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Point, counterpoint: Is back-by-committee best approach?

Posted Oct 16, 2012

Vic KetchmanPackers.com Editor Vic Ketchman says no.

Give me the old-fashioned workhorse running back, if you can find one, of course. Why do I prefer the dominant-back approach?

It’s all about familiarity and feel. Here are some examples:

  • It’s third-and-one and the quarterback detects a tendency by the defensive line that he wants to convey to his running back. They’ve developed a relationship that allows them a subtle-language communication, so the quarterback taps his hand on his hip, trusting that the back was looking for such a gesture. The quarterback has just slightly adjusted the hand-off to be a little wider than usual, or maybe he’s adjusted the play to bring the back a step closer to the line of scrimmage so he might hit the hole quicker. It can be the difference between converting the play or getting stuffed and having to punt.

  • After three quarters of hammering away at the defense, the back has noticed the hits he’s taking now aren’t the equal of what he received early in the game. He senses that the defense is tiring and he detects that the middle linebacker is beginning to cheat to one side or the other, based on what he’s reading from the offense, so the back attempts to influence the middle linebacker by taking a peak to the right, as though he’s unintentionally tipping the play. It’s gamesmanship and it can cause a run to break for a big gain and further fatigue the defense.

  • The right guard is dominating the defensive tackle opposite him, and the back knows that’s the place to go when he needs to gain a yard. On the goal line, with the game on the line, the back winks at the guard in the huddle and the two combine to clinch the win.

What I’ve described are hypotheticals in which familiarity breeds success. You might call it chemistry. Clearly, the great runners had a special feel and familiarity, a chemistry, with their teammates.

O.J. Simpson had it with the “Electric Company.” John Riggins had it with the “Hogs.” All great backs have enjoyed that kind of relationship with the men who’ve blocked for them.

When players know each other well enough that they can speak to each other with their eyes, or simply know how the other will react in a certain situation, the design of the play is fluid and the defense’s adjustments can be countered without having to stop the game.

That’s what you get with a workhorse running back. You don’t get that with the back-by-committee approach. Utility backs are little more than chess pieces.

There’s more.

By the time a back is carrying the ball for the 15th time in a game, he has a good feel for the defenders. He knows which ones like to square their shoulders when they tackle, and which ones are side tacklers.

He knows who the eye-closers and head-duckers are. A little wiggle and shake works best on them.

The back knows who the timid tacklers are. You drop your pads on them and they’ll stop showing up.

Utility backs don’t acquire that feel. For them, every defender is the same guy.

The workhorse back knows which defenders go for the strip and which defenders wrap their arms. He knows when to tuck the ball away and when he might drop it from his body and lengthen his stride. The utility back knows only to do as he’s taught and told.

You want depth at running back? Then go find a workhorse running back that’ll guarantee the guys behind him won’t get hurt because they won’t play.

I like that kind of running back.

Mike SpoffordPackers.com Staff Writer Mike Spofford says yes.

I understand the arguments about rhythm, timing, communication, and all of that. Those elements are invaluable and hard to quantify. I just prefer to have multiple backs involved in the game and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

That doesn’t mean the carries have to be split evenly or by a strict percentage breakdown. There’s no magic formula. You still need a lead guy, but there’s just something to be said for dividing the workload in a way that can keep your No. 1 fresh for the long haul, when more than 16 games is always the goal.

Being able to keep backs 1 and 1A a little fresher throughout the course of individual games can provide advantages, too.

If your main guy has carried the ball 12-15 times through 3½ quarters, rather than 22-25, he might be more effective and explosive in the clock-eating four-minute offense when trying to hold a lead. I’d rather have that than a back that is out of gas and needs to be replaced by a cold back when the tough yards are needed. Or have a back that refuses to admit when his tank is empty and be simply ineffective, or worse yet, make a critical mistake due to fatigue with the game in the balance.

Running back is the most punishing position to play in the game, in my opinion, and to have so much riding on one guy can throw everything off-kilter if he happens to go down.

That’s what happened to the Packers just two weeks ago in Indianapolis. Cedric Benson had been the workhorse through the first month of the season, in part because he was still getting accustomed to the offense, and vice versa. That approach was necessary given the circumstances, and it was working.

But when Benson got hurt and left the game, the entire offense lost its rhythm. Judging by the play selection, it appears the Packers weren’t comfortable turning Benson’s workload over to Alex Green, who had carried the ball just twice in the first four games, and not once over the previous two.

It’s hard to find fault with that line of thinking. Then, when the offense did get Green involved, his first four rushes against Indy went for 1, 1, minus-4 and minus-2 yards, which in essence is what was feared to begin with. The result was an 18-point halftime lead evaporating in 22 minutes, and the Packers were down by a point with eight minutes left.

The situation in Indy was a tough one, given the state of the offense with Benson at the time. I would just hate to see the Packers lose another game because the workhorse back goes down and the offense goes kaput because the next man up isn’t really ready to step in and carry out the game plan.

The best way to get him ready is to use him in games, so that’s why I prefer the backfield-by-committee approach, or more accurately, backfield-by-more-than-one. It doesn’t have to be a full stable of horses, but I don’t like the risk that goes with a lone ranger.

In a perfect world, you could blow teams out by 20 points on a regular basis and get that second back plenty of late-game, mop-up work, in case he’s ever needed when it matters. But the NFL is more down-to-the-wire than ever these days, as we all know, and if a full transition from 1 to 1A is ever required, it best be smooth and seamless.

Cast your vote in the poll on the right, please.

 
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