Matt Waldman’s RSP Boiler Room uses two plays from 2020 NFL Draft prospect D’Andre Swift’s performance against Vanderbilt to illustrate that we can often assess the patience and decision-making of a running back independent of his offensive line’s performance.
Running back is a position of greater skill than the current state of football analysis leads you to believe. This is something I mentioned in a recent Footballguys article. Here’s an excerpt below with minor changes that explain my point about runner’s as skilled labor.
There are some writers who approach football from predominantly an analytical perspective who disagree. A league professional in this area who I trust greatly—a gentleman with well-rounded training and experience in data analytics and scouting commented to me about this ongoing debate among writers.
“Cause and effect are awfully hard to separate in fields that actually have good, clear explanatory data. Football lacks that luxury, which makes it even less clear what data is useful.’
The argument that running backs aren’t as skilled as wide receivers and little more than products of their offensive line look like a quantifiable conclusion using the existing data. However, it excludes the decision-making process that backs employ before and after the snap that includes several factors this argument glosses over.
Runners set up blockers as often as blockers set up runners:
- Matching up the defensive alignment with the play design.
- Box counts and defender-teammate counts on each side of the center.
- Late pre-snap shifts and motion.
- Early post-snap changes to the factors above.
- Early post-snap penetration.
- Early post-snap leverage advantages and disadvantages for the offensive line as the runner heads to the exchange point.
- The reading of the above keys post-exchange.
- Having conceptual and physical fluency of dynamic and economical footwork combinations to address the above factors.
- Integrating field position, down-and-distance, score, and time left in the game into the runner’s judgment of which decisions have an acceptable amount of risk.
Many of the “running backs are among the least skilled of positions” arguments lack a fundamental understanding of the position’s mental and technical components. Many former and current running backs at the high school and college levels lack this understanding as well.
Decent NFL runners study the game, practice their footwork in the context of the blocking scheme and defender leverage points and have developed the game management principles to help their offense stay on schedule.
While giving credit to a receiver’s route running versus man, press, or zone coverage or his understanding of option routes and press-man releases, they aren’t giving appropriate weight to the value of the running back’s skills mentioned above.
They aren’t even giving credence to the idea that runners actually set up blocks. They’re not far from stating that runners mindlessly run through open holes.
Hell, it’s not far from saying that singers are the least skilled musicians because it’s the band that makes them sound good and they only sing melodic lines and individually, they can’t produce chords. This may be true of music marketed to the masses but it’s not the truth about singers.
Until they begin tracking the outcome of processes that coaches have taught runners to execute, the arguments aren’t rooted in realistic, context-driven information.
I’ve been deconstructing essential running back processes for 15 years in the Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication. If I separated a few of the processes that I judged to be more integrative in nature than I did with wide receiver and quarterback, there would be as many separate factors for the running back position as those positions deemed more skill-intensive.
When more analysts begin defining processes within the actual context of good football decision-making and track that information in the way we track results as data, we’ll see further maturation with football analysis. One of the reasons I’ve had success with scouting the running back position is that I place a greater priority on examining processes.
Studying the process leading up to the result often allows us to separate what the individual does from those in supporting roles—in this case, assessing the running back’s work independent of the offensive line. D’Andre Swift is another good example of a running back whose work is relatively easy to separate from his offensive line when you uses the bulleted processes above as the basis for analyzing the position’s decision-making and technique.
Here are two plays from the Vanderbilt game—one where Swift earns a massive crease and still executes strong process although it isn’t necessary and another where Swift’s patience is necessary to set up blocks and access space.
Swift is one of the top runners eligible for this 2020 NFL class and it has a lot to do with his ability to process information and execute solutions with his physical traits and technical prowess. He’s not fast (more on that later), but he’s fast enough to be a productive NFL starter.
Pay close attention to the first run because as easy as it appears, the fact that Swift still executes his process of pressing the line of scrimmage regardless of the situation. While there are situations where pressing a crease is not necessary it remained helpful to do so on this play and is an indication of Swift’s discipline and mental acuity for the position.
Running backs are skilled labor, we aren’t always skilled enough at how to separate processes from results.
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