Column: Running backs make a comeback in the NFL

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ATLANTA (AP) — It was once the glamour spot of the NFL, a position manned by giants of the game, dynamic players who drew more eyeballs than even the quarterback on many teams.

Jim Brown. Gale Sayers. O.J. Simpson. Walter Payton. Barry Sanders.

Now, the running back is making a comeback.

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It's about time.

After a generation defined by quarterbacks slinging it all over the field, the league appears willing to give the handoff another look.

Last season, teams averaged 121.6 yards per game on the ground — the highest figure since 1987 and more than 6 yards higher than the previous year.

Then, on Thursday night, a pair of running backs were selected in the opening hours of the draft.

Bijan Robinson was chosen by the Atlanta Falcons with the No. 8 pick, while Jahmyr Gibbs went to the Detroit Lions four spots later.

Robinson is the highest-drafted running back since Saquon Barkley, who was the No. 2 overall pick by the New York Giants in 2018.

It was the first time two running backs have been among the top 12 since Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey went fourth and eighth, respectively, in 2017.

While both the Falcons and the Lions made it clear that they weren't picking either guy to be a 25-carry-a-game workhorse, it does seem a clear indication that offensive coordinators are again seeing the benefits of keeping the ball in someone's hands.

“I see that as how the running back position is being valued now," Robinson said Friday after being formally introduced at the Falcons training complex. "That’s where I think it can be headed.”

This is a great development for the NFL and its fans, many of whom have no idea just how entertaining — and effective — a running game can be.

A long touchdown pass is certainly one of the game's most exciting plays, but Sanders sending a would-be tackler to the turf with a wiggle of his hips was just as thrilling, if not more so. And don't even get me started on a bruiser like Brown plowing right through a host of defenders, leaving nothing but carnage in his wake.

The NFL has been missing something since myriad rules changes to benefit the passing game made the running back a secondary figure in the offense, someone who was not nearly as valued as a franchise quarterback or a receiver who could give Usain Bolt a run for his money.

That's been most apparent in the draft, where running backs had largely become viewed as expendable commodities who should only be taken in the later rounds.

Prone to injuries and with a much shorter shelf life than most positions, RB was supposedly the spot for shuffling through cheaper players while saving the big money for other positions.

Teams like the Falcons, who averaged nearly 160 rushing yards per game a season ago, are challenging that perception.

“I think (the running back) is a valuable football player,” said Atlanta coach Arthur Smith, whose opinion is no doubt influenced by his time on Tennessee's staff coaching Derrick Henry — the closest player in today's game to the golden era of running backs.

“I mean, there are a lot of guys that can stuff the stat sheet. You can have a lot of receptions, and you are playing a lot of two-minute and getting your teeth kicked in," Smith went on. “You can have a great year. You can have 90-something catches and feel really great, but what was your impact on winning?”

Having a strong running game also helps to break in a young quarterback, as the Falcons are doing with second-year player Desmond Ridder.

Ridder had started only four games in the NFL, but his first full season as the No. 1 guy should be helped significantly by having a backfield that includes Tyler Allgeier, a 1,000-yard rusher as a rookie; versatile Cordarrelle Patterson, who can line up as a runner or receiver; and now Robinson joining the mix.

As they've done with Patterson, the Falcons intend to take advantage of Robinson's versatility.

“He is a lot more than a running back,” Smith said. “He’s an impact football player. He’s a home run hitter.”

The Lions, who took plenty of heat for taking Gibbs so high, have the same sort of plans for their first-round running back.

"We had great conversations, on how versatile I was, on different ways they could use me, different ways they could get me the ball,” Gibbs said.

He was the first to acknowledge that he never expected to be picked at No. 12. Gibbs, too, had bought into the conventional wisdom that running backs weren't as valued in the NFL as they were in a previous time.

“I didn’t know I would get picked as high as I did because you know running backs don’t really get picked as high in this new-age era of the NFL draft," Gibbs said. ”Yeah, it was pretty shocking to me."

Maybe it won't be so shocking the next time.

Running backs have been some of the most storied players in NFL history.

No reason they can't be a big part of the league's future.


Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)


AP Sports Writers Charles Odum in Atlanta and Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this report.


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Paul Newberry, The Associated Press

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