The NFL running back seemed destined for the endangered species list not all that long ago. In a pass-happy league, ball carriers lost favor with fans to their more spectacular wide receiver counterparts. A running back pounding his way for 2, 3, or 4 yards just isn't as exciting as a 50 yard, one handed-catch bomb... Tight ends eclipsed running backs in popularity too. Guys like Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski have changed the way NFL fans see the position forever.
In truth, the running back hasn't actually diminished in importance for an NFL team. Looking back over the last few decades, you'll see a limited list of truly elite running backs. Players like Minnesota's Adrian Peterson are rare. Look back at the times where Walter Payton, Gale Sayers, Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, and other Hall of Fame running backs galloped down the field, and you'll see huge disparity between them and others who played during the same time. We see "Top 10" lists all the time, with quarterbacks and wide receivers leading the way. The statistics are fairly close among the best quarterbacks and pass catchers. For running backs though, it's a different story...
Simply put, there just aren't ten running backs among the 32 NFL teams who garner the term "Elite". Currently, there's a whole slew of ball carriers who are very good, but not eye-popping great. After Peterson, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, and Arian Foster, there's a definitive drop off when it comes to consistent performance year in, and year out.
Finding a great running back is just as hard - if not more-so - as it is landing a franchise quarterback. They have short careers due to the pounding they take every game, and it's a rare breed who lasts long enough to edge their way into the rarefied air of past Hall of Famers. The NFL now may be slathered with new rules protecting most position players, but not running backs. It's open season when it comes to slamming running backs every which way, and it takes a toll.
I believe the advent of increased passing in the NFL has just as much to do with opening up the running game, as the other way around. Long held as a method of opening up the passing game, running the ball is - in truth - a tough way to win a game. Passing the ball in short, crisp routes is a overshadowed feature of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense. It holds linebackers and box safeties off the line, allowing those vital fractions of a second for a running back to slip past the line of scrimmage. The evolution of tight ends with basketball player size and skills on their resumes ate into the running game, lowering "quality carries" in situations where - in the past - would've gone to a running back.
NFL defensive coordinators have always - ALWAYS - put stopping the run game at the top of their to-do-lists. Running backs are all game planned, regardless of their statistical prominence. Teams look at individual tendencies for quarterbacks and receiver in a counter-chess-move way. But running backs get the attention of 300+ pound linemen and blood thirsty linebackers in their position meetings each and every week, it's not going to change - EVER!
The running back class of the 2015 NFL Draft could very well be the best in league history. I can easily see a viable "Top 10" list emerging very soon, with at least six of this class finding their way into mention. In fact, my prediction for the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015 is actually a running back. San Diego's Melvin Gordon III is going to have a monster year in the AFC West, and I can easily see him in the 1500+ yard range, with another 400+ yards in receiving, this season.
The rise of the running back in the NFL doesn't have anything to do with evolving offensive game plan schemes. It's about the talent level available at the position, which has been good, but not great over the last decade...