Monday, August 01, 2011

Marshall Faulk, Running Backs, Quarterbacks, and the Changing NFL

This weekend was supposed to be a special weekend for Rams fans, filled with all kinds of pomp and circumstance, a coronation for one of the greatest players in NFL history as blue and gold swirled all around.

Then the NFL went ahead and cancelled Sam Bradford’s appearance in the Hall of Fame game.

I guess we’ll have to settle for Marshall Faulk’s enshrinement in the Hall of Fame instead.

In all seriousness, though, Faulk was the greatest St. Louis Ram of all time (though Kurt Warner fans may dispute that assertion) and is certainly deserving of being the headliner of the weekend as a first-ballot inductee.

My first “holy shit!” moment seeing Faulk was during the Rams-Browns game in 1999 at what was then the TWA dome.  I remember it like it was yesterday: the first time I ever saw the Rams win in person.  We all remember that crazy run where Faulk juked and dashed his way 35 yards to daylight against the Browns, coming to a full stop, Looney Tunes-style, to let Browns defenders fly by before accelerating like an F-18 on an aircraft carrier to blow past everyone at full speed.  I would say that it was something out of a video game, but I’m pretty sure that the physics engine in the Madden series wouldn’t allow that play to happen.  It was really an unreal demonstration of human athleticism, and I likely wouldn’t have believed it happened if I hadn’t seen it with my own two eyes.

Marshall was a rarity: a complete running back with a unique skill-set.  Too many running backs fit a given archetype in today’s game: they’re either a “power back” (like Steven Jackson or LaGarrette Blount) or “speed back” (Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles) or “third down back” (Darren Sproles, Kevin Faulk).  None of them really put it all together.  The closest guy is probably Adrian Peterson, but he doesn’t do enough on passing downs to fit the mold.  Most running backs have a limited skill set: power, speed, agility, vision, and (for some) hands, and even these skills are usually parceled out among the rotation of backs that make up most backfields.

That’s why it’s always a disaster when teams try to make enormous, Herschel Walker-type deals for running backs.  Much like in daily American life, you’re only as valuable as your unique skill set, and as good as Herschel Walker and Ricky Williams were, they were basically just power/speed hybrids.  Additionally, running back skills decline somewhat more quickly than skills at other positions; playing running back means lots of collisions and lots of wear and tear.  It’s simply not worth it to give up the farm for most running backs out there.  The last running back that I think would’ve been worth such a bold trade?  Take a guess.  None other than Mr. Faulk himself.  And the Rams were able to secure his services for 2nd and 5th round draft choices. 

Quarterbacks, on the other hand, have to have a wide variety of transferrable skills; there’s no such thing as a “third down QB,” wildcat guys notwithstanding.  Accuracy, arm strength, both in terms of range and velocity, awareness, decision-making, leadership, so-called “escapeability,” and even size all come into play when evaluating modern quarterbacks, and that’s without taking into account all of the running back skills that are increasingly becoming a part of many QBs’ toolbox.  It doesn’t hurt that many of these skills get better with age (to a point), especially among the elite quarterbacks in the league.

The only problem is that because of the value of elite quarterbacks that possess many of these skills, teams simply will not trade them; not even for a Herschel Walker-type of deal.  That’s why teams either have to trade for QBs that are too old and fading (McNabb) or too young but with potential (Matt Schaub, Charlie Whitehurst), or they have to hope that fate and circumstances conspire to deliver the perfect QB at the perfect time (Peyton Manning, and hopefully Bradford).  That’s why teams probably settle for running backs and receivers more often than quarterback help; it’s less expensive, and can have “an impact” on the offense you run.  And, no offense to these guys, but when Trent Dilfer, Jeff Hostetler, and Mark Rypien have all hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, it sends the message to teams that sometimes “good enough” at quarterback is really good enough.

As teams continue to ramp up passing attacks across the league, it would stand to reason that quarterbacks will continue to rise in value, and running backs will continue to fall.  I generally agree with this, but as with anything in life, there are exceptions.  Because of his versatility and value to the passing game, not just as a pass-catcher, but also on the blitz pickup, a magically rejuvenated Faulk would probably be of greater value now more than ever.  You don’t think an offensive coordinator would want a guy that could motion out into the flat and act as a fourth wideout, or motion in from the slot and be trusted to make blitz pickups?  Those guys simply don’t exist in the modern game. 

Not only that, but it’s exactly those kinds of things that were a part of Mike Martz’s offense that dragged the rest of the league, kicking and screaming, toward the more pass-oriented attack that is used by top offensive teams.  When other teams couldn’t find one Marshall Faulk, they looked to two and three guys to provide that same selection of skills at the position over a broader base.  This was certainly good for those teams that employed the method, including Super Bowl winners like the Patriots (Antowaine Smith/Corey Dillon + Kevin Faulk) and Giants (Bradshaw + Jacobs + Ward), but it’s far more valuable and impressive to find that skill set in a single person.

So when you see Marshall Faulk standing at that podium in Canton this weekend, remember just how valuable he was to those Greatest Show on Turf teams of the late nineties and early…aughts(?).  And think about his remarkable impact on the position of running back, and how the way he was used changed the National Football League.

Questions?  Comments?  Like the new football-centric approach the blog is taking?  Hate it?  E-mail the Blogmogger team at