Harris, Sanders: Sound run game still vital

Hall of Fame RBs Barry Sanders and Franco Harris say balance is still key despite the NFL becoming a pass-heavy league. AP Photo/Ben Liebenberg

CLEVELAND -- Some have called it “basketball on turf.”

The NFL is in an age of mobile quarterbacks, no-huddle offenses and high-flying passing attacks. Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris says one position has been lost in the shuffle.

“Wait, wait, wait. Are there still running backs? In the NFL? Is there?” said Harris, feigning bewilderment. “Wow, I thought that was extinct.”

Holding court during the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural fan fest Saturday in Cleveland, Harris lamented what he perceived as a decline of the ground game in today’s NFL.

Just how much of a decline? Check out the 2013 NFL draft as an example.

Last year was the first time since the NFL-AFL merger in 1967 that a running back was not selected in the first round, and ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. is not expecting one to be taken in the first round this year.

“You really don’t see that running game anymore,” Harris said. “I think it really would be interesting if a couple teams would say, ‘You know what? Our game now is a running game. We’re going to totally dominate teams by the running game.’

“That would freak everybody out. That would throw all the defenses -- they wouldn’t know what to do with that if [offenses] had that kind of balance.”

Harris, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1972-83, reflected fondly on those Steel City offenses that helped lead to four Super Bowl wins in the 1970s.

“We were so well-balanced, to have the running game and the passing game that we had,” Harris said. “That was something that you really don’t see all the time.”

Yet Harris’ views aren’t entirely shared by another Hall of Fame running back, Barry Sanders.

“I think everything kind of goes in cycles. I think this year we saw a good number of teams that were able to run the ball,” Sanders said Saturday, pointing to the successful ground attacks of the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.

Sanders was the class of his position when he played in the 1990s and believes there are still quality running backs in the league who shouldn’t be overlooked in any discussion about the decline of the position.

“I think there’s a good crop of eight or nine solid runners who are going to put up that 1,200 to 1,600 yards in a season,” Sanders said, naming Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch and the New York Jets’ Chris Johnson. “That’s still a big part of some teams.”

Despite the success of Peterson, Lynch and others, the modern NFL has devalued running backs. Only 11 backs are making at least $5 million per season, and Johnson -- who has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons -- received a modest $4 million deal with the Jets last month.

Even Oakland’s Darren McFadden, one of the top running backs on the market this spring, wasn’t able to cash in, returning to the Raiders on a one-year, $4 million deal.

The price tag on the position might be lower, but Sanders believes if there are good running backs out there, teams will find a way to use them.

“I think good offensive coordinators will figure out how to run,” he said. “Those who care to will figure it out.”