Their cups runneth over: from Marshall Faulk to Jerome Bettis, we’re witnessing a golden era at running back – Cover Story

Barry Wilner

IF ANYONE IS GETTING EXCITED about all the 1,000-yard rushers in the NFL, our advice is to calm down. Gaining 1,000 yards means averaging only 62 yards a game. That’s not exactly a measuring stick for greatness.

So let’s alter the analysis of the stats a bit. Let’s make the plateau 1,250 yards in a season, which brings the game-by-game average up to 78 yards.

However, even that much loftier number is well within reach for a number of players. Why? Because this is a golden era for the running back position.

“It never stops,” says New England Patriots linebacker Roman Phifer. “This is the NFL. You’re going to face a marquee player every week.”

Adds New York Jets coach Herm Edwards: “Every week, it seems you’re going up against a team with a top running back. It’s one of the deepest positions in the league.”

Edwards can brag because he has Curtis Martin, a seven-year veteran who is on a pace that would carry him to Walter Payton-type levels. Despite his consistency, Martin generally has been considered a slight notch below the likes of Edgerrin James and Marshall Faulk. But this year, anyway, Martin may be the best back in football.

“To be compared with those guys and to be put on a level with them, that’s an honor,” says Martin, who has never rushed for fewer than 1,150 yards in a season. “It is a good time to be a running back in the NFL because you’re keeping some great company.”

One reason for the plethora of stampeding backs is that college football still emphasizes the position so strongly. While there are more wide-open passing attacks than ever in the college ranks, few teams succeed without a solid running game. Colleges can easily find topnotch runners because the high schools churn them out by the truckload. Name a big-time college program that doesn’t recruit two or three star runners every year.

Still, the jump from high school to college is a large one, and it’s even more difficult to move on to the NFL. Yet each season, a James or a Mike Anderson or a LaDainian Tomlinson or an Anthony Thomas makes headlines. Part of that stems from the fact that running backs can make an instant impact in the NFL; the position is less complex to learn than most others.

Take the rookie Tomlinson, who rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns in the first game of his NFL career and has performed at a high level ever since. Tomlinson has speed, power, and agility. The only thing he hasn’t done yet is show that he can be a consistent option as a receiver, a skill that is a bit more difficult to learn.

Still, the San Diego Chargers are more than happy with Tomlinson’s contributions thus far. “As a running back, you don’t need to teach him to carry the ball,” says Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie. “You put the ball in his hands, and it’s an instinctive thing.”

But versatility is what separates the great backs from the good ones. That’s why Faulk and James are considered the premier players at their position. In fact, the Indianapolis Colts selected James ahead of the more highly touted Ricky Williams in the 1999 draft partly because they felt he was more multifaceted and could better fit into the offensive scheme they were building around quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison.

“It’s amazing when someone comes in like Edgerrin did and does what he did,” Manning says. “Right from the beginning, you could see Edgerrin was willing to work hard and do what it takes to succeed.”

And who has James tried to model his game after? None other than Faulk. Ironically, Faulk was traded by Indianapolis to the St. Louis Rams prior to the ’99 draft, paving the way for James on the Colts.

“I love to watch Marshall play,” James says. “He has the game figured out to where it is so easy. I look at his pass routes. He is one of the best ever to run them, and I try to pattern myself after the way Marshall does it. I try to kill them both ways. You’re not always going to be able to run the ball in the NFL. If they won’t let me run it, I’ll get past it by catching it.

“I said that I want to make my mark in the NFL. This is the highest level. I want to play as many years as I’m able, so I wanted to get here and make plays and play.”

Few runners have accomplished as much as early as James has; he won the NFL rushing title in each of his first two years. A season-ending knee injury in November, however, prevented James from making a run at a hat trick. He ended his 2001 campaign with 662 yards.

Almost every team has a running back capable of carrying the load. Consider that only the Carolina Panthers, Buffalo Bills, Patriots, Cleveland Browns, Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears, and Minnesota Vikings entered the 2001 season without a top-notch runner. And three of those teams–the Browns with James Jackson, the Bills with Travis Henry, and the Bears with Thomas–may have found one this season.

Some of today’s better runners–such as Charlie Garner and Ahman Green–took some time to fully develop. Others–including Shaun Alexander, Stephen Davis, and James Stewart–sat behind established backs before getting a true chance to show what they had.

Then there are the injury-prone runners, players like Jamal Anderson, Jamal Lewis, and Terrell Davis. All three helped their teams reach the Super Bowl, but they have been dogged by injuries ever since.

Up and down the line–inside and outside of it, too–the dependency on big-time running backs to make key plays can’t be underestimated. Some teams even have depth at the position, a true luxury in today’s era of the salary cap.

The Denver Broncos, for instance, were able to keep their running game going even after Davis began to succumb to injuries, with Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson. The New York Giants always have needed a solid runner to succeed. Now they have two: Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also have two runners who have the talent to be the featured back: Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott. And the Rams have been able to use Trung Canidate effectively when Faulk has been injured.

Most teams, however, rely on just one horse. The Cincinnati Bengals place almost their whole offensive load on the big shoulders of Corey Dillon, who puts up big numbers every year despite the team’s turnover at quarterback. On the Pittsburgh Steelers, ageless iron man Jerome Bettis is essentially the entire offense. In fact, Bettis is among the main reasons why Pittsburgh has been one of this season’s most surprising teams.

Several other players–like Martin, Williams, Stephen Davis, and Stewart–also don’t get much help from the bench. Not that those running backs want to be standing on the sideline while someone else totes the football.

“Most great running backs get better as the game goes on and the defense gets tired,” says Bill Parcells, who drafted and developed Martin and also coached Joe Morris, O.J. Anderson, and Rodney Hampton. “They want the ball, and you want the ball in their hands.”

Bettis might be the best example of that type of workhorse, although he started getting a bit dinged up late this season. He uses his 255 pounds like a battering ram, and the effect can be seen late in games when the defenders start to sag. Next time you tune in to a Steelers game, watch how many tackles Bettis breaks in the second half, particularly in the fourth quarter.

But what’s most amazing about the 29-year-old Bettis, who joined the exclusive 10,000-yard club this season, is his shiftiness. “I’ll take a guy on and hit him a few times and hit him, but then when he’s getting tired, I’ll give him a little move and get some big yards on him,” Bettis says.

Not bad for a guy who was projected as a blocking back when he entered the NFL out of Notre Dame in 1993. “I thought I’d play five, six years at fullback and that would be that,” Bettis says. “I didn’t know if I would gain a yard.”

Instead, he is on pace to finish his career among the NFL’s all-time leading rushers. Even after nine years in the league, he still amazes his team-mates with his rare combination of power and grace.

“There was one play late in a Cincinnati game where a safety or a cornerback tried to tackle him at his knees,” Steelers guard Alan Faneca recalls. “Jerome just ran right through him. You can check his stride–it didn’t even slow him down. The guy rolled off him, flipped, and did a spin and was looking up, and Jerome was 10 more yards down the field.”

One thing Bettis has never been known for, however, is pass-catching. But in defense of Bettis, there aren’t a lot of backs who master that skill. Martin is one who did. Early in his career he was a mediocre receiver, but he worked hard on that aspect of his game. The work paid off. The past two seasons, the Jets have used him split wide when they have gone to an empty backfield. Martin now is one of football’s most dangerous players on screens, up there with James, Faulk, Fred Taylor, and Barber.

“It was one of my goals to be as versatile as possible, so I could stay on the field every down and play a role,” Martin says. “I didn’t consider myself a well-rounded player until I could do that.”

Emmitt Smith, one of the game’s icons, has embodied all of the talents a great running back must have. Now in his 12th season, the Dallas Cowboys runner is beginning to slow a bit, but he seems certain to break Payton’s career rushing record of 16,726 yards before he’s finished. In his prime, Smith did it all: He excelled at running inside or outside, and at pass-catching and blocking. To this day, he remains a superb leader.

“He’s one of those special kind of guys who you love to watch play,” says Barry Sanders, whom Smith passed this season for second place on the career rushing list. “You don’t know whether to be in awe of him or try to shut him down.”

Those words could apply to any number of running backs these days.

Breaking Down the Backs

Best inside runners: Jerome Bettis, Pittsburgh; Mike Alstott, Tampa Bay.

Best outside runners: Marshall Faulk, St. Louis; Edgerrin James, Indianapolis; Fred Taylor, Jacksonville.

Best blockers: Lorenzo Neal, Cincinnati; William Henderson, Green Bay.

Best receivers: Marshall Faulk, St. Louis; Edgerrin James, Indianapolis; Larry Centers, Buffalo; Ahman Green, Green Bay; Curtis Martin, N.Y. Jets.

Best leaders: Emmitt Smith, Dallas; Jerome Bettis, Pittsburgh; Curtis Martin N.Y. Jets.

Most versatile: Edgerrin James, Indianapolis; Curtis Martin, N.Y. Jets; Marshall Faulk, St. Louis; Ahman Green, Green Bay.

Most underrated: Priest Holmes, Kansas City; Antowain Smith, New England.

Most overrated: Lamar Smith, Miami; Ron Dayne, N.Y. Giants; Eddie George, Tennessee.

On the rise: LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego; Shaun Alexander, Seattle: Anthony Thomas, Chicago.

Unluckiest runners: Jamal Anderson, Atlanta; Fred Taylor, Jacksonville; Terrell Davis, Denver.

Best substitutes: Mike Anderson, Denver; Shaun Alexander, Seattle; Olandis Gary, Denver; Trung Canidate, St. Louis.

Best combinations: Warrick Dunn/Mike Alstott, Tampa Bay; Terrell Davis/Mike Anderson/Olandis Gary, Denver; Garrison Hearst/Kevan Barlow, San Francisco.

Biggest threats to break Walter Payton’s record: Emmitt Smith, Dallas; Curtis Martin, N.Y. Jets.

All-Big 10 Pros: Ohio State’s Eddie George, Tennessee; Purdue’s Mike Alstott, Tampa Bay; Michigan’s Tyrone Wheatley, Oakland.

All-Pac-10 Pros: Washington’s Corey Dillon. Cincinnati; Washington’s Ahman Green, Green Bay; Arizona’s Trung Canidate, St. Louis.

All-Florida Pros: Gators’ Emmitt Smith, Dallas; Hurricanes’ Edgerrin James, Indianapolis; Seminoles’ Warrick Dunn, Tampa Bay.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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