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Beasts still roam in backfield: Demise of RBs in NFL greatly exaggerated

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Marshawn Lynch was sixth in the league in rushing last season with 1,257 yards. (USA Today Sports)

Can anyone, relatively speaking, play running back for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and have the same success as Marshawn Lynch? If you believe this to be true, then you are among the many who subscribe to the notion that the running back position is significantly devalued in the NFL. If you don't believe that to be the case, then you would have a more difficult time arguing that running backs have a reduced value in today's NFL.

There are not many who would argue that Lynch was the offensive foundation of the Seahawks in each of the last two seasons. The players will tell you that. He has averaged almost 20 carries per game in both 2012 and 2013. Lynch is a classic between-the-tackles pounder who gets 6 yards, or more, when his offensive line blocked for 3 yards. He can run effectively in any offensive formation, whether it's base personnel (multiple backs and/or tight ends), or three- and four-wide receiver sets, with Russell Wilson in the spread shotgun. Lynch is a complete runner with no limitations.

There are not many runners with those full complement of attributes. The bottom line: the Seahawks won a Super Bowl with the running game as the starting point, and Lynch as the tempo setter. Yes, they had a great defense, and there's no question that allows you to stay committed to the run, but the point is the process, the approach, the belief that running the ball with commitment and power is a viable way to win championships in the NFL.

Another point to consider about a running back: the value of his quarterback's ability to stress a defense with his legs in a base running game that includes designed runs that have either a boot action or an option element. How does that factor in to the success of an individual back? Does that diminish his accomplishments and lead you to answer the initial question affirmatively, that many could have achieved what Lynch has done in Seattle?

Regardless of your answer, the Seahawks were built as a team. They did not blindly follow the gospel that the NFL is a passing league in which all begins and ends with their QB turning it loose. They were not dependent on Wilson throwing for 300 yards on a weekly basis. Their team was not structured that way. Wilson threw for more than 300 yards just twice all season (none in the playoffs), and he did not exceed the 200-yard mark seven times in 19 games. He was efficient and largely mistake-free within their framework. The caveat, of course, and it may be just as important to the Seahawks' success as Lynch and the league's number No. 1-ranked defense, was Wilson's ability to extend plays with his legs, to break down the structure and discipline of the defense, especially on third down. How much is that aspect of the quarterback's game an indispensable piece of this winning paradigm?

Lynch possesses all the traits you look for in a feature back. He's both powerful and elusive. The powerful part is the most critical and often overlooked. In the NFL, there's a marked difference between running tough and physical, and strong and powerful. That distinction separates backs at the NFL level. You cannot consistently and successfully run inside, out of base personnel and base formations on a weekly basis, without a power element to your game (For those thinking LeSean McCoy, it's not the same. He ran predominantly out of spread formations, which dramatically changes the mandates and the skills for the back). That's why you have to think long and hard about whether you believe Lynch is an interchangeable back within the context of the Seahawks' template.

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This, of course, leads to the now annual question of the value of running backs in the NFL draft. From 1963 through 2012, at least one running back had been selected in the first round of the draft. Last year, that did not happen, the consensus being that the position holds less importance to winning in today's NFL. It's a passing league, blah, blah, blah. It's ingrained in us, especially at this time of year, when philosophical discussions are the order of the day. How would Seattle feel about the declining value of the running back? Or perhaps San Francisco, generally regarded as the second best team in the NFL? Colin Kaepernick threw for less than 200 yards in 12 of his 18 games. Is that the formula for winning we're often told about?

You can always find good players in later rounds in any draft. Simply because that's true (Frank Gore was the first pick of the third round back in 2005) does not justify the argument that the position has lesser or limited value to NFL teams. And remember that coaches almost always see things differently than scouts and personnel people. If coaches want to run the ball with commitment and consistency, and more important, build their offense around the run game, they need a specific back to execute the plan each week. There are always examples of teams having success over a short period with certain backs, like New England with LeGarrette Blount late in the season in 2013. People point to Knowshon Moreno as the prime example for the decreased value, and by extension the relative unimportance of running backs, in the NFL. He rushed for over 1,000 yards and caught 60 passes for an additional 548 yards, and he was not in high demand in free agency. That fueled the argument that backs are duplicates, indistinguishable from one another, and therefore less valuable.

That misses the point, or more accurately, makes the point. Do you believe that either Blount or Moreno could be Lynch in Seattle? Moreno is the more telling profile. He was the 12th overall pick in the 2009 draft, selected with the expectation that he would be a foundation back. He did not become that kind of player, and perhaps few speak to that distinction between tough and physical, and strong and powerful better than Moreno. His success in Denver last season came primarily out of three-wide receiver sets; in fact, 80 percent of his carries had three or four wide receivers on the field. There are many more backs capable of producing numbers in that offense than in a more conventional base offense with the physical demands it places on power and sustainability. Lynch is that back. The reality is there are not many like him.

Will teams think differently about the model for success given the Seahawks and the 49ers? Remember Wilson was a third-round pick, and Kaepernick a second (I guess that means quarterbacks can be selected in later rounds; maybe their draft value will also be declining). Will they attempt to build "teams" rather than putting all the focus on "maybe" quarterbacks? Is it back to the future: run the ball, play good defense, with the quarterback the only nod to the new era?

Sound like the Seahawks? They're the Super Bowl champions.

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