Hard Cuts: Choosing a RB to Defend the Planet

Photo by Nathan Rupert.
Great player, first victim. Photo by Nathan Rupert.

I suppose I could start five running backs. It’s the first thought that comes to mind when faced with selecting a running back for my team to defend the planet. I also thought this would be a fun project.

I want a real quarterback and wide receiver corps. I need a tight end.  I don’t want to invent a new scheme that or revive the full house backfield or the wishbone. There’s no opportunity to scout the aliens, much less time to practice a scheme that none of my potential runners ever ran.

It’s I-formation, split back, and single back sets for my offense. I’ve narrowed my list to 12 backs. I can only choose two unless I get inventive.

This sucks.

The hard cuts I made to reach the top 12 (a forthcoming post) in final consideration as my starting running back to defend the planet were harder than it may appear. I made these choices by watching film, examining stats, deciding to ignore most of the stats, and watching even more film.

When I studied the tape, I considered whether that player’s style and athleticism would earn similar results in the modern era. I looked at surrounding talent and whether that player’s scheme bolstered or diminished perceptions of his talent. I did a lot of nitpicking. You must if you want to gain any separation among these greats.

Hard Cuts

The backs I’m profiling today didn’t make my dazzling dozen. I have little doubt many of them will be nominees for the rest of the participating writers. Even if it’s just a hypothetical exercise, it pisses me off that I have to eliminate them from consideration. Backs I didn’t mention below, but considered include John Riggins, Marion Motley, Thurman Thomas, Frank Gore, Eddie George, James Wilder, and Corey Dillon. I had an easier time eliminating them from contention than the backs below.

If I didn’t have a choice and one of these backs I’m profiling today were named to the team to defend the planet, I’d be thrilled with any of them.

Remember this before you react like I keyed your car.

LaDainian Tomlinson

Speed, balance, agility, creativity, and longevity, Tomlinson is the complete package as an athlete. There are few backs that can cut in either direction with his explosion. He’s also one of the best pass-catching runners in NFL history.

I value ball security, but how much should one value it across eras when the fumble rate has dropped steadily? There is far more emphasis placed on proper technique than in years past, but one should also consider the runner’s productivity, efficiency, and creativity in relation to that fumble rate.

Tomlinson fumbled once every 126 touches–best of the backs I considered for the starting role. Jim Brown fumbled the ball once every 46 touches. Brown also rushed for 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns in 9 years–4 of those years were 12-game seasons. It took more than 20 years for both records to fall.

Do you knock a back like Jim Brown down the list for a fumble every 2.07 games during his career? Or, do you temper that rate with his meaningful production as the marked man in a run-first league with fewer games and looser rules to protect its players?

If the aliens are resurrecting football players for us (or at least turning back the clock), it’s foolhardy to expect any of these greats to change their style. Jim Brown will carry the ball loosely; Walter Payton and Earl Campbell will hold it like a loaf of bread; and Barry Sanders will get stuffed in the backfield a lot. These are all-time greats, not football perfection.

But we still get the pick of the litter, so why wouldn’t you factor ball security into your scouting criteria? For my decision-making process it’s striking the balance between security, creativity, athleticism, and unrelenting effort. If a back averages one fumble every 15-25 touches I’d be more concerned with him defending the planet.

Tomlinson doesn’t have that problem. On paper, he has no issues–nor do most of these greats under consideration. There’s no use in discussing stats in great length, although it’s the only way most people know how to generate a compelling argument about football players.

I don’t need the data life-preserver. Tomlinson’s speed, quickness, and decisiveness fly off the film. He describes himself as a finesse runner.

Many football fans dislike the word finesse, especially in relation to running backs. Make no mistake, Tomlinson was a tough runner. The difference between him and many of the backs on this list is that he relied far more on leverage, quickness, and pad level than brute force or attacking defenders with his body. Tomlinson has a great stiff-arm that’s a product of his mastery of angles.

As much as I love Tomlinson’s game, his value drops a bit in this rarefied air for reasons that will seem unfair to some. It seems unfair to me sometimes: Tomlinson’s portfolio of work on tape isn’t as impressive as the best on my list. It doesn’t mean Tomlinson wouldn’t have risen to the occasion if he didn’t have Marty Schottenheimer, a strong Chargers offensive line, and Drew Brees and Philip Rivers as his surrounding talent.

I believe Tomlinson is a great back, but drop him in the situations other backs on this list have faced physically, emotionally, and schematically, how great would he have been?  There’s no need to speculate when there are others that have shown their mettle far more often.

Tomlinson played 11 years in the league. He has a proven track record of physical, mental, and emotional toughness. He’s an all-time great. I’m seeking players beyond category. It’s a shame that Tomlinson doesn’t get to prove he could be one of them, but I don’t have time to consider feelings, there’s a world out there to save.

Edgerrin James

This was a hard cut? Really? Yes.

If you’ve watched football for at least 25 years–really watched the game–then you know that James, pre-ACL tear, was a great back. There aren’t many backs in the history of the game with his size and strength that could cut like him.

We’re talking about a 220-pound back with sub-4.4 speed, scissor-sharp cuts, a great repertoire of moves, and hands that went well beyond catching screen passes. After two seasons in the NFL and two rushing titles, James looked like the next great back of his generation. The post-injury James lost the long speed and explosive change of direction, but compensated with unbelievable pad level and leverage.  If its third and short and I have to run the ball, there are few backs I’d rather tote the rock than James.

If surrounding talent costs Tomlinson, then James playing with Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Dallas Clark because we didn’t see defenses consistently challenge James in ways other great backs had to rise to the occasion.

If I was told that pre-injury James would be my starter on a team to defend the planet, I’d be fist-pumping all the way back to the practice field. I’m forced to make the decision and James wasn’t the guy–even if tape of his first two seasons ran through my imagination throughout this process.

William Andrews

Roger Craig? Where’s Roger Craig? How can you leave off Roger Craig?!

I have much love for the 49ers back. He was the first runner to have 1000 yards rushing and 1000 yards receiving in the same season. He played for a dynasty.

Now that you San Francisco fans have had your ass kissed, you can go back to staring at your glory years.

I much prefer the running back from Atlanta that made life miserable for Ronnie Lott. A head-on collision with Andrews in a December 1982 contest was the hardest hit Lott ever experienced on a football field. This play below where Andrews trucked Lott wasn’t the one the great safety was referring to, but I’m sure it was high on the list:


Andrews ran like a tank with turbo boosters. He earned 2000 yards from scrimmage before Craig reached the NFL.  Andrews was a yards from scrimmage machine. He had four, top-four seasons in that category in a career that essentially lasted five years. Andrews tore an ACL in training camp of 1984, missed two seasons, and sustained nerve damage that impinged the runner’s balance. After a year playing tight end in 1986, Andrews called it quits.

Before that injury, Andrews was a four-time Pro-Bowl selection by his peers. His competition for that spot during several of those years: Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, James Wilder, Tony Dorsett and John Riggins. Payton once told a reporter at Sport magazine that if he had to lead block for another NFL running back it would be William Andrews.

I’m still amazed that Andrews, Joe Cribbs and James Brooks all played in the same backfield at Auburn. I’m a huge Brooks fan and Cribbs was a rookie phenom. For my money, Andrews was the best of the three and he never saw the field at Auburn as anything more than a fullback. Maybe I should let the all-time Auburn backfield of Bo Jackson and William Andrews defend the planet.

The aliens might try to give us their planet by the fourth quarter of the game just to make this duo stop their onslaught. If it’s only going to be that easy…

One thing that fucks with me is Andrews’ size. I could have sworn that he was larger than 6’0, 206 lbs. He ran like he was 220. Hell, his thighs alone looked like he weighed 230. Then again, Walter Payton was only two bills.

The strength, balance, determination and versatility per pound were probably the reasons why Payton admired Andrews so. Watch the highlights in the link I just provided and you’ll see how great he is at attacking defenders. There’s also a cut against the Saints at the 1:16 mark that gives you a hint that he was far more than a straight-line bulldozer.

See why it’s hard to believe this guy was 206 pounds? Andrews won’t be my starting running back, but he’s still in contention for fullback. Watching him lay-out defenders like Tom Jackson as a lead blocker for Lynn Cain was almost as exciting as his running of the ball.

I figure if many of the football writers I know don’t know Andrews, the aliens might get caught by surprise, too.

There’s no guarantee Andrews earns this spot. There are some all-time running backs that were fullbacks or had stints as fullbacks that I like as much, if not more.

O.J. Simpson

I’m not telling you to forget about Simpson’s off-field saga. I’m also reminding you that we are defending the planet. Simpson’s on-field greatness deserves consideration.

Simpson’s game was built on his acceleration. Size, strength, agility, and vision, “Juice” had it all as a runner, but it was his acceleration that set him apart.

Simpson had two seasons for the ages. The best-known came in 1973: 14 games, 332 carries, 2003 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Averaging 6 yards per carry and 143 yards rushing per game, Simpson’s work on the ground was phenomenal.

The better season was 1975: 14 games, 329 carries, 1817 yards, and 16 touchdowns plus 28 receptions, 426 yards, and 7 receiving scores. Simpson had 2243 yards form scrimmage and 23 touchdowns in `75, which bested `73’s total by 170 yards and 9 scores.

The stats are fun to discuss, but watch Simpson run and you see the greatness: electric cuts at top speed; hip and upper body flexibility to bend away from pursuit and maintain his speed; strength to bounce off contact; leverage to drive through wraps; and the vision to know when to bounce or cut inside. A lot of his work is incredibly subtle for a back with such a great body of work.

You also see lapses with ball security. Simpson had 62 fumbles in 2606 touches during an 11-year career–every 42 touches. This alone doesn’t eliminate Simpson from my list.

The small portfolio Simpson has as a pass receiver is a larger factor. There are more backs with a history of great skill and versatility of receiving duties that Simpson never got to show.

If you put Simpson on my team, I’d be ecstatic to craft an offense around what he does. Since the clock would be turned back on his life, maybe we could somehow prevent a murder, the Kardashian phenomenon, and reality TV.

Wishful thinking.

It’s also wishful thinking that I’m going to have an easier time eliminating the 12 remaining backs on my list (alphabetical order):

  • Marcus Allen
  • Jim Brown
  • Earl Campbell
  • Eric Dickerson
  • Marshall Faulk
  • Bo Jackson
  • Marshawn Lynch
  • Walter Payton
  • Adrian Peterson
  • Barry Sanders
  • Gale Sayers
  • Emmitt Smith

The longer I watch these backs, the more I think I have to find inventive ways to earn more spots for them on my team. Would you rather have Wes Welker in the slot or a back like Marshall Faulk?  I’m thinking Faulk. Would you rather have Devin Hester or Gale Sayers as a return specialist? Could one of these backs make a great fullback?

These are questions I answer next time.

Stay tuned.

The RSP Writers Project is a goodwill community effort among writers that is designed to spur conversation about the game. Each year there’s a different theme. RSPWP5 is straight out of a comic book. Learn more about the RSP Writers Project here

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