The debate over who should've handled the ball on the Seattle Seahawks' last offensive play of the 2014 season will likely rage on until their first snap of the 2015 season comes.
Tucked in the argument is an anomaly: The idea that Seattle should've leaned on a tailback in the first place.
This, after all, is no longer the NFL of Walter Payton or Eric Dickerson or Emmitt Smith -- or even Terrell Davis or LaDainian Tomlinson. This is a league where seven of the last eight MVPs are known for throwing the ball, not carrying it, and the most recent Super Bowl champion's lead back was seen checking out on another team just three months prior to lifting the Lombardi Trophy.
And it's with that context that the 2015 offseason will provide two litmus tests for the devaluation of the professional running back. First is the impending free agency of 2014 Offensive Player of the Year DeMarco Murray. Fresh off a 1,845-yard campaign that helped transform the Dallas Cowboys from passable to powerful, the 27-year-old back is set to hit the open market next Tuesday. Seven weeks after that, a bumper crop of college backs will be available in the 2015 NFL Draft, perhaps the deepest group since a 2008 class that churned out five first-round picks.
Enticing? Sure -- at least relatively so.
But it's quite possible that Murray struggles to even sniff the financial windfalls received by LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch and Matt Forte during the 2012 offseason, the last offseason any team handed out a colossal contract to a player at the position. And it's also conceivable that, even with a slew of first-round-quality players available, no tailback comes off the board within the first 32 picks on April 30.
Another gauge of the current RB climate landed on everyone's doorstep Tuesday evening, as the Philadelphia Eagles dealt McCoy -- a 26-year-old two-time All-Pro -- away to Buffalo for a young linebacker coming off an ACL reconstruction.
"It's all case by case," one NFC offensive coordinator said. "It really does depend on who it is. Because after Adrian (Peterson) and Marshawn, who are you not paying because of the position? Can you say anyone else is really special?"
And that's where you can start with the reasons why the dynamics surrounding running backs have changed.
Multiple evaluators I spoke with agreed this is a factor: The proliferation of the spread offense in high school and college has led to coaches putting their best athletes either at quarterback or on the outside. And the result is running back becoming a meat-and-potatoes position in many programs at those levels.
"Your best athletes are at receiver and tight end," one AFC college scout said. "You can afford to have a lesser running back, because the holes are gonna be there -- it's the nature of that offense."
Twenty years ago, guys like Sammy Watkins (6-foot-1, 211 pounds) and Odell Beckham Jr. (5-11, 198) very well might have come up through the ranks as tailbacks. Beckham's dad, in fact, was one for LSU in the early '90s. But now, as one AFC running backs coach put it, "The idea is to put your better athletes at receiver, get them in space, and get them running." So it's pretty simple: Fewer great athletes at running back means fewer great running backs.
In 2004, 13 teams ran the ball more than 450 times, and 26 broke 400. In 2014, nine clubs logged over 450 carries, and 21 eclipsed 400. On an individual level, the trend is even more glaring. In '04, nine players went over 300 carries and 17 had at least 250. Last year, just two backs broke 300 and only eight had over 250.
The easy conclusions: Teams are running less and leaning on more than one player to do it. But there are also more subtle changes in what's demanded of a back. "Not a lot of teams run true pro-style, downhill power schemes, so the big backs aren't needed as much," the AFC RB coach said. "It's more zone-read, gun-style inside-zone stuff to get guys into space."
Add all of it up, and the old-style bell cow is less necessary. Smaller scatbacks -- who need to work in platoon situations because they can't withstand as much punishment -- have taken on more prominent roles. And if you have to split the workload anyway, making a big draft or financial investment in one guy makes less sense.
C.J. Anderson, Justin Forsett and Jonas Gray were the leading rushers for three teams that played on Divisional Round Weekend, a weekend during which Gray was actually inactive. And by then, former Cincinnati Bengals practice squader Dan "Boom" Herron had overtaken the ballyhooed Trent Richardson in the backfield of the Indianapolis Colts, another club that made it to that (and the next) stage of the playoffs. All of which bolsters the idea that if you don't have a running back, you don't have to look too hard to uncover one.
"It's not a rare thing to find one, to where you have to overpay or overdraft the position," an AFC personnel executive said. "You can be patient and find a guy who can play at a high level. If you blanketed all the starters and looked at how they came into the league, and you look at the elite running backs, you find that some go high in the draft and are compensated at a high level, but you can find undrafted players, as well."
Among the NFL's top 10 rushers in 2014, there was one former first-round pick (Lynch), four second-rounders, two third-rounders, a fourth-rounder, a seventh-rounder and a former undrafted free agent (Foster) who also happens to be the most well-compensated of the bunch. And that should drive home the point well enough for everyone. There's supply out there, which hurts demand.
Points at a premium
It's hardly impossible to build an offense around a run game. Seattle has ridden its Lynch-based attack to consecutive Super Bowls. The 49ers were an option-heavy team the year they made it to the big game, behind dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick and blood-and-guts back Frank Gore. And those Niners lost to a Ravens team that had a tailback, Rice, as its centerpiece.
There's a catch, though. In this day of high-flying offense, building an attack around a back or a running game almost requires a great defense, which the three above clubs had.
And this much is clear: If you lean heavy on the run, you can't have a defense that's going to put you in catch-up situations.
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When the 2015 league year opens at 4 p.m. ET next Tuesday and the ribbon is cut on a new crew of free agents, it's possible that non-position-specific circumstances wind up saving Murray. Ten teams must catch up to the minimum-spend thresholds of the current collective bargaining agreement over the next two years, and some of those clubs drafted so poorly under since-fired management that it's necessary to go outside the organization to find players to pay.
But if last year's dead RB market serves as any sort of indicator, Murray could find himself in a tough spot. A draft class that has around seven backs worthy of going in the first two rounds won't help, either. And the depth of that class, of course, could wind up hurting the players within it, with no one team feeling the need to overextend to fill a hole at the position.
History says waiting isn't always a bad call, either. That aforementioned 2008 class of tailbacks? Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson were the first-rounders. Johnson's been the most productive player of that quintet, and he was the last of the five picked. The other four have been outplayed by three guys drafted outside the first round that year: Forte, Rice and Jamaal Charles. And that's all had an effect.
"Jeremy Hill is a first-round pick five or 10 years ago," said the AFC college scout, of the back who went 55th overall to the Cincinnati Bengals last May. "We all saw the ability. But the premium on the position just isn't there anymore. Teams are willing to get by with adequate answers at the position because it's so hard to get through a season with one healthy the way defenses are now, and there are a lot of guys who are even. And the way the game's played, if you can't help in the pass game -- catching and pass-protecting -- forget it."
But that doesn't mean, of course, that there's no value in having a great back.
In fact, there's a group in Seattle that doesn't need another reminder of that.