The five most essential running back traits
Being an NFL rusher is about more than just running fast. These are the most important skills they need to be successful.
Running is the past. Passing is the future. With completion percentages across the NFL continuing to rise, your average handoff seemed destined for the dustbin of inefficient history, nestled in between the midrange jumper and the sacrifice bunt. Yet, while their contracts have suffered, running backs are still here. So, welcome to … Running Back Day! We’re spending all day trying to answer the question of “What does it mean to be a running back in 2018?”
Running backs aren’t getting played the same way, they aren’t getting paid the same way, and they’re not even being made the same way. But running backs coaches around the NFL don’t like to hear any of that.
“No, I don’t think the position has ever changed,” says Rams running backs coach Skip Peete. “I think people have utilized multiple backs to create freshness for the position, and then all of a sudden someone characterized it as a ‘by committee.’ Now it’s the ‘feature back.’”
Peete, who coached Matt Forte in Chicago and DeMarco Murray in Dallas and now instructs Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley, says the “new” running back skills emerging aren’t new at all. Instead, offenses are more willing to use certain skills now. Chargers head coach (and former running backs coach) Anthony Lynn agrees.
“It’s the same skill set, just people use running backs differently,” Lynn says. “The whole thing about devaluing running backs––no, no, no. You can’t win one without one, I can tell you that.”
So much has changed for running backs—how often they’re on the field, how many times they get the ball, and even where they’re supposed to lineup––but the core traits that make a running back successful have remained. Five areas in particular stand out: instincts, burst, elusiveness, pass-catching, and “gettting yards.” Many other relevant skills that can be learned and coached fall under these five umbrellas, but these are––and have been––the five most important traits for running backs.
Lynn is quick to differentiate between ball carrier vision—understanding what is going on in front of the runner—and “instinct,” which is knowing where to go.
“Coaches coach the vision,” Lynn says. “The vision’s gonna be good, but once you get the vision right, their instincts kick in. You don’t coach that. Some guys just have that.”
One of the first players Lynn brought up is Le’Veon Bell. Bell is often described as the most patient back in the league, and with good reason. In a league where Super Bowls are won in two seconds or less, Bell can wait an eternity before committing to a lane.
Peete points to his star pupil as an example of an instinctual runner. Gurley can do everything on the field, but Peete is most impressed that Gurley gets better as the game goes on, much like a hitter who might be better the third time facing a pitcher than the first time.
“You kind of get a feel of OK, I ran this play this way, last time the linebacker played this way, the defensive tackle played this way, defensive end played this way, so I’m anticipating some form of that response the next time I run the play,’” Peete says. “And if [that responses happens], then you obviously have a counter-move for that.”
If instinct is sensing the right place to go, burst—or acceleration, explosion, whatever you want to call it—is the ability to get there. For all of the emphasis on 40-yard dash times, the true measure of speed for NFL running backs is how quickly they can reach an opening before it closes.
”The Chiefs backfield—they’ve got a lot of burst. [Kareem] Hunt has a good burst to him,” says Chargers running back Austin Ekeler. “He’s a bigger back but he still has got some speed, and [Tyreek] Hill has got a lot of burst in him.”
Hunt gets to the hole quickly for a 5-foot-11 back that weighs 216 pounds.
While Hill isn’t a running back, he has 41 carries in the last two seasons along with ample screen passes. When he gets the ball, his burst is evident, whether it’s from the backfield or Hail Mary passes that inadvertently become weird four-on-seven rushing plays 40 yards downfield.
Gurley is another player with excellent burst. This play occurs on third-and-20, so the hole Gurley is reading at the second level is more than 5 yards upfield. When he sees the bit of daylight, he kicks it into another gear and leaves the Seahawks in the dust.
Juke, spin, stiff arm, stutter step, truck, hurdle––there are a lot of ways to evade tackles, and every back needs to make defenders miss. While running backs are expected to win one-on-one matchups in the open field, being elusive in traffic is key.
“I’ve had guys run the inside-zone course, the aiming point where they’re headed may be clogged, and they would physically run into the back of the linemen and kind of bounce to that spot,” Peete says. “A good, more agile, athletic back would naturally slide, as you’d say ‘cut’ to that position and get to that hole without bouncing or touching anyone.”
Look no further than Hunt.
Peete also points to New Orleans’s Alvin Kamara as a back whose body control and balance allow him to shed and shirk defenders in the open field.
“[Some players] ... can move the pile, accelerate and push things for 3 or 4 yards, or if they get hit, always move for a yard ahead,” Peete says. “Then there’s guys that have unbelievable balance, and they get hit and don’t necessarily fall down, kind of stumble for another 2 or 3.”
Rare backs like Gurley and Dallas’s Ezekiel Elliott can do both of those things.
Eluding a defender in the open field is similar to a basketball player driving to the hoop. The individual moves can be worked on, but stringing them together during a game is best done without thinking.
“It’s based on where that defender is at, his leverage, based off the momentum that you have going in the certain angle. I mean, it’s a whole lot of different things,” says Rams running back Malcolm Brown. “That’s why to work on it, to make it as natural as possible … you can’t just be thinking about it the whole time. You just gotta work on it and work on it, and eventually you’ll get to the point where you’re not thinking about it. You’re just running.”
Lynn and Peete both push back when asked whether pass-catching is a new part of the running back repertoire. They contend that backs have always been able to catch, but now offenses are calling upon them more than in the past. Receiving for running backs has long meant getting the ball in space on a simple route, but increasingly, running backs have the responsibilities of actual wideouts––including lining up on the line of scrimmage. Bell and Kamara get a lot of credit for this, but it’s worth praising a player who doesn’t even get his due on Hard Knocks: Cleveland’s Duke Johnson.
Johnson’s catching ability is so good that he’s been discussing a position switch. Statistically, he’s one of the best pass catchers among running backs. He lined up in the slot 62 times in 2017, tied for third most in football in the position, and finished with 153 receiving yards on 13 receptions on those snaps. Those numbers may not be eye-popping, but they’re a hell of a contribution from a spot outside a traditional running back’s purview. When he motions out of the backfield and gets a linebacker ill-equipped to cover him one-on-one, he can be devastating. Here’s Johnson motioning from the backfield to the slot and exploiting the subsequent mismatch with a linebacker in 2015.
Even when Johnson doesn’t get targeted, his potential to burn a linebacker changes a defense’s approach to substitutions and coverages. A running back motioning from the backfield to the line of scrimmage has a similar effect as when the Celtics’ Al Horford steps behind the 3-point line; even if they don’t get the ball, just altering the defense is valuable. Here’s Kamara running a route that opens up a downfield play last season.
And here’s Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey doing the downfield work himself.
The more versatile the running back is in the pass game, the easier it is for the offensive coordinator to play mismatchmaker.
When asked about the traits that make a great running back, one immediately rises above the rest in Peete’s mind.
“The most important thing––this is what I’ve been told by many guys over the years––is when you turn on the film, and you watch a guy run, does he gain yards?” Peete says. I started laughing, but he was dead serious.
“You laugh, but that’s the first thing I do when I start studying a college back,” he continues. “I don’t watch a highlight tape. I watch the game and I want to see. Does he gain yards as they hand him the ball?”
It’s a hilariously simple but excellent point. Consistently getting chunks of yardage, especially beyond what the line created, is what it’s all about. The closest statistic for this concept is Football Outsiders’ success rate, which attempts to measure a running back’s consistency in gaining yards while factoring in the down and distance (for example, 2 yards on third-and-2 is a successful run, while 2 yards on first-and-10 isn’t.)
Last season, then–New England running back Dion Lewis was fourth in success rate, first in Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted yards above replacement, and third in Pro Football Focus’s elusive rating, which measures how well players evade tacklers. The backbone of Lewis’s season was not home runs––his longest rush in 2017 was for 44 yards—but his ability to “get yards.” Here’s a wholly unremarkable 6-yard run Lewis made the early in the third quarter against the Steelers in their pivotal Week 15 matchup.
There’s nothing special about this play, but it gave New England a second-and-4 in Steelers territory. The long breakaway touchdowns, ankle-breaking jukes, and gravity-defying hurdles are what go viral, but these are the plays happening between those highlights that keep offenses humming. If running backs are the essence of the sport, churning out these 6-yard gains is the essence of the position.
“You look at the guys rushing for the most yards,” Lynn says. “A lot of times that’s just guys running where they ain’t.”