TUSCALOOSA, AL - APRIL 17: Running back Trent Richardson #3 of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide runs for a first down during the Alabama spring game at Bryant Denny Stadium on April 17, 2010 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Dave Martin/Getty Images)
It's pretty safe to say that a huge segment of Steeler Nation still loves the running game. It's Steelers football. It's our identity. If you make any case for why franchise quarterbacks and passing the football are the way to win in today's NFL, you'd probably get five counter-arguments from Steelers fans emphatically stating that a good ground attack is always the best way to win a football game.
"Forget about the trends! It doesn't matter what the rest of the NFL is doing! This is Steelers Country, and here, we run the ball!"
However, it's kind of hard to ignore trends in sports because they usually tell a pretty good story.
Growing up in the 80's, I was a huge fan of running backs, and there certainly were plenty to be entertained by. I loved watching guys like Eric Dickerson, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton and John Riggins take over games either by running away from their competition or running them over.
I was also pretty intrigued by college running backs, and as most of you probably know who read my stuff regularly, I often fantasized of the day that the Steelers would use their first round pick to draft that franchise running back of the future. I would then finally get to watch an awesome Dickerson-esque franchise back play for the Steelers and dominate both the opposition and the record books each and every Sunday.
There always seemed to be plenty of backs taken every year in the first round, but other than the time the Steelers selected Tim Worley out of Georgia with the 7th overall selection in the 1989 NFL Draft (so much for that fantasy), they usually focused their first round energy on building up other areas of the team.
But this isn't, yet, another post by yours truly lamenting that sore subject of my youth. No, this is about the four-decade decline of running backs being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
I'm obviously a big enough football fan to know that the NFL has trended towards the air more and more with each passing (no pun intended) year, but I hadn't really paid attention to the number of running backs drafted in the first round in each decade; that's not something you just know off-hand unless you're either Mel Kiper or just plain nuts about the draft.
But I became intrigued by the subject after the conclusion of the most recent NFL Draft. There were three running backs drafted in the first round this year, and that isn't necessarily an indication of a downward trend--for example, there were only three running backs drafted in in the first round in 1984 and 1985 combined--but it did spark my interest enough to do some research on the trends of running backs drafted in the first round, and whether or not there actually has been a decline over the years.
Thanks to wikipedia, I was able to do that research, and the stats tell me that the number of running backs drafted in the first round has trended downward over the past four-decades.
In a twenty year span from 1970-1989, there were 88 running backs drafted in the first round for an average of 4.4 per draft.
That tells me that teams were placing way more emphasis on the run in those days, and they needed a horse in order to carry out their game-day strategy.
However, over the next twenty years, things shifted just a bit. From 1990-2009, there were 65 running backs drafted in the first round for an average of 3.25 per draft.
If there aren't as many running backs taken in the first round these days, what offensive skill position is gaining momentum?
Well, wide receiver, of course.
In the decade of the '70's, there were 25 wide receivers drafted in the first round compared to 41 running backs. But in the decade just concluded--the 00's--there were 43 wide receivers drafted compared to 31 running backs.
These days, receivers like A.J. Green and Julio Jones are being drafted in the top 10--last year, the Atlanta Falcons traded five draft picks to the Cleveland Browns in order to move into the sixth spot so they could draft Jones--while productive running backs like Chris Johnson and Mark Ingram are slipping into the end of the first round.
This tells me that NFL teams are putting way more emphasis on passing the football these days, and they need a gazelle in-order to carry out their game-day strategy.
So, while we might still covet a good hard-nosed running attack here in Steeler Nation, it's easy to see what the rest of the NFL likes.
Franchise backs are still nice to have (who wouldn't want Adrian Peterson as the focal point of their team?), but wide receivers are just a little more valuable in today's NFL.
At least that's what the draft trends say.