Is having an elite runningback overrated?

My favorite football player of all time is Emmitt Smith.  He was the heart of those great Dallas Cowboy teams of the 1990s.  He wasn’t big and he wasn’t overly fast, but he always seemed to get in the endzone.  He was one of the best pass-blocking backs ever, and he rarely fumbled.  That game against the Giants where he separated his shoulder but still put up 150 yards and carried his team to a win was, wait for it… legendary (how i met your mother, episodes: all).  One question that has always been brought up is how good Emmitt Smith actually was.  Did he coast off of a great offensive line as well as a great overall team?  Is NFL’s all-time leading rusher, dare I say, overrated as a top 10 all-time back?  I thought about this for a second and wondered, if Emmitt Smith is in fact overrated, that is to say he was not an elite caliber running back, then does a team really need an elite running back?

Should a team spend a top 5 draft pick on a potentially “special” runningback?  I would have to say, no.  This is not to say that a rushing attack is not important, and that a home run threat in the backfield does not help your passing game.  However, does a team need an elite running back to have a good ground game with the ability to take it the distance?

Adrian Peterson looks like the real deal.  He is big, fast, and hard to bring down.  LaDainian Tomlinson and Shaun Alexander (in their primes) were also quite effective, and over the last 5-10 years, these are probably the three best running backs we have seen.  Peterson and Tomlinson were both top 10 picks.  Clearly these guys are/were difference makers in every game they played in.  Defenses stack the box for these guys and still can’t always stop them.  One thing they also have in common is that they all played behind multiple pro-bowlers on their offensive line.  Steve Hutchinson has blocked for both Alexander and Peterson, Walter Jones, Nick Hardwick, and Matt Birk are just a few of the talented players who blocked for one of these 3 great backs.  With those kind of guys leading the way wouldn’t many decent running backs come up with 1,000 yards?  Chester Taylor rushed for 1,000 in Minnesota before Peterson, and Hutchinson for that matter, arrived.  Darren Sproles and Michael Turner have done well in San Diego when LT has been hurt.   I understand that there is a difference between 1,000 yards and 1,600 yards, but maybe teams don’t have to spend an arm and a leg on a great running back like Edgerrin James when they can settle for a Joseph Addai and a Dominic Rhodes.

The Denver Broncos are possibly the best example.  They had many stellar offensive linemen, as well as a great zone-blocking scheme.  As a result, they churned out several 1,000 rushers.  When the elite running back, Terrell Davis went down with an injury, Olandis Gary took over and was productive.  Then it was Mike Anderson who became a pro bowler and then Ruben Droughns.  Yes the Broncos won a Super Bowl with Davis and never did with any of the other backs, but they also had John Elway, a much more elite quarterback than they would have later.  As mentioned earlier, the Colts didn’t really lose their Edge when they got rid of James and gave the ball to Addai and Rhodes.  As we know Emmitt Smith is the all-time leading rusher, but he is not considered the all-time greatest running back and therefore it could be said that he “overachieved”.    So if a team has a high pick in the draft and is looking to improve the run game, maybe they should opt for a stud offensive lineman over a potentially elite running back.

There are many who disagree but how many more draft busts are there at running back than at offensive linemen?  Most teams would never draft a guard or a center in the top 10.  Left tackles will get drafted early however this is done in order to protect the quarterback’s blindside.  Teams need an offensive line for both the run game and the passing game, so much so that there’s really only one offensive player that comes to mind as having been productive without a decent o-line.  That player of course, is Barry Sanders, and as much as I love Barry, it should be noted that those teams never went far in the playoffs.  Although each player has his own health concerns, a good o-line also helps a back cut down on injuries.  The defense should get fewer good shots at the back and the bigger, more dangerous hitters would usually get blocked before they can unload on the running back.  A good offensive line will wear a defensive front seven down.  They open holes for the running back and give the quarterback time to scan the field and make the appropriate throw.  It is very difficult for a team to go far if their line can’t hold their blocks, so why do teams continue to draft more running backs in the top 10 than offensive linemen?

Of course this needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  The running back still has to be quick enough to hit the hole, strong enough to break tackles, fast enough to break away, and steady enough to hold onto the football.  No team wants a poor athlete or football player at the impact position, but maybe teams don’t need to spend a lot of time looking for the next Jim Brown, O.J Simpson, or Barry Sanders.  With a good offensive line, you can settle for an Emmitt Smith.

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