The devaluation of the running back position has been greatly exaggerated.
In fact, I would suggest that running backs are just as important to offensive football as they have been in the past, but the job description has changed with the NFL evolving into a passing league. Running backs are now expected to serve as multipurpose threats in the backfield, rather than assume roles as one-dimensional sledgehammers in the running game.
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Last season, 12 running backs rushed for 600-plus yards while also tallying at least 40 receptions. That list not only includes premier runners like Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy, but also features two of the NFL's most dynamic multipurpose playmakers: Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush.
While their inclusion is not surprising, considering their remarkable skills, the fact that Sproles replaced Bush in New Orleans makes it intriguing to examine which one is the superior weapon in a head-to-head debate. After popping in some game tape to evaluate their respective talents, here are my findings:
Bush and Sproles are underappreciated when it comes to their running skills, but both rate as exceptional rushers in my mind. Bush, in particular, is an outstanding perimeter runner with excellent speed and quickness. In his first season with the Miami Dolphins (and sixth overall), Bush displayed more physicality and toughness than most expected. As a result, he received 20-plus carries in three games and responded with 100-plus rushing yards in each of those contests (eclipsing 200 yards when he received a season-high 25 carries against the Buffalo Bills).
Bush is running an inside-zone play with the ball expected to go into the A-gap on the left. Bush will read the block of the center and backside guard to determine where to take the ball at the point of attack:
The Jets stuff the play at the point of attack, but Bush uses his superb vision to find a crease on the back side:
Early in his career, Bush lacked the patience to wait for holes to develop, but he has learned how to slow down and trust his blockers, which has led to more big runs.
Sproles is also an exceptional perimeter runner, boasting explosive speed and quickness. He excels at working on the edges, and the New Orleans Saints routinely spring him on a variety of deception plays (draws, delays and quick pitches) that allow him to blow past the first wave of defenders. Although his diminutive stature prevents the Saints from giving him a heavy workload as a runner, Sproles' big-play ability shines when he gets touches in the running game.
Bush and Sproles are two of the best receivers out of the backfield in the NFL. Both are exceptional working in the open field and those skills are highlighted in the passing game. Bush, who hauled in 43 receptions for 296 yards in 2011, is a matchup nightmare for defenders in isolated situations. He is most effective running option routes from his halfback position, due to his superb quickness and burst. Although the Dolphins didn't fully maximize Bush's skills as a receiver last season, he remains one of the league's most difficult RBs to cover.
Sproles shows extraordinary skills as a receiver. He is a natural pass catcher with outstanding hands, but he is most impressive as a route runner. The Saints' utilization of swings, angles and option routes routinely allows him to overwhelm defenders with his elusiveness, and the chemistry between QB Drew Brees and Sproles produces big results.
Sproles is running an option route based on the coverage. If the Packers are in man coverage, he can break to the inside or outside based on the leverage of the defender:
With Hawk overplaying the outside, Sproles breaks to the inside, which allows Brees (just before the rush arrives) to hit him for a 36-yard gain over the middle:
With defensive coordinators finding few effective answers for neutralizing Sproles in the passing game, I have to give the nod to him as the better receiver and route runner.
To build a potent offense in the NFL, an offensive coordinator must have explosive playmakers at his disposal on the perimeter. Bush and Sproles certainly fit the bill with their dynamic skills as multipurpose threats. Bush, who is coming off his first 1,000-yard season, is one of the deadliest runners in the NFL. Last season, he amassed 10 plays (eight runs and two receptions) of 20-plus yards and showed the capacity to rack up 100-yard games when given 20 or more attempts on the ground. Although the Dolphins' scheme limited his opportunities to create explosive plays on the perimeter, Bush is extremely dangerous.
Sproles possesses the speed to run away from defenders in the open field and is astoundingly elusive in traffic. Last season, Sproles demonstrated an unrivaled ability to get to the second level, which resulted in 14 plays (seven runs and seven receptions) of 20-plus yards. While some would attribute his success to the wide open system run by the Saints, the fact that Sproles has produced 44 plays of 20-plus yards in 558 career touches (compared to Bush's 41 in 1,077 touches) reflects his knack for busting loose.
The return game can be an overlooked aspect, but the additional yardage picked on special teams greatly impacts field position and scoring opportunities. Bush and Sproles have routinely generated big plays as returners. Sproles, in particular, has been one of the NFL's most productive returners with five combined return touchdowns in six seasons (he missed the entire 2006 season with a broken ankle). He also boasts exceptional career averages on both kick (25.4) and punt returns (8.6). Take a look at Sproles' 72-yard, punt-return touchdown against the Packers in the video to your right.
Bush has also been effective as a returner at times, but has not been a consistent playmaker in the kicking game since his sensational 2008 season, when he finished with three punt-return scores and averaged 13.5 yards on 20 returns. He has only averaged 5.8 yards on his last 47 punt returns, and only produced four returns of 20-plus yards during that span.
The comparison between Sproles and Bush is fascinating, due to the endless similarities in their games. In breaking down game tape of Sproles and Bush, I've come to the conclusion that they are exactly the same player in many aspects, and you couldn't go wrong with either.
However, the offensive system plays a major role in their success. To maximize these two players' talents, it is imperative that schemes are catered to fit their strengths. That's why I favor Sproles in this debate, due to his current role in the Saints' offense. He is strategically placed in favorable situations, and his ability to generate significant production in limited opportunities is a testament to the clever utilization of his skills. While I respect Bush's outstanding performance in 2011, I believe Sproles' production in New Orleans is more sustainable, due to the efforts of the Saints' spectacular staff. Yes, Sean Payton will be missed in 2012, but the blueprint for Sproles has already been implemented. And it worked pretty well during his first season in The Big Easy: All the guy did was set an NFL record with 2,696 all-purpose yards.