Running Backs have become the Drummers of the NFL
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
It is often said that the drummer is the backbone of a band, the rhythm section, the driving force that holds the tempo of the song. For this reason, drummers can often be in a position where they are asked to do less than they are capable of, making the required beat that is necessary to fit the song. It’s only when a band has a truly exceptional drummer that this idea has to adapt because when an unprecedented talent comes along, it is necessary to allow them the freedom to take control of the songs in the way they see fit. It draws a close comparison to the running back in the modern NFL. Once the most prominent position, the running back has been reduced to a role player, an exchangeable piece of the offense that does his job like a tight end. The exception to this is when an undeniable talent is in the backfield, in which case it is for the betterment of the offense to get the ball in their hands as much as possible.
It’s hard to say when the running back started to lose importance, and I don’t mean to diminish the position, but clearly the glory days of Gail Sayers and Barry Sanders have passed us. I think the first instance I really remember it being a situation I came to recognize was Adrian Peterson’s second to last season with the Vikings, a good season in which he rushed for 1,485 yards, but even then it was apparent that they were giving him the ball because it was just necessary to get the ball in his hands because of his talent, despite the fact that he didn’t fit the offensive scheme. The Vikings, backed by their defense, were able to make the playoffs and have a solid season, but it was apparent that the offensive scheme just didn’t fit AP. I think most people know that season the Vikings were held up by their defense, and I think it could be said that The Who were also most known for the songs of Pete Townshend. That being said, they had one of the best rhythm sections powered by Keith Moon on the drums. An absolute beast on the kit, Moon was known for pushing the tempo and it was necessary for The Who to allow him to take over the songs, making them faster and faster, as he was adding notes wherever he could. Townshend basically said he sounded like a rocket engine when he first tried out, and his rambunctious style pushed the band to develop a sound that would soon go on to influence the tenacious energy of punk rock. Keith Moon was a truly original drummer, and The Who were the band for him, pushing the pace and the limits of what drummers had done at the time, but it was certainly true that they had to give him his due, or put the ball in his hands, per say.
The season that Derick Henry just had is the nexus of this idea because watching him carry the Titans this year was really a remarkable display of athletic ability. In an age where you just don’t see a running back as the focal point of an offense, Derek Henry was so unstoppable he allowed the Titans to play old school smash mouth football. He was such a force to be reckoned with that he even made Ryan Tannehill look like a stud. A truly rare talent, he was the most important person in the 2019 Titans’ offense much Like Neil Pert was the most important member of Rush. A band formed around a drummer is a rare thing but listening to 2112 it’s hard not to see how Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson were playing off Pert more than the usual band. That’s not to discredit the ‘Holy Trio’ but the fact is they let Pert work the kit in the way only he cloud and put the songs together around him, something that is rarely seen from bands. The rolls and drums sections are really the song, and the guitars, vocals and keyboard were all very important, but they play off the drums. Basically, Neil Pert was always just setting up play action pass, and the boys just needed to hit a few wide-open wide receivers to look good.
The way the NFL is these days most running backs are basically expected to be all around talents, catching passes, selling the fake on RPO plays and even throwing some blocks. One of the more elite years we’ve seen from a running back in the past few seasons came from Christian McCaffrey who was only the third running back ever to surpass 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving. Unfortunately, the Panthers sucked this season, but that didn’t stop McCaffrey from putting up the second highest amount of Fantasy points in the league. I think this new hybrid running back draws comparisons to a couple of bands from the late 70’s early 80’s when you look at both the Eagles (band) and Genesis. The Eagles had Don Henley who was not only talented on drums, but also sang many songs while playing drums. It’s true he played guitar too, and I almost wonder what a creative offensive mind like the coach of the Eagles (team), Doug Peterson, could have done with a talent a diverse as him. Though the one who I really think showed great signs as an early prospect (much like McCaffrey) is Phil Collins, a front man drummer the likes of which we’ve never seen before or sense. Collins made Genesis famous with not only his interesting vocals but also the powerful drum sections he had on songs like “In the Air Tonight.” He was able to blend a mystical type of singing with searching drum beats that, if he were an NFL running back today, he’d be an elite prospect (like 6’2”; 225lbs. with 4.22 speed a 35” vertical). He’d maybe even go top 5 despite the fact that always proves to be mistake, but it would have been worth it since Phil seemed to always be able to put up the stats (much like McCaffrey), even in his solo career.
Give ‘em the rock, feed them the ball, let them go on a “Moby Dick”-esque solo from time to time, not everybody is a Ringo or Frank Gore, just putting up the numbers to stay on the team. Running Backs and Drummers, the true workhorses of their respective trades, and it’s true, not everyone is John Bonham or Walter Payton, but those kinds of guys still exist out there. Running backs have now joined drummers as role players, so let’s just hope head coaches and band leaders a like recognize when they have a special talent in the back because I think I speak for everyone when I say it’s super fun to watch someone get run over, just as it is to see a drummer bash the shit out of his kit.