Jerome Bettis Weighs In On The NFL Devaluing RB’s


Growing up in the 1980s, I lived in an era where running backs were the king of the NFL.

It was a time when the word “franchise” was followed by running back and it signified the most important ingredient to being a Super Bowl contender.

During that period, the football world witnessed Walter Payton hunt down one of the most sacred records in the National Football League, Hall of Famer Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record (12,312).

It was the holiest of the Holy Grail of NFL records.

Power and production led to prestige. It signifies today why many revere Jim Brown as the greatest player in the history of the league.


Hardcore NFL fans viewed tossing passes like a tossed salad when they were craving the meat and potatoes of the run game. They looked at pass heavy teams as soft and weak. The real warriors of the gridiron gallantly triumphed from their battering ram running back conquering the physical contest each and every play.

It was the teams that possessed players like John Riggins, Franco Harris and Tony Dorsett that galvanized fan bases and helped propel their franchises into dynasties.

In what has been a gradual process over time, the NFL has gone from an era in which running backs like Emmitt Smith dominated the landscape to a new era that is reluctant to rely on the ground game and involves passing the ball at astonishing rates.

Smith currently resides as the all-time leading rusher in the NFL with an incredible 18,355 yards.  A record that may last a very long time (probably forever) with the way the NFL game is trending more and more to pass-heavy offenses designed to allow quarterbacks to pass the football repeatedly.

Quarterbacks over the last couple decades have produced numbers that only the games most elite players were able to capture on the stat sheet generations ago.

“Its devalued because there is not enough franchise running backs,” said Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis who finished his career with 13,662 yards and ranks sixth overall all-time amongst the league leaders in the category. “When you look at the college landscape where you draw your pro-style running backs from there is only a bout six or seven schools that run a pro-style offense.”

Bettis brings up an excellent point of view, considering that 10 straight Heisman Trophy winners (1974-83) all played running back. Running backs dominated because run-first offenses dominated college football.

That decade of domination by the running back position indicated the pattern in which the most productive and successful schools in the nation were operating under – Running the football.

Since that time only eight other running backs have been given college’s ultimate individual award.

From 1984 on, quarterbacks crept up the college mountain to win the Heisman Trophy and began to establish themselves as the new wave of top college talent.

College coaches now use spread offenses and gimmick plays to provide their high powered units the ability to score points in wild flourishes and help diminish the methodical time consuming and once featured run game.

“The choices you have are Georgia, LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, maybe USC, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin,” said Bettis referring to the schools that still emphasize a heavy dose of running the football in order to reach their max potential and winning a National Championship.

“Where can you go and get a NFL type tailback?” Bettis asked. “That can be adequate in the NFL.”

The list is short and Bettis identified the schools magnificently.

Nick Chubb (Georgia), Leonard Fournette (LSU) and Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott are considered three of the top running backs in the country.

Unfortunately Chubb injured his knee against Tennessee last weekend ending his season, but both he and Fournette were creating a weekend escapade of magic rushing the football.

It was becoming 1998 all over again, except home run hitting Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were turned into Heisman hopefuls running roughshod over their opponents in hot pursuit of the Heisman Trophy.

Meanwhile Elliott and Ohio State fans anxiously await head coach Urban Meyer unleashing the junior tailback in their quest for back-to-back national championships.  Elliott rushed for 696 yards on 76 carries for eight touchdowns over the duration of the Buckeyes final three games last season, which included the Big Ten Championship Game, College Football Playoff Semifinal (Allstate Sugar Bowl) and College Football Championship.

Meyer has drawn plenty of criticism for not feeding his work horse the carries he deserves.  Elliott would appear to be the perfect antidote for a team struggling to juggle two starting quarterbacks on one roster.

“All other running backs play in a spread-offense and there smaller type of running backs,” said Bettis. “More are East-West running backs instead of North-South.”

Bettis’ explanation may not entirely explain why the position has been devalued over the years, but definitely serves as one of the key ingredients.

“You don’t have that plethora of running backs available to you like in his past,” said Bettis.

Without a high number of elite schools offering elite prospects at the running back position it cripples ability of teams in the NFL to focus their own offenses around a tailback.

Chubb will be back next year, along with Fournette as they prepare for their true junior seasons. Maybe then they can rekindle their duel as the not only for the title of the nation’s top running back, but the nations top player overall.

Possibly if they go high enough in the 2017 NFL Draft as underclassmen and become great NFL tailbacks, that could launch a renaissance of the running back position.

About Bo Marchionte

Bo Marchionte

Bo Marchionte is an NFL writer for Football Insiders and has covered the NFL for over a decade. His background includes being staff for the Texas vs. The Nation All-Star game as a talent evaluator for player personnel along with an internship scouting with the Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers for the Canadian Football League. Bo’s draft background includes working for the NFL Draft Bible and currently owns and operates He has done radio spots on NBC, Fox Sports and ESPN and their affiliates in different markets around the country. Bo covers the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Panthers along with other colleges in the northeast.