterson is doing at 31 years old all the more impressive. The NFL is said to stand for “Not for Long,” and that’s especially true for running backs. It’s a cutthroat league, and running backs are merely viewed as play toys for offensive coordinators and star quarterbacks to use at their beck and call.
So, in today’s injury-riddled NFL, running backs who suffer strings of injuries can basically kiss their careers goodbye. Peterson, who has battled several serious injuries in recent years, is still untouchable on the Minnesota Vikings’ roster and will likely hold onto his starting job there into his mid-thirties. As a result, due to the continued embrace of the pass in the NFL, he honestly might be the last running back to ever play at 35 years old. Going a step further, at the time of his eventual Hall of Fame induction, he also might be the last running back ever inducted into Canton.
Running backs just don’t matter enough anymore. At this point, any running back who is decently fast, a solid pass-catcher and not fumble or injury-prone is all that teams want. And the more a running back fits with a particular team’s offensive scheme, the more valuable he is considered. Zach Zenner is a shining example. The undrafted second-year player from South Dakota State has burst onto the scene in Detroit, establishing himself as a temporary hole-filler at the running back position there.
And he’s not alone. There are countless running backs who literally nobody has ever heard of making major impacts for NFL teams. And there have never been more “running back committees” in the NFL than there are now. Remember when the New England Patriots used to raise eyebrows for opting to utilize several low-paid, sub-par running backs rather than one high-paid workhorse running back? Yeah, well, now everyone’s doing it.
Of this season’s 12 playoff teams, only six of them have legitimate starting running backs. Even if injured Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles is factored it, there are only seven. And those are PLAYOFF teams! The supposed best of the league’s 32 teams. Furthermore, of the six teams without true starting running backs, most of the quick fix running backs that they’re using are no-name guys. Undrafted free agents from small colleges. In some cases, guys who are making more of an impact at the professional level than they did at the college level. I mean, some of these guys are like computer-generated players from Madden, for God’s sake. For example, one of New York Giants’ top rushers is a dude named Orleans Darkwa who played college ball at Tulane (which is located in New Orleans). You can’t make this crap up, man! And this is the NFL in 2017. Not the NFL in 1937. There shouldn’t be this many off-the-wall running backs getting carries.
But, again, running backs don’t really matter anymore in the NFL. For what teams expect of them, they’re a dime of dozen. Why do you think there are so few halfbacks drafted in the first round nowadays? The Ezekiel Elliotts of the world are rare. When Maurice Jones-Drew is a First-Team All-Pro at running back in 2011 and is forced to retire a mere few years later because no teams want him, that is a surefire sign that running backs no longer matter all that much.
Adrian Peterson and everyone else. That’s the way that is has been for several years now, and it will likely remain that way for at least a few more. Who will the next Adrian Peterson be? Who will the next All-Pro caliber running back in his thirties be? There may never be another one.