Matt Waldman’s RSP Twitter Vids: Kyren Williams, Jerome Ford, and the Faulty Logic that RB is Largely An Instinctive Position

Matt Waldman’s RSP Twitter Vids examine a pair of plays from Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams and Cincinnati’s Jerome Ford that illustrate the difference between top college runners and top NFL runners. 

Most people I know believe running back play is largely an instinctive endeavor. The list includes successful fantasy writers, former scouts, X and O’s analysts, and many draftniks. Maybe this is true to a limited extent in the college game, but not the NFL.

Although I can’t say with certainty, we can probably trace this back to the gospel of former GMs and Scouting Directors with bull pulpits like the great Gil Brandt, who has espoused this idea publicly for many years. As legendary a figure he is in the history of football, Brandt is a figure of his time and during that time, they went overboard with the instinctive label.

Of course, running back play requires an instinctive feel. You’re processing up to 21 bodies flying around you in a confined space of 10 x 20 yards. Some of these bodies are moving in a pattern but most of them are arriving at a variety of angles and speeds.

The problem with the “running back is largely instinctive” is the same one that non-musicians had when they first heard jazz improvisation. Critics, musicians with no understanding of the medium, and the general public had a range of half-baked ideas about it. At best, they naively romanticized the skill as a gift from the heavens–genius that cannot be explained. At worst, they applied race to the equation and labeled this music invented largely by black people as savant-like ability or a genetic gift.

As a musician who studies this medium, it’s true that there are a handful of people on earth at any given time with hard-to-explain talent but only a few of that handful don’t have to work long and hard to maximize their abilities. As one of my teachers, who is in a tier among, or not far from, that handful of people on earth has explained, the common thread among best of the best is their command of the fundamental techniques and tireless dedication to maintaining them.

Considering that the NFL didn’t allow black men to play quarterback for decades–using the false and racist trope that they weren’t intelligent enough–running back was one of the positions where they were permitted to work. Although the public’s attitudes regarding race were evolving, the structures and systems built before this evolution were still in place — and that’s still the case in many of our spheres of society–and as evolving individuals working in these old systems, we don’t always recognize how this infrastructure is out-dated, biased, and harmful.

As the techniques and strategies of the game evolved, the scouting lagged behind. I still hear about running backs, largely a black-played position, being largely instinctive and while the intent to paint it this way is no longer an intentional way of keeping play players away from positions once reserved for white men, it’s now a naive form of analysis that still pays homage to a rationale with more harmful intent decades ago.

The best running backs, like the best improvisational musicians, process information and perform techniques at the speed of instinct. Performing at the speed of instinct means a lot of hard work has been put into practicing techniques in a variety of situations until the player doesn’t have to think about doing what he does in the moment.

Just like a running back working through a 10 x 20-yard confine with up to 21 players moving in a variety of directions, a doesn’t just “play what he feels,” without ingraining a library of technical and conceptual information into their skill sets before they step up to the bandstand.

Sonny Rollins, an all-time great saxophonist, spend years working at his craft before he could deliver something like this stop-time solo over a harmony.

Like Rollins playing over a harmony at a fast tempo with clear articulation and pleasing and imaginative counterpoint, running backs have to ingrain efficient movement and pacing into a plan that anticipates and abides the harmony of bodies that, much like jazz to many non-listeners, seems like a cacophonous atmosphere.

Yes, there are exceptions to this rule but they also prove the rule. How many Bo Jacksons were there out of tens of thousands of college and NFL running backs–millions, if you count high school?

Two backs who are skilled college runners but still have a higher level of knowledge to gain about their position are Kyren Williams and Jerome Ford. Both fan favorites among the 2022 NFL class of running backs, they are known for their speed and contact balance although one of them I have recorded a video for after the NFL Combine that shows why he may be slower than many think if Indy proves I’m correct about this assessment.

Regardless of their speed, both are quick enough to at least contribute to an NFL offense in some capacity. The real question is how much work can we truly expect? From what little I see from others, I sense both Williams and Ford are considered potential committee backs who might one day vie for a lead role.

A surefire way that both Williams and Ford can earn an opportunity of this magnitude is to improve their pre-snap game as runners. This is a common area needing developing among college running backs because the college game still allows for reactive play that feeds into this “running back is largely an instinctive idea.”

After all, the college game has a much wider range of athletes than the NFL. This is why the teams challenging for conference championships have at least a handful of athletes with NFL-caliber size and explosion at their positions who can dominate a majority of the opponents on their schedule without refined technique or concepts. It’s also why many of these athletes never play to their potential in the NFL.

In the NFL, running backs must have greater knowledge of the game to become more than contributors in specific looks. Part of this knowledge is the pre-snap game of reading the ratio of blockers to defenders in the box and using that information and their understanding of their blocking scheme to set up creases.

This is one of the many skills that differentiate athletic college stars from athletic NFL starting running backs. As you’ll see, Williams and Ford haven’t yet become students of the game to this level. If and when they do, they won’t leave yards on the field as often.

This pre-snap game is what made Frank Gore teaching tape that NFL running back coaches still use to this day. It’s also what prolonged his career and I’m not just talking about his NFL career.

Gore was a physical phenom who injured both ACLs and became a shadow of the athlete he once was when he entered college football. It was his high-level knowledge of the game and the work to apply that knowledge to the speed of instinct that helped a former Barry Sanders-like (not in style but in ability) prospect transcend injuries that derailed his physical potential and still become a Pro-Bowl talent who played longer than most at the position.

The best backs are more than instincts. Williams, Ford, and most of the running back prospects in the NFL will learn this soon enough. Hopefully, football media will, too, one day.

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