DIBIASE: Running away with millions

Justin Dibiase

The National Football League is unlike any other professional sport. The gold standard for individual players is different for each position because of the variation of positional responsibilities. In basketball, one could say that Michael Jordan was the best basketball player ever to play the game and have a valid argument. However, in football, can someone really say that Joe Montana was the best football player in history? No. Who is to say that Hall of Fame Guard Gene Upshaw was not a better football player than Montana?

The fact of the matter is that each football player’s value is a function of his overall positional talent and more importantly, the talent surrounding him. This is most prevalent in one of the most prestigious positions on the football field: running back.

Budding star running back Willis McGahee rushed for over 3,300 yards over the past three seasons, but a few weeks ago, the Buffalo Bills exchanged him for three draft picks, none higher than a third rounder (the NFL equivalent of a junior bacon cheeseburger and small fries) from the Baltimore Ravens.

The truth is that NFL running backs are replaceable, as witnessed by this offseason’s shuffling of backs. Don’t get me wrong; guys like LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson are unbelievable talents, but there are reasons why offensive tackles you’ve never heard of get drafted before Heisman Trophy candidates.

Take for instance another former University of Miami star running back, Edgerrin James. The four-time NFL pro-bowler was nothing less than unstoppable during his career in Indianapolis when he was running through gaping holes made by one of the best lines in the league. Last offseason, James signed a rather large contract with the struggling Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals had not produced a 1,000-yard rusher since Adrian Murrell in 1998 and hoped that James’ talent would make up for their poor offensive line. James did rush for over 1,000 yards but attained the 100-yard rushing plateau only three times over the year, a mark he hit nine times in the previous season with Indy. He also suffered his lowest yards-per-carry average in his entire career. While many thought Indy would struggle on the ground without James, the Colts proved the doubters wrong. Rookie Joseph Addai stepped in and had his own 1,000-yard season and added seven touchdowns. Oh yeah, and they won the Super Bowl without James.

Another fitting case study is the Denver Broncos. Since the 1998 season when Terrell Davis rushed for over 2,000 yards, the Denver Broncos have had six different 1,000-yard rushers; Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis, Reuben Droughns and Tatum Bell. Some may say that the Broncos management has a knack for picking great running backs, but if one looks at the struggles these running backs encountered outside of Denver (minus Portis), the data suggests that Denver is simply an ideal environment for running backs.

This type of performance dependency only happens in the NFL. If Dwayne Wade goes to the Memphis Grizzlies, he will still put up the same numbers as he did on the Heat. If Ryan Howard heads to Kansas City, he will still blast 40-plus home runs. However, if Willie Parker signs with the Texans, he is not guaranteed a good season.

So what am I saying? The running back position is not as important as it is made out to be. If we look at the Pro Bowl running backs of this past season, Tomlinson, Johnson, Willie Parker, Frank Gore, Tiki Barber and Stephen Jackson; only Barber and Jackson were not accompanied by at least one pro bowl offensive lineman from their teams. The bottom line is, good running backs cannot get the job done with a bad line. It may seem obvious, but some fans and owners actually scratch their heads when their new superstar running back doesn’t produce with his new team. This is one of the reasons why McGahee and other running backs go so cheap; he, like many others, is replaceable.

If the cellar-dwelling NFL teams wish to start winning, they should learn from Arizona. They need to pay for line help before they grab a star running back in free agency or the draft. So, before the Texans or Packers nab Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson, they should probably consider patching up their offensive lines first. This really makes the average fan wonder, would there be an Emmitt Smith had he not been on the Cowboys? Would we have known the greatness (and sweetness) of Walter Payton had he been with another team? All we can say is that truly great running backs are born of the right circumstances. Rearranging the Shakespearean quote, “what’s in an All-Pro rusher? That by which we call a Pro-Bowler with any other team would certainly not smell as sweet.”

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Justin DiBiase is a sophomore civil engineering major from Franklinville, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected]