Twilight of the running back

Many football coaches start as high school coaches. At the high school level, the smart coach figures out who his best athlete is, makes him the feature back and hands him the ball over and over again. This used to be how pro offenses were structured, and it led to an obsession with finding the kind of back who could be The Man an offense was built around. Six running backs selected in the first round in 1990, five in the first round in 1995 -- those were the glory days for running backs.

Now the feeling is that opening holes is a bigger challenge than running through them. "You can always get a running back in the later rounds" is a recent draft cliché, and it seems to be true. Only four of last season's top 10 rushers were first-round choices. If you can usually get a running back in the later rounds, running backs don't sound so important.

Then there is the simple shrinking of running lanes caused by ever-larger players. Modern offensive tactics focus on getting the ball into space, away from the huge bodies of contemporary linemen. "Spread the field" has become a mantra because there's so little space in the jam-packed area between the tackles. Inside running can still be rewarding -- Seattle's trophy is proof of that -- but spreading the field seems more promising in general.

As recently as the early 1990s, when Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas were all playing, NFL teams were judged by their running backs. Increasingly, running backs are not The Man, they are Just Another Guy. Is the sun setting on the position?

In other football news, Saturday on ESPN, Chip Kelly noted he had drafted only college graduates, saying this was because a diploma shows a person is smart and "committed to establishing goals and following through." Now that Kelly is an employer, he understands the value of diplomas. When he was a college coach who benefited from free labor, the situation was different. In his final year at the University of Oregon, only 64 percent of Kelly's players, and a dismal 49 percent of African-American players, graduated.

The 64 percent was about the same for University of Oregon students as a whole. But a Division I football player gets 10 semesters instead of eight, gets special tutoring and, most important, doesn't pay for college -- running out of money is a primary reason why kids don't finish. Division I players should graduate at a higher rate than students as a whole.

Now that he's an employer, Kelly sees why the college diploma matters so much. When he was a college coach, he didn't see this. Just another reason the institutionally corrupt NCAA system needs to be blown up.

The delayed draft this year means the offseason is halfway over -- the football artificial universe will resume before we know it. Here's a draft review:

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons went for meat and potatoes, choosing linemen with their first two picks, after years of favoring skill players. Seven of their previous 11 top picks had been spent on or traded for wide receivers and cornerbacks. The result was a 31st-ranked rushing defense and Matt Ryan getting sacked 44 times in 2013.

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