Matt Waldman’s RSP contributor J. Moyer delivers another installment of his RSP Running Back Room, showcasing the difference in craft between David Johnson—an elite athlete—and Frank Gore—an elite craftsman.
The running back position is frequently mischaracterized as requiring less skill than dynamic athletic ability. Players with freakish size-speed combinations are highly sought after, and go early in the draft.
However, a quick glance through history, and at the Christine Michaels of the world, shows there is more to the position. Scheme awareness, footwork, processing, and discipline are all cognitive-physical traits that have nothing to do with size and/or speed, yet are crucial for determining consistency and success.
“Pressing the line of scrimmage” is a running back execution buzzword. This skill, which involves controlled footwork aimed at hiding a runner’s intended path between the tackles, is a method of manipulating defenders and running them into blockers.
David Johnson is an elite athlete who has achieved elite NFL production. His All-Pro 2016 season benefited from Bruce Arians’ skill at putting players in a position to succeed.
Used largely as a receiving threat and on wide zone runs that season, Johnson’s profound ability as an explosive space player shined through. However, forced to run mostly between the tackles in 2017 and 2018, Johnson faltered.
The inconsistency in his game traces to unrefined elements in his craft as a runner, as much as it does his shaky offensive line. Week four provided a great example on a five-yard run that could have been much more.
At the other end of the spectrum is Frank Gore. While Gore once was a very good athlete, multiple ACL tears and father time have stripped him of any explosive athleticism he once had.
Yet, he continues to produce consistently on bad to mediocre offensive teams. Gore is still a strong, balanced runner with great quickness. But the meat of his game lies in being a master craftsman.
Gore’s processing, footwork and ability to press gaps can transcend the scheme, as seen running counter (a play where the back is explicitly told which gap to attack) against an elite Patriots’ defense in week four.
While the 50-yard chunk plays are no longer there for Gore, his skill and refined craft continue to produce chain-moving runs long beyond anyone’s expectations. Young backs should take note.
Editor’s Note: And they do if they pay attention to their running back coaches. At least one league personnel employee has noted over the past 10 years that Gore’s tape is used as a teaching tool for young NFL running backs.
Previous Running Back Rooms
Week One: LeSean McCoy And Miles Sanders–What is Vision?
Week Two: Dalvin Cook, David Montgomery, Peyton Barber, and Kalen Ballage–Footwork Efficiency and Scheme Awareness
Week 3: Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman–Yards Before Contact
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