Column: NFL teams are getting caught short-handed at running back
The NFL season isn’t even a quarter over and already a robust list of front-line running backs have been out of games because of injury.
The list of the banged-up backs sounds like the top of a fantasy draft: Arian Foster, Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy, Knowshon Moreno, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ryan Mathews, Doug Martin, Jonathan Stewart, Mark Ingram.
Yes, this is a passing league, and the tailback position has been devalued in recent years — there hasn’t been a running back drafted in the first round since 2012 — but try telling that to the San Diego Chargers, who lost Mathews and then Danny Woodhead and now are scrambling to fill the void. The Chargers had to cringe this week when Arizona plucked running back Marion Grice off their practice squad.
Grice was the only in-house candidate to step in for Woodhead, but he decided to go back to Arizona (he played at Arizona State) and join a team also short on running backs, with Jonathan Dwyer dealing with a domestic-violence situation.
All this underscores the value of durable backs such as Marshawn Lynch in Seattle, Frank Gore in San Francisco and DeMarco Murray in Dallas, who obviously aren’t immune to injury but keep coming back week after week.
Next spring’s draft could be a big one for running backs, too, with ballcarriers such as Georgia’s Todd Gurley, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah already creating a buzz in NFL circles.
A widely embraced philosophy in the NFL is, in most cases, the difference between a first-round and third-round running back isn’t so great that it’s essential to use the top pick to get someone to carry the ball, especially in a passing league. Plus, backs get injured so frequently, it’s often too much of a risk to take them in the first round.
In 2013, 36 picks passed before the Cincinnati Bengals made Giovani Bernard, the first running back selected. This year, Tennessee took Bishop Sankey 54th, longer than the draft had gone before the first running back was off the board.
With the quality of college backs this fall, and the reminder the NFL has gotten on the importance of the position, watch for a return of the first-round back.
With Buffalo playing at Houston, an interesting matchup to watch is between two players who won’t be on the field at the same time. There are bound to be comparisons between Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who played for the Bills from 2009 to 2012, and his replacement in Buffalo, EJ Manuel, the only quarterback selected in the first round in 2013.
The 6-foot-5 Manuel has the prototypical quarterback build and is a sleek runner, but has struggled with his passing accuracy. Fitzpatrick is more of a gunslinger, who wore out his welcome in Buffalo when his risk-taking and interceptions started costing the Bills games. But Fitzpatrick is a survivor, too, in that not many quarterbacks get cut by Buffalo and wind up landing starting jobs elsewhere. Most disappear (see: Rob Johnson, Trent Edwards, J.P. Losman).
One game is just a snapshot in the continuum of an NFL career. Regardless, there’s some pressure on Manuel to play especially well against a team quarterbacked by Fitzpatrick. Otherwise, fans might just be scratching their heads and questioning what the franchise has been doing the last two years.
Grabbing at air
Maybe Dallas will get to New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees on Sunday. As it is, the Cowboys are on pace for 16 sacks, which would be a franchise low. Their lowest sack total for a 16-game season is 23 in 1991. So far, the Dallas defensive line has been credited with half a sack.
Whereas the San Francisco 49ers have a tendency to start quickly and fade, it’s just the opposite for their Sunday opponent, Philadelphia.
The 3-0 Eagles have scored an NFL-best 74 points in the second half of games. That’s more than the total points of 21 other teams. Philadelphia overcame halftime deficits in its first two victories of the season, and outscored Washington, 16-14, in the second half of their Week 3 victory.
The 49ers have a 59-16 scoring advantage in the first halves of games, and have been outscored, 52-3, in the second half.
The NFL is trying something different with the traditional London games this season. First of all, there are a record three of them, beginning Sunday when Miami faces Oakland, but the league also is experimenting with an early kickoff time for Atlanta-Detroit on Oct. 26.
For the first time, the league will accommodate London fans by kicking off Falcons-Lions at 1:30 p.m. there. That’s 9:30 a.m. on the East Coast, where the early games typically start at 1, and a 6:30 a.m. start for bleary-eyed fans on the West Coast.
Mark Waller, an NFL executive vice president whose focus is driving international growth, said that early kickoff will tell the league a lot about fans on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Stateside, we’ll definitely learn something about the Sunday day, and how engaged fans can be and for how long,” Waller said. “And then from a U.K. perspective, we’ll learn a lot, particularly operationally.”
Among the advantages of an earlier start, Waller said, are that teams can fly home Sunday as opposed to staying an extra day, and London fans won’t be at Wembley Stadium so late on a Sunday night.
Waller said the NFL expects to sell roughly 250,000 tickets for the three games.
“For the majority of our teams in the U.S., that’s almost half a season of tickets,” Waller said.
In March, after signing with Baltimore, former Carolina receiver Steve Smith advised fans during a radio interview to put their “goggles on cause there’s going to be blood and guts everywhere” when the Ravens and Panthers play in Week 4.
As a playful nod to that, Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams donned ski goggles to speak to reporters this week.
“I’ve used them in the past, but it wasn’t for blood and guts,” Williams said with a laugh. “It was to keep mud out of my eyes when I was on my ATV. But they’re good for multiple occasions.”
UC Irvine David Fells starts
In case it escaped your notice, UC Irvine’s David Fells, 28, made his NFL debut last Sunday, starting for the Arizona Cardinals in their home game against the San Francisco 49ers. He was targeted once but did not make a catch. Irvine doesn’t have a football team, so Fells played basketball for the Anteaters.
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