Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, and Adrian Peterson make it clear; running back is not a one-size, or one-skillset, fits-all position in the NFL. Saquon Barkley is the embodiment of explosion. Derrick Henry wins with a freakish size-speed combination. Dalvin Cook thrives on savant-like post-snap processing and footwork as refined as the Mobil 1 in your favorite NASCAR engine. So, while faster is better, and bigger is better, and good vision is good, the reality is most backs are imperfect, yet there is enough there to make it work.
To get there coaches must apply running backs in ways that allow them to thrive. This is a bit easier said than done, though, for two reasons. First, evaluators, coaches, and even the backs themselves must have a sober understanding of the player’s strengths and weaknesses. Second, coaches have to be flexible with the scheme and personnel usage to leverage these traits. The great coaches do this well. Bill Belichick is the obvious example with the distinct roles James White, Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, and others fill with aplomb year after year.
On the other hand are scheme-rigid coaches like Adam Gase, whose usage of Kenyan Drake while in Miami was an excellent counter-point to the Patriot Way. Drake has both profound strengths and weaknesses, and thus serves as an excellent bellwether for a coach’s ability to understand and adapt to his talent.
Drake pairs excellent balance, explosive curvilinear acceleration, intuitive receiving ability with inconsistent discipline, long strides and below-average processing. All-in-all, his traits make him an excellent fit for gap rushing schemes that minimize quick decisions and disciplined feet and instead emphasize getting downhill and exploding through a specific gap.
But when I charted Drake’s last six weeks of 2018, 74 percent of his rushes were split/inside zone or duo. These are runs that attack a general area rather than a specific hole and requires rapid processing, disciplined decision-making, and quick feet.
Unsurprisingly, Drake averaged 3.9 yards per carry on these runs, while gaining 6.0 yards per tote on his (infrequent) gap runs. Finally out of Miami and paired with Kliff Kingsbury, Drake gashed an elite San Francisco rush defense repeatedly on gap style runs, before even having a chance to unpack his bags for the week nine Thursday Night tilt following a Monday trade.
Week eight gave us another shining example of a smart coach understanding talent and deploying his players accordingly. Sean Payton had run a heavy dose of zone schemes—split zone, wide zone, inside zone—with Alvin Kamara this season. Kamara is an excellent fit for these plays, as his elite processing, balance and short-area quickness allow him to manipulate defenses.
On the other hand, Latavius Murray is not a good fit. A big, fast runner who plays aggressively, Murray struggles with long, lumbering footwork and below-average balance. Rather than force Murray’s square peg into his zone scheme’s round hole, Payton adjusted, dialing up an array of gap, man and outside runs that offered Murray clear decisions, allowing him to get downhill.
After watching Murray rack up 157 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in a 31-9 win, Payton surely was smiling. Coaches everywhere should take note, and strive to better understand their players’ strengths and weaknesses, and how to leverage them into an advantage.
Previous Running Back Rooms:
LeSean McCoy And Miles Sanders: What is Vision?
Dalvin Cook, David Montgomery, Peyton Barber, and Kalen Ballage: Footwork Efficiency and Scheme Awareness
Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman: Yards Before Contact
David Johnson And Frank Gore: Pressing the Line of Scrimmage
Dalvin Cook: Efficiency, Control, and Micro-Movements
Chase Edmonds and LeSean McCoy: The Second Reaction
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