By this point, a day before the 2023 NFL draft, it seems as though the conversation regarding running backs has been had from just about every angle imaginable. Plenty of proverbial “ink” has been spilled on this platform, as well as Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, and more in reference to the idea that running backs carry less value than any position on an NFL offense (or maybe team overall). Heck, one of the foremost sources for advanced data on the inter-webs takes its name from the saying “Running backs don’t matter.”
The argument can really be broken down into two parts.
Primarily, that passing is more efficient and more important than running, and secondly, that 96% of the success of a run play is determined by field position, and how many defenders are in “the box” before the snap.
To boil this down, running the ball excessively is not a good way to win NFL football games, and when you do run the ball, “who” is carrying the ball has little to no impact on the outcome of the play.
Yet every few years, there seems to be a running back prospect in the draft that makes people forget those principles and claim that this player is “different”.
This year that player happens to be Bijan Robinson, from the University of Texas, with a side of Jahmyr Gibbs from Alabama. Robinson was fantastic for the Longhorns, and is considered to be one of the best prospects in the 2023 NFL draft, and Gibbs has been linked to Dallas multiple times in the last few days. Like many of the “different” backs before them, Robinson and Gibbs have abilities as pass catchers that will be used to justify using a first-round pick to acquire them.
This is not simply a Bijan Robinson/Jahmyr Gibbs conversation however. It is a universal running back problem.
The Alignment A
The problem with the running back, in a simplified manner, is that where he lines up before the snap precludes him from being a consistently positive impact on the game.
For example, in the image below from the Cowboys wild card round win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Dallas offense is in a very typical formation for the NFL in 2022-2023. This 2x2 formation with a single running back goes by a variety of names, but the name is not of importance here. but take note of where the running back is standing.
In this formation, and in most under center formations, the running back is coached to have his toes seven yards behind the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile no one else on the offense is more than a yard off the ball, and 8 of the 11 defenders are within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
When teams are in the shotgun the running back gets a little bit of help, moving up next to the quarterback, with his toes at five yards. But he’s still the furthest member of the offense (other than the quarterback) away from the line of scrimmage.
It’s common sense that from these positions, set back from the line of scrimmage by 5-7 yards, the running back will have a harder time becoming a down-the-field passing option.
This creates a problem, because in order for a player to be a valuable target in the passing game, he has to be an option down the field as passes at or near the line of scrimmage are only slightly more valuable than running plays, while remaining much less valuable than their intermediate and deep pass counterparts.
The proposed solution to this problem is usually something along the lines of “this running back can line up and run routes from the slot”, so is that the answer?
The Slot Conundrum
The slot position has gained a ton of momentum over the course of the last 10-15 years in the NFL to the point where some NFL offenses, (like the Cowboys with CeeDee Lamb) often place their best receiver in the slot to increase their value, so it makes sense that putting a running back here might increase their value as a pass catcher as well.
However, studies have shown that even when aligned in the slot running backs produce less value as pass targets than wide receivers or tight ends from the same alignment, primarily because these targets are still much closer to the line of scrimmage.
Unsurprisingly, there is a marked difference between how close these targets occur relative to the line to gain: wide receiver slot targets averaged 1.0 yards past the first-down marker, tight end slot targets were 0.2 yards past the line to gain on average and running back slot targets averaged a massive 5.0 yards short of the distance needed to pick up a new set of downs. Limiting our scope to target depths within two yards of the line to gain diminishes the sample sizes considerably but does not change the receivers 2:1 advantage over running backs in generating value on slot targets. - Eric Eager & George Chahrouri at PFF
How would this happen though? Why would running backs run shorter routes, and be targeted on shallower throws than other players even from the same alignments?
This is where the real running back problem comes into play, and one that is not easily solved.
The Protection Predicament
When offensive coaches design plays they design the protections to match the route concepts being run down the field. For their deepest attempts, they dial up max protections, keeping seven or even eight guys in to block to give the target time to get down the field before the quarterback gets pressured. As a general rule, they’ll use 5-man “empty” pass protection for their short quick game throws, (thus the short depth of target for running backs out of the slot), and utilize 6-man protections for intermediate concepts. These intermediate throws are the most efficient part of an NFL offense, they are a quick way to get a first down, without taking the risk of throwing the ball up for grabs 40 yards down field, but manipulating defenders with route combinations can result in big gains after the catch and the all important explosive play. All of this makes that sixth pass blocker very important, your quarterback has to have time to let the routes develop and deliver an accurate pass.
The running back, aligned 5-7 yards off the line of scrimmage is the most advantageously placed offensive player to be that sixth pass blocker. If the defense brings an extra rusher the running back has an angle to see it coming and reach him almost no matter where he comes from, and if the quarterback sees a defensive tendency coming, having the running back in the protection allows him to easily make the adjustment to match that defense.
If the running back regularly moves to the slot, or even out wide as a pass target, the options for 6-man pass protection are significantly limited. In fact, many defenses have built in calls to bring Cover-0 blitzes against empty backfield looks. A tight end can be part of the protection scheme, but even aligned in-line he can only help one side of the protection, and you don’t want him to be left one-on-one against a true edge rusher, meaning you can’t really adjust well to inside pressure either. Making the tight end a limited part of the protection plan.
So in order to utilize a running back as a downfield weapon on more than an occasional basis, the team has to make structural changes to their offense.
Either they have to take a wide receiver or tight end off the field, to use two running backs, allowing one to be available for protection, while the other runs a route down field from the slot, or they have to move a tight end or wide receiver into the backfield to be a part of the protection plan.
But does it make sense to do that? To move players who’s full time job is to catch passes down the field, out of that role, to put a less skilled route runner and ball catcher in their spot?
For the Cowboys that would mean taking Brandin Cooks or Michael Gallup, both quite effective down field receivers off the field, to line a running back like Bijan Robinson or Jahmyr Gibbs in the slot enough to get them enough down field targets each week to actually provide value as pass catchers.
While both Robinson and Gibbs are better than the typical running back at catching the ball, neither are as effective running routes down the field and making catches in coverages as Cooks or Gallup, or any teams third wide receiver.
And that is the real problem with running backs.