Monday, November 10, 2008

Jim Brown is better than you. Says him.

NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown knows plenty about great running backs. Some of that is because whenever he looks in a mirror, he always sees the best one.

Thus, it was interesting to hear his recent take on the state of RB's in the NFL. Like a lot of all-time greats, Big Jim doesn't see anyone out there better than him:

"What's weird is, I remember the all-star runners from my day, guys who were definitive stars," Brown said. "You don't see that many all-stars today. I see good backs, but not dominant the way they should be.

"Right now, all these kids are the same. They're OK, but they're not guys that you think will control the game. You don't have the great ones, the guys that every time they touch the ball you look for them to break it. And I don't know why that is."

Let me submit a theory.

Running backs haven't changed much at all, in terms of athleticism and abilities relative to the gradual improvement of athletes over the past four decades. The difference has come on the other side of the ball - NFL defenders are better and better coached than ever before.

Let's back-track a bit: in high school and most levels of college, running backs tend to be the best athletes on the team. Coaches figure the best way to win is to make sure their blue-chippers have the ball. Thus, running backs tend to dominate on the lower levels of football. It doesn't take much sophistication to have your quarterback pivot and hand off 25 or 30 times to the fastest and quickest guy on the team.

This was true in the era of Jim Brown and even now, at most high schools and colleges. (I'm aware of the trend toward spread offenses but even most of those schemes depend shorter, quicker passes instead of off-tackle runs).

But in today's NFL, defenders are bigger, faster and better-deployed than anything Brown could have ever imagined. Brown was rarely - if ever - chased around the field by anyone like DeMarcus Ware or Julius Peppers. He never had to deal with a run blitz scheme designed by Bill Belichick. If NFL defenses really want to take running backs out of the game, they can make it happen. Great running backs no longer take over games; great offenses led by star quarterbacks and hot-shot offensive coordinators do.

It's the reason why coaches and quarterbacks are such valuable commodities in the NFL and running backs are generally expendable. Even Shaun Alexander, the 2005 NFL MVP, can't find a gig today in place of younger, cheaper, fresher options. The gap between guys like Alexander and undrafted free agents is smaller than ever before.

So I sort of get where Brown coming from: I'd only spend a first-round pick on a running back if he was Adrian Peterson or the second coming of Marshall Faulk, and were I a GM, I'd never pay big free-agent bucks to a veteran. Everyone else in the League today is pretty much, meh. But that's got more to do with the game than the individual guys.

Brown can't relate to this because, for his era, he was a freak. He was a rock-solid 6-foot-2, 232 pounds, which was about the size of an average linemen in those days. There wasn't anyone quite like him. So, when you see him steamrolling over plodding linebackers and racing past stumpy defensive tackles who worked at banks in the offseason, remember that he was truly an athlete ahead of his time.
UPDATE: Honestly, almost any NFL back can rush for 100 yards in a game, given enough carries and the right offensive line. Ask the Patriots.

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