Examining NFL's endangered species
The hard reality about the NFL, just as in life, is that change is inevitable. Everybody is always looking for an edge, a way to push the game forward, and that is one reason the sport never gets old. On the other hand, innovation always leads to displacement. The league progresses and somebody suffers as a result. That's especially true today.
At no time in recent memory have we seen the league change as much as it has over the past decade. The spread offense arrived. The Wildcat, the pistol and the read-option came along as well. Vicious hits became taboo, and designing runs for the quarterback -- something that was considered lunacy by some traditionalists not too long ago -- has become a sensation. Scoring is up. Defense is harder to play. And everybody is suddenly wondering what the game will look like in 15 or 20 years.
We do know this much already: Certain jobs aren't going to be nearly as easy to find as they once were. Positions will be marginalized by rule changes, coaching philosophies and, in some cases, the attitudes of executives paid to make hard decisions. Here is a list of some people you might not see much of in the future and the observations of people who've benefited substantially from those positions.
The apprentice quarterback
We've become so accustomed to seeing young quarterbacks playing early that it's easy to forget the days when it was popular to sit a high draft choice behind an aging veteran. Last year alone, four rookie quarterbacks selected in the first round started in Week 1, and a third-round pick (Seattle's Russell Wilson) also won a starting job. In 2011, four first-year quarterbacks took the majority of snaps for their teams, including Carolina's Cam Newton and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton.
Sure, there have been some exceptions -- San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick spent a year behind Alex Smith, and Tennessee's Jake Locker waited for the same length of time behind Matt Hasselbeck -- but most teams don't have the luxury of allowing a quarterback to develop anymore. They want to see their leaders grow up fast, believing that there's more to be gained by throwing these young talents into the mix. But not everyone in the league shares that belief. Aaron Rodgers spent three years sitting behind Brett Favre in Green Bay after the Packers made him their first-round pick in the 2005 draft. He thinks more quarterbacks could benefit in the long run if teams would show more patience. He already has won a Super Bowl and a league MVP with the approach the Packers used with him.
The argument to keep apprentice quarterbacks:
Aaron Rodgers: "Sitting was the most important factor in my success as an NFL player. I spent three years getting my body in the best possible shape. I spent three years using the offseason to study defenses and the best quarterbacks. Plus, I had one of the best quarterbacks ever sitting in the same meeting room as me every day. I had a perspective from the sidelines that I couldn't get if I was playing early in my career. And by not having that pressure on me, I was able to learn the game at a slower pace, where I didn't have to worry about being perfect all the time.
"But I do realize the game has changed over the last few years. You've got more high school kids running the spread offense. You've got more college teams trying to run 90 plays a game. So you have more quarterbacks who come in early who are ready to play, even though there is a lot to be said for waiting. When I came into the league, the combine wasn't as big as it is now. The draft wasn't as big as it now. These young guys face way more exposure than I did early in my career, so they have to know where they fit in, what their job is and that they'll be scrutinized all the time. Anytime they go out, they could wind up on Instagram or Twitter or something else.
"But I think you eventually will see more teams going back to sitting quarterbacks and waiting, because you'll see more of these current quarterbacks getting older and forcing their backups to develop. I'd also like to see it because, at some point, people need to realize that it puts way too much strain on a young quarterback who is forced to play early and face unrealistic expectations. No one man can ever save a team."
The workhorse running back
What happened to the days when the running back was one of the most revered weapons in an offense? In 2002, 12 running backs averaged at least 19 rushing attempts per game, including stars such as LaDainian Tomlinson, Tiki Barber and Shaun Alexander. Last year, six players fell into that category, including Minnesota's Adrian Peterson with his 2,097-yard season.
There are more backfield rotations coming our way than workhorse runners because it's good for business. Teams know they don't have to invest nearly as much in a big-time back because they can always manufacture a running game through a committee approach or by finding a cheaper option in lower rounds of the draft. Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew is the perfect example of that. He spent the summer of 2012 holding out for a new contract on the basis of considerable production: one league rushing title (2011) and three Pro Bowls. He eventually lost that fight despite being the best player on one of the league's worst teams.
The argument to keep workhorse running backs:
Maurice Jones-Drew: "Every now and then, there is a trend that comes around and it's hot for a year or two. But at some point, you have to go back to basics. You have to be able to run a four-minute offense. You have to be able to run the ball in tough situations. That's why things like the pistol and the Wildcat may come and go, but running the ball from the I-formation shouldn't be overlooked. It's still hard for a defense to defend that.
"That's why what we're seeing now [with offensive football in the NFL] is like somebody wearing the new, hot clothing when a basic button-down shirt works just fine. I'm not saying you need to see running backs getting 30 carries a game -- because that hasn't happened for a long time -- but the ones who get 20 to 25 a game are going to be tough to stop. Those guys keep defenses on their heels. If you rotate backs, then teams can get a feel for what an offense is doing. They know that if the third-down back comes in on second down, it's probably going to be a pass. But when you look at what the great backs did when they played, you see the difference. Emmitt Smith was that way. Barry Sanders was that way. Jim Brown. They were in there on every down, and it opened up the offense in a different way. When you have a quarterback who can run, that can be demoralizing, but what happens when he gets hit too much? Everything changes.
"But if a team stops the running game, you can still play-action or speed up the pace and throw different things at a defense. That's why I think football should still be more about playing checkers than chess. You can do all these things to try outsmarting people with the read-option. But when you run the ball consistently, you're getting back to basics."
The hard-hitting safety
Remember the days when Ronnie Lott would blow up an unsuspecting a receiver? He couldn't do that in today's game without being a hit with a serious fine. The same is true for other heavy hitters from the 1980s, bangers such as Kenny Easley, Dennis Smith and Joey Browner. They'd be suspended, vilified, treated like the worst possible elements in a league trying to tame its violence.
There used to be a sacred place in the NFL for safeties with such menacing temperaments who intimidated receivers with brutal hits that left opponents woozy and fans wincing.
Now the league is emphasizing a safer, gentler environment, one in which players are implored to tackle within the strike zone and lay off defenseless targets. More recent stars such as John Lynch and Roy Williams were fortunate to get what they could from the league in their day. As another fierce safety, Tennessee's Bernard Pollard, attests, it's a whole new ballgame for men who want to operate as enforcers.
The argument to keep hard-hitting safeties:
Bernard Pollard: "I don't want to say they're trying to get rid of us, because teams still need guys who can play football. But the way the league is going, it is harder to play this way. I'm an old-school guy. I love the way [New England's] Adrian Wilson plays or Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh. We don't want to see people getting their necks broken or tearing ACLs or dealing with concussions. But we also recognize that hits are part of this game. As long as you have us wearing equipment out there, you're going to have violent collisions. We know that's what we signed up for.
"I grew up watching [Hall of Fame defensive back] Rod Woodson, but I was a big fan of players like [former Denver Broncos safety] Steve Atwater, [former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker] Greg Lloyd and other guys who would hit you. I took a little bit from all those players because I loved how they approached the game. Now will I pay a price for how I play? Probably. I know that at some point my body will feel the effects of what I do now and that I'll be hurting because of it. But how is that any different than the man who works his whole life in a factory and has health problems because of that? It might not be the same level of pain, but we all have repercussions in what we do.
"My thing is that when you think about this game, you're talking about some fans who save up all year to see maybe two or three games -- in person -- if they're lucky. Those people deserve to see a show, and big hits are a part of that. If that goes out of the game, the game will take a hit."
The pocket passer
There used to be a time when mobility had little to do with evaluating quarterbacks. Intelligence, accuracy, size and arm strength were the major factors in assessing whether a signal-caller could compete in the NFL. If he could run as well, then that was a nice added benefit. So for every Joe Montana or John Elway -- quarterbacks who were blessed with agile feet and a feel for improvisation -- there seemed to be far more QBs who fit the mold of Dan Marino or Jim Kelly: big-armed gunslingers who made their living making plays from the pocket. However, today is a new day. Increasingly more quarterbacks are being taught and asked to move, whether it's in the read-option or merely a means to keep plays alive when hounded by freakishly athletic pass-rushers. The future now looks more like Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson than it does Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. But as former NFL quarterback Trent Green learned during his 11-year career, there's a lot to be said for not forgetting what makes quarterbacks truly great.
The argument to keep pocket passers:
Trent Green: "I don't ever see [pocket passers] going completely away. If you look at the leading passers in the league right now, you can see that there always will be a place for them. [Denver's] Peyton Manning is the hottest quarterback in the league. I also see [Green Bay's] Aaron Rodgers as somebody who is more of a pocket passer, and the same is true of [Indianapolis'] Andrew Luck. Right now the big thing is the multidimensional quarterback -- the players like Kaepernick and RG III -- but what will hamper that is the risk of injury. If teams are investing $20 million in these players, they don't want to see these quarterbacks getting blown up. So practicality has to play a role in this.
"There's also something to be said for quarterbacks who know how to move in the pocket. Dan Marino could buy time with a little sidestep. He also knew how to throw his receivers open, and he could make plays with guys around his legs and feet. [San Diego's] Philip Rivers is good at that as well, along with throwing the football at different angles. Being able to make throws when under duress is a huge skill for a quarterback. You look at quarterbacks like Kaepernick, [Philadelphia's] Michael Vick or [Carolina's] Cam Newton and they're better throwing the ball while moving than when in the pocket. I remember playing on teams that faced Vick, and the game plan was always to keep him in the pocket. He wasn't as good from there. It's pretty clear that as the college game evolves, you'll see more mobile quarterbacks because that's what a lot of coaches want to do at that level. But you'll also see schools like Stanford, Georgia and Alabama producing the pocket passers. The talent pool might be smaller [for pocket passers], but the value is still there."
No position in the NFL has been marginalized more than fullback over the past decade. Such players once were the backbone of the running game, the unheralded blockers who banged and battled to create room for the ball carriers who followed them through the hole. Now they're relegated to 10 to 15 plays -- if they're lucky enough to be in the right offense. Those who aren't have to compete on special teams or develop enough receiving skills to contribute in the passing game. Long gone are the days when old-school icons such as Daryl Johnston, Tom Rathman and Lorenzo Neal won praise for the blue-collar approach. The advent of the spread offense has made such players increasingly less useful. Baltimore Ravens fullback Vonta Leach, a 10-year veteran, doesn't want people to forget there is a place for such talents.
The argument to keep fullbacks:
Vonta Leach: "The fullback is disappearing because we live in a pass-happy world now. You look at college, and it's all passing. That's why you don't see nearly as many true fullbacks coming into the NFL anymore. So you see teams trying to develop players at this level to do the job. They'll take a hybrid tight end or a defensive lineman and put him in the backfield to block. That's a huge change from when I came into the league with Green Bay [in 2004]. Back then, we had two fullbacks on the roster because we played in the NFC North and you had to run the ball well.
"The thing that keeps me around is my versatility. I can run block and I can catch passes out of the backfield. Most of the guys who play the position can only do one or the other. But anybody who knows football knows how important the fullback is to the game. We set a tone for the offense. And the position will still be important going forward, even if fewer teams use it. For one, some running backs just can't run without a fullback in front of them. There's also always going to be a need for a physical presence in your backfield. As wide open as this game is getting, that doesn't change the fact that you're still going to have goal-line and short-yardage situations. And when those situations come up, teams are going to need players who can help them convert.
The blocking tight end
A revolution started about a decade ago that has changed NFL offenses dramatically. The league had seen receiving tight ends excel before -- most notably Ozzie Newsome, Kellen Winslow and Tony Gonzalez -- but it was the emergence of a former Kent State basketball player in San Diego that really changed the game. Once Antonio Gates became a sensation for the Chargers, other teams began searching for weapons with similar gifts. It was a great time to be a tight end with reliable hands, remarkable quickness and decent speed. For everybody else at the position, it was a wake-up call.
The receiving tight end has become a dominant force in the game. New England's Rob Gronkowski, San Francisco's Vernon Davis, Dallas' Jason Witten and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham abuse hapless defenders. Those players have been so good that the tight end who excels mainly at blocking has become far less common. Some of that can be attributed to the rise of spread offenses. Another aspect, as noted by Kansas City Chiefs tight end Anthony Fasano, one of the best blockers in the league at his position, is timing.
The argument to keep blocking tight ends:
Anthony Fasano: "I think you will see fewer [blocking tight ends] in the future, but it doesn't discredit the role. Football goes through some different trends offensively. Some things go in and out of style, but what stays consistent is that pro-style offense where a blocking tight end and even a fullback are important. We might be in a little lull right now as far as those players, but I think it should always have a role.
"It was changing some when I came into the league [in 2006]. You started to see more of the Antonio Gates-type players, those basketball hybrids who really had a lot of success early. They started this trend. But even more and more, with high schools and colleges running more wide-open offenses, those tight ends don't practice and grow up like traditional tight ends. They don't practice blocking. They're all pretty much bigger wide receivers. That's why I think the type of players will dwindle down, but the skill will still be valued. I grew up in pro-style offenses that emphasized blocking, so I think it served me well. Even if it is a dying breed, there's still going to be a demand.
The kick returner
It didn't seem possible when the first discussion of eliminating kickoffs began at an NFL owners meeting two years ago. It was even more surreal when other league executives began to discuss it a few months later. They referred to research on head trauma and the potential for vicious collisions on the play and even legitimized the notion that the league might not suffer without them. Gale Sayers and Billy "White Shoes" Johnson had to be shaking their heads at the news. Football without kickoffs? That would be like basketball without dunks, baseball without home runs.
But the league already has moved kickoffs up to the 35-yard line (from the 30), outlawed the blocking wedge and considered other ways to ease the violence associated with kickoffs. That's why we should appreciate an explosive returner such as Denver's Trindon Holliday -- who has averaged 30.2 yards per kick return since joining the Broncos midway through last season -- as long as we can.
The argument to keep kick returners:
Trindon Holliday: "I didn't know that there had been some talk about getting rid of kickoffs, but I think the game wouldn't be as exciting without them. What I do is very valuable because I can give the team a huge boost with a great return. When I came to Denver, I wanted to show them that I really could be a great returner. I had been cut from Houston right after a 'Monday Night Football' game [against the New York Jets in Week 5]. … But then I was able to create a big play here a few games after I got here [with a 105-yard kick return for a touchdown in a win over Cincinnati]. The game was close and we needed something to happen. That's what a kick returner can do.
"I wouldn't say it's harder to do it with the rules today, but it's definitely a challenge to move the ball up to the 35-yard line. The coaches give me the green light, and I feel like I have the speed to make a big play. That's why I think the game wouldn't be nearly as exciting without kick returns. You'd see a lot of players who would be out of jobs, or they'd have to make the team by playing on offense. More than anything, the fans would miss out, too."