Stock Tips: Week 9
Consider the fate of the fax machine.
There was a time when the trilling chirps of an outgoing fax was as ubiquitous in the workplace as office gossip. Businessfolk couldn't fathom how they used to do their jobs without one. Every family had to have one.
Then, one day, Al Gore invented the Internet, and the fax machine had come to the end of its line. For a couple of decades, it was indispensible. Suddenly, with the advent of email, the very concept of communicating by fax seemed Flintstonian.
We all have memories of such once-proud state-of-the-art technologies. Polaroid cameras. The Walkman. Heck, it was only last March that I turned in my flip phone.
For a brief moment, it seemed as if football fans would come to regard the running back in that same nostalgic light, as some ghost of the game's distant past, like leather helmets and H-frame goal posts and good Raiders teams.
There were two things I saw over the weekend that led me to believe that the running back is due for a comeback.
One was the Packers-Vikings game, in which I saw with my own eyes a commitment to running the football that hasn't existed in Green Bay since the pre-fax days of Jim Taylor. Green Bay, a team which once eschewed running plays the way Lambeau tailgaters eschew salad, is seventh in the league in rushing attempts per game. The Pack are fourth in rushing yards per game, third in average yards per carry.
Aaron Rodgers makes commercials in which people recognize him not as a Hall of Fame quarterback but as a State Farm spokesman. Soon enough, everyone might start regarding him as that guy who hands the ball off to Eddie Lacy and James Starks and Johnathan Franklin.
Not one running back was taken in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, an historic draft day shutout for a once-valued position. But it somehow turned out to be a great running back draft for the Packers, who landed two of the three best backs in their first five picks: Lacy in the second round (61st overall) and Franklin in the fourth (125th overall).
Green Bay's decision to stock up on backs clearly was made with an eye toward the future -- as in keeping Rodgers alive for the foreseeable future. No quarterback in the league was sacked in 2012 as often as Rodgers, and one way to keep the heat off him is to have him hand the ball to his backs. In Sunday's win over Minnesota, Rodgers had 29 pass attempts, Lacy had 29 carries. Mission accomplished.
It should surprise no one if that's not the formula moving forward. The next big thing in the NFL isn't going to be the running quarterback -- running quarterbacks are exposed to too many hits. Rather, it's going to be running the football with running backs again.
Think about it. Defenses have been shrinking for the past 20 years, since the heyday of the Tampa 2. Defensive ends are smaller and faster. Run-stopping linebackers are losing their jobs to extra defensive backs. Teams play Nickel as their base defense. Vertical-threat tight ends are forcing safeties to play in coverage rather than drop down in the box. And don't minimize how pervasive a problem poor tackling is these days.
The Packers have the right idea. Spread a defense out with the threat of the pass, then run the ball down the throat of that stretched defense. An inversion of past principles: the pass sets up the run. And not with a Reggie Bush-model back who's as much a receiver as a runner but with a downhill runner like Lacy.
Which brings me to the other observation from the weekend that convinced me that the time is right for a running back renaissance.
I watched Ohio State senior Carlos Hyde run over, through, around and past Penn State defenders all day long. Look at the Buckeyes' third possession as a microcosm: Hyde for 9 yards, 11 yards, 7 yards, 3 yards. Next possession: Hyde went for 8 yards, 8 yards, 5 yards. He had 16 rushes on the day for 147 yards -- nearly a first down (9.2 yards) every time he carried the ball.
This is nothing new. College backs continue to roll up yardage the way they always have, even if those workhorse roles of old don't exist for them in today's NFL.
But I watch Hyde and wonder, Why not? He's 6-foot, 235 pounds -- basically the same size as Vic Beasley, one of the top pass rush prospects available in the 2014 draft. What NFL offense with a spread attack wouldn't want a back that size to pound the middle of an undersized defense?
True, Hyde is a bit of a tweener -- neither a breakaway back nor a true bulldozer. Still, he's rounding nicely into form after opening the season on a three-game suspension; in his last three games, he's carried 66 times for 464 yards and seven touchdowns -- a hard-earned 7.0 yards per carry.
And he's not just a between-the-tackles tough yardage guy. Hyde has the speed to get the edge. Plus, he showed against Iowa the athleticism and balance to make plays in traffic and around the goal line.
There are other backs out there besides Hyde who might give NFL scouts something to think about in the late first or early second rounds:
* Baylor's Lache Seastrunk (5-10, 210) may be the best example of what a cutback-style runner can do in the space created by a spread offense. He is smooth in and out of his cuts, with good acceleration and the top gear of a true home run threat. He's not going to make good on his prediction of winning the Heisman this year, but he almost certainly will be the first back selected in 2014.
* Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey (5-10, 207) isn't the fastest or most elusive back in college; he's merely the most productive. He led the nation in rushing last season (1,929 yards) and currently has the best yards-per-game average in the country (153.3). Plus, Carey has at least a modest track record of catching the ball out of the backfield, giving him legitimate three-down potential in the NFL. With 69 career receptions, he's practically Eric Metcalf compared to guys like Seastrunk and Melvin Gordon, who have combined for a dozen career catches.
* Washington's Bishop Sankey (5-10, 203) is another physical back with decent speed, who also can play a role in the passing game. He's more likely to break tackles than run away from defenders, though there are times he plays like he trusts his speed a bit too much.
And then there's Gordon, Wisconsin's redshirt sophomore, who may have the greatest upside among the 2014 backs, though he also is the most green. Gordon has the best initial burst of the bunch (with the caveat that college backs like De'Anthony Thomas and Dri Archer are more likely to be used as running back/slot receiver hybrids at the next level), and he has a smooth, long-striding style that just eats up yards. In the eight games since his breakout 216-yard performance against Nebraska in the Big Ten title game, Gordon has failed to rush for 140 yards only twice.
While he'd benefit from another season in Madison without having to split carries with James White, it'd be surprising if Gordon didn't make the leap this year. He has a chance to be among the top two or three backs selected if he comes out with two years of eligibility remaining. If he were to wait until 2015, he's likely to find himself in the middle of a logjam of running back prospects.
Which is the real reason why we can project a running back resurgence in the NFL's near future. The 2015 draft actually could have a handful of big-time backs, with first-round prospects including Gordon (if he's still around by then), Todd Gurley, T.J. Yeldon, Duke Johnson, Mike Davis and Jeremy Hill, not to mention other promising backs like Keith Marshall, James Wilder Jr., Devonta Freeman and George Atkinson III.
With a deep class like that, the NFL's future might look a lot like the running backs of yesteryear.