Teams throwing more to TEs, using RBs as blockers

Once a vital part of offensive game planning, running backs are being utilized less as receivers.

Updated: December 23, 2005, 1:34 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

In a season during which the Atlanta Falcons' Warrick Dunn has established a career high and seems destined to finish with more than 1,500 rushing yards, he has finally outgrown the notion that he is just an undersized nickel tailback.

Part of the reason Dunn now is regarded as more than a tailback whose primary effectiveness comes on third down is that, with two games remaining this season, he has averaged 262 carries over the last two campaigns. The quarter horse has, indeed, become a mighty mite workhorse. And part of the reason he is viewed in a new light, as well, is that the Falcons don't throw much to Dunn on third down anymore.

Or, for that matter, on any down.

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In the two seasons since Atlanta converted to its own spin-off of the West Coast offense, Dunn, who averaged 56.5 catches during one four-year stretch in the middle of his career, has totaled only 55 receptions. As he has continued to demonstrate deceptive toughness as a runner, and emerged as one of the most feisty backs per pound between the tackles, Dunn's role as a receiver has diminished.

Which pretty much puts Dunn in precisely the same situation as most of his counterparts around the league.

"It's the trend right now," acknowledged San Diego star tailback LaDainian Tomlinson, who has 47 catches in 2005, after averaging 72.8 receptions over his first four NFL seasons. "Tight ends have taken away [catches] from running backs. And there are more three- and four-wide receiver [formations] now. Offenses just aren't throwing as much to their backs as they did even two or three years ago."

Tomlinson caught 100 passes in 16 games in 2003. In his 29 appearances since then, he has exactly 100 receptions. It's not that Tomlinson's abilities as a receiver have changed, but rather the fact San Diego's offense has been altered. It isn't coincidence that in 2004, when Tomlinson's catches dipped by nearly 50 percent from the previous season, the receptions for tight end Antonio Gates more than tripled.

The models for distributing the ball in the passing game clearly have changed around the NFL. In 2004, for example, Tennessee wide receivers accounted for 56.2 percent of the team's catches, running backs had 20.8 percent and tight ends had 23.0 percent. Enter new offensive coordinator Norm Chow, a proponent of getting the ball to the tight end, and the distribution for 2005 is radically different.

Of the Titans' 318 completions in 2005, wide receivers have 135, tight ends 134 and running backs only 49. The Tennessee offense features three tight ends -- Erron Kinney (54), Ben Troupe (46) and Bo Scaife (32) -- who all have more catches than than top receiving tailback Chris Brown (25).

But tailbacks are being tuned out of the passing game in more offenses than just Chow's meticulously designed blueprint. The league has witnessed a decline in West Coast-style offenses, which traditionally viewed a three-yard check-down to the tailback as the equivalent of a running play, and that has reduced the role of running back as receiver. By unofficial count of one veteran defensive coordinator, the use of "empty" backfield sets, formations that feature no running backs, has risen by just under 12 percent over the last two seasons.

So because of design and deployment, the era of the running back as a potential 100-reception player seems to have ended. Or, as is the case with most trends in the league, has spiraled downward for a while. And the start of that down cycle can be traced to last season, many league observers agree.

In 2004, Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook led all backs in receptions, with 73. That ranked him 25th in catches among all NFL players, the first time since 1997 and just the second time since 1992 that there wasn't at least one back among the top 20. Despite not playing since sustaining a season-ending foot injury three weeks ago, Westbrook still is second among running backs in receptions in 2005, with 61. The league leader, LaMont Jordan of Oakland, with 70, will not play this weekend because of a foot injury. Ditto the No. 3 runner-receiver, Cincinnati's Chris Perry, who has 48 catches but is out with a sprained ankle.

The upshot is that, for the first time since 1997, the league might have not a single back who registers 80 or more receptions.

"Coordinators are going away from it," said the St. Louis Rams' Marshall Faulk, who three times in the past seven seasons led NFL running backs in receptions. "But it's not just because they're throwing to wide receivers and tight ends more. There are also a lot more 'max' protection teams now, where offenses are keeping backs in to block, to help pick up the blitz. And teams don't use the screen [pass] as much. There's a lot that goes into it, but the bottom line is that backs aren't getting as many balls thrown to them. It's gone that way for a couple years now."

Last season, Westbrook and Houston's Domanick Davis (66 receptions) were the only two backs with more than 60 catches. And there were just seven backs, the fewest since 1998, with 50 or more receptions. By comparison, in the five seasons 1999-2003, there was an average of 11.8 backs with 50-plus catches.

In fact, in only three seasons from 1990 through 2003 were there fewer than 10 running backs who posted at least 50 receptions apiece, and the average during those golden days of tailbacks circling out of the backfield was 10.6 backs with 50 or more catches.

Tight ends have taken away [catches] from running backs. And there are more three- and four-wide receiver [formations] now. Offenses just aren't throwing as much to their backs as they did even two or three years ago.
Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson

But take a look at the adroit receivers among the tailbacks in those seasons: Keith Byars, Thurman Thomas, Ronnie Harmon, Larry Centers, Amp Lee, Faulk, Richie Anderson and Charlie Garner. Many of those tailbacks had better hands than some wide receivers in the NFL at the time, and nearly all of them got considerably more opportunities to catch the ball than their present-day counterparts.

It wasn't all that long ago that offenses would motion tailbacks out of the formation or align them in the slot. But of the 71 snaps by the Chargers last Sunday, Tomlinson was in the slot on just a handful of occasions. Gates on the other hand aligned as a wide receiver, in the slot, or flexed away from the line of scrimmage on more than half the plays. It only makes sense that, with fewer opportunities to catch the football, running backs collectively would have far fewer receptions.

"It's not that guys can't catch the ball," said Indianapolis tailback Edgerrin James, who is likely on his way to a career low for receptions in seasons in which he appeared in more than half the games. "But in this league, styles change, you know?"

Two weeks ago, in a victory at Jacksonville, James had nine receptions, his highest total in 50 games, and those catches helped keep the Indianapolis offense on the move. Peyton Manning even noted following the game that, in cover schemes most favored by the Jags, it was nearly impossible to account for the tailback, and that James was one player who was able to get a clean release versus the Jacksonville defenders. But in last week's loss to the Chargers, the Colts were forced to keep James in the backfield more as a blocker, because Manning was under duress from a pressure scheme.

That has been the case more often than not in 2005. And so James, who has averaged 57.6 catches per year, excluding a 2001 campaign in which knee surgery limited him to only six appearances, almost certainly won't reach the 50-reception level this season.

And that puts him among the majority of league running backs.

"I don't know if [the running back as a receiver] is a dying breed," said the retired Centers, who had 101 catches in 1995, the most ever by a running back. "But for now, it sure looks like it's on life support. It'll swing back again, I'm sure, but the current trend certainly is away from it."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.