Twilight of the running back

Last year's draft was the first since the AFL-NFL merger in which no running back was chosen in the first round. This year's draft nearly became the first in which no running back was chosen in the first two rounds. The initial runner selected, Bishop Sankey by Tennessee, went in the bottom of Round 2, more than 24 hours after the draft began. And in the offseason, the free-agency market for running backs was soft -- low interest, low offers.

Is it the twilight of the running back?

The fullback offers a cautionary tale. A generation ago, every offense had two backs in the backfield, sometimes three. Even the 49ers' West Coast offense under Bill Walsh, then cutting edge, usually showed a fullback. Roger Craig played fullback for several years under Walsh in San Francisco, sometimes lining up in a two-fullback set with Tom Rathman.

But it has been two decades since an NFL team used a first-round choice on a fullback; the last was William Floyd, chosen by the Niners in 1994. Since then, it has been rare for a fullback to be drafted at all. Most of the league's fullbacks are undrafted free agents who rarely get into games and almost never touch the ball. Craig averaged 51 receptions per season in a long career. Probably all the league's fullbacks combined did not make 51 catches last season.

The one-back offense that became a fad in the 1990s made the fullback nearly obsolete. The thinking was that rather than field a fullback who could block, run or catch, but was below average at all three skills, a team should field an extra receiver for passing plays, an extra offensive lineman for power rushes and, on regular runs, just give the ball to the tailback.

Now, a similar thought process is downgrading the running back. In a five-wide offense, he's not needed; in a four-wide, often a tight end lines up in the backfield to blitz-block or run a flare. A modern offense always has receivers on the field, but does not always have runners on the field, so the running back becomes less important.

The shift to pass over run accelerates this trend. In the 1970s, play calling was 50/50 run/pass. Five years ago, 55 percent of downs were passing plays; last season, 58 percent were. Considering more passing downs and a higher gain per pass attempt than per rush, receivers seem more important than runners.

Of the past five Super Bowl winners, Seattle was unusual in employing an old-fashioned feature-back offense. The other four winners -- the Ravens, Giants, Packers and Saints -- either had the running-back-by-committee approach, or in the case of Green Bay, simply didn't run, with just 11 called rushes in its Super Bowl victory.

The rising pace of offense has increased the running-back-by-committee format. In a quick-snap offense, receivers and backs constantly shuffle in and out so they can catch their breath. Once the tailback is seen as interchangeable, he becomes less important.

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