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Return of the tailback

The days of having playing two running backs at the same time seemed to be over, but in today’s evolving game the multi-use tailback may make a comeback.

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

One of the interesting but overlooked elements to Buzz Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights” work about the 1988 Permian Panthers was the strategic transition that was ongoing at Permian at that time. The plan going into the year was for the team to be built around fullback Boobie Miles, as many probably recall, and then he was injured and the next man up (Chris Comer) ended up having a strong season while leading the Panthers to the state semi-finals where the infamous Carter Cowboys took them down.

Bissinger focused on the seniors on the team, Miles, QB Mike Winchell, TB Don Billingsley, OL Jerod McDougal, and MLB Ivory Christian. For a book about the pressures and intensity of HS football in West Texas, that made all the sense in the world, but it missed a less interesting but still important story about a collection of juniors on that team who would win the state championship the following year after Bissinger left.

That team was paced by FB Chris Comer again but perhaps even more so by the second prong of the offense, QB Stoney Case throwing to WR Floyd Hill. The interesting transition that occurred was between 1987 and 1988 that culminated in the 1989 title. In 1987 the Panthers were powered by the two-headed rushing attack of Shawn Crow and Boobie Miles. Crow played the featured FB spot in their Wing-T offense and ran for over 2k yards while Miles was the TB that added 1345 more from his second fiddle RB position.

In 1988 the second fiddle wasn’t the TB, as FNL star Don Billingsley served mostly as a blocker for Comer (2135 rushing yards) while playing that spot, but split end Floyd Hill who went for 1317 receiving yards. In 1989 that duo went for 1589 rushing and 1519 receiving as the play of eventual NFL QB Stoney Case made the passing game an even more lethal component to the offense.

The tailback and the end of specialization

What was essentially happening at Permian was an embrace of specialization. Previously their Wing-T offense had been about pairing RBs in the backfield who could each block for each other and allow the offense to create different angles when looking to outflank the defense, first on the perimeter and then back inside. It was very similar to the wishbone, with it’s capacity for allowing an offense to run the triple-option veer to either side of the formation without giving a tell, although the FB had a larger running role than the TB and the option wasn’t a major component.

Improvements in the passing game made that less efficient than having a really good runner to handle the role of attacking the defensive front from the backfield and then one or more really good WRs to specialize in attacking the defense on the perimeter and down the field.

So nowadays you don’t really see a second RB as a starter on an offense (with minor exceptions we’ll dive into). Instead a team like Georgia in 2017 would tend to alternate between which of Nick Chubb or Sonny Michel was running while paired with a TE or FB that served as a blocker. When teams use a “flex RB” alongside a RB that player is usually a player that is at his best attacking defenses on the perimeter with screens and quick passes that will also mix in the occasional run from the backfield or vertical route.

But we’re moving away from specialization now thanks to the impact of further advancements in passing tactics as well as the rise of RPOs, all designed to attack modern defenses that were developed to stop specialized offenses. One potential result of that could be the return of the tailback.

The era of confusion and multiplicity

One of the best ways to attack defenses these days is the the opposite of specialization, breaking the rules of engagement and creating hesitation and assignment busts amongst the defense.

QB run RPOs are a perfect example of this. Today’s version of the fire zone blitz brings five pass rushers, match five defenders to the five offensive skill players in man or matchup zone coverage, and then drops a safety deep. But you don't really want to be doing that against QB run RPOs, especially if the QB is a particularly dangerous runner, because the deep safety is the only guy that keys the QB. If the RB goes out on a swing pass before the snap then the guy who’s primarily responsible for cleaning up running plays between the tackles behind the blitz is vacating the box.

The other week we detailed how the QB draw can be a quick death for defenses that like to bring single-high blitzes. Last night TCU was beaten on a play like that from Texas Tech.

Another play that is becoming a national favorite is the POP pass or RPO for the second back out of the backfield. Here’s Alabama using it to get one of their back-up RBs (Josh Jacobs) involved:

OU made this play famous a year ago and busted out the “second RB” version of it just this last week against Texas:

The Sooners prefer to run it as play-action, the Tide may have been running it as de-facto play-action but their OL was executing run blocks rather than pass sets.

What makes these plays really devastating is that the defense is used to treating backs approaching the line like this as blockers, and the way you handle blocks is by blowing them up and perhaps by turning your shoulder into them. Essentially, precisely the wrong way to play someone that’s running a route.

The effect is that you have another tool for creating hesitation from linebackers (or else sucking in safeties) and improving the efficacy of both your run game and the traditional play-action shots to the outside receivers or slot.

Like many other offenses, Oklahoma is too deeply in love with being a multi-formational team to utilize this set all that often, but it’s actually one of their stronger components on offense. Even after losing stud RB Rodney Anderson, the Sooners are overflowing with quality backs. Their main guy now is Trey Sermon, a versatile but bruising 6-0/225 pounder who caught the pass above, while they tend to complement him with 5-9/192 pound senior Marcelias Sutton or increasingly with 5-11/205 pound star freshman Kennedy Brooks.

All of them are capable receivers and outstanding overall athletes, as RBs tend to be at major schools like Oklahoma.

The TE and FB positions that helped define their offense in 2017 are not the strengths they were were a year ago and even if they were strong, the RB is often one of the best overall athletes on the team. The main reason why teams don’t spend as much time in two-back sets is that there’s less in the offensive playbook to make the most of such a set AND it requires that each player learn some skill sets beyond the normal RB task list.

Return of the tailback

It’s becoming more popular in most every style of offense to use RBs outside of their traditional scope in order to create problems and headaches for defenses. Michigan’s staff under Jim Harbaugh are big fans of these kinds of tactics, here they are flexing out the RB and FB to isolate star TE Zach Gentry on a linebacker:

Their starting FB Ben Mason is much more of a multi-use player than a traditional sledgehammer, with 23 rushes that have produced five touchdowns and countless other short-yardage conversions along with some work in the passing game and his traditional lead blocking duties.

At some point it’s going to make too much sense for a spread offense with two excellent RBs to simply rotate them one at a time, even if they have some overlapping skill sets. The RPO game, normal screens, and then a honest assortment of lead blocks and routes both from the backfield or after a swing or motion to the field could allow an offense to cause all kinds of problems for defensive structures in trying to account for both players at the same time.

Because defenses play matchup based coverages, specialization has given way to something closer to positionless football. That’s a stronger trend in the NFL where passing rules the day and Pat Mahomes is emerging as a destroyer of worlds, but even in college where the run game is still supreme teams are learning how to use coverage rules to create busts and creases in the run game.

So the day may be coming soon where having two heavily involved RBs that each run the ball, run routes, and block for each other may be back in vogue.