Jamal Lewis was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens at the turn of the century. He measured 5'11" and 245 lbs at the combine that year. Lewis shared a division with Jerome Bettis, who measured in at 5'11" and 255 lbs. The NFL still has big backs, but 19 years after Lewis entered the league the slenderization of the position has altered how running backs contribute on the field.
One player in 2018 had more than 300 carries, Ezekiel Elliott who led the league in rushing yards. Not only did nine players have more than 300 carries in 2000, all nine had more carries than Elliott did last year.
Since 2015, only one running back each season has carried the ball 300+ times each year. Two of those are Elliott. In 2013 and 2014, only two running backs reached the threshold. Yet, from 2001 to 2006, the NFL had at least nine running backs reach 300 carries each season and from 2001 to 2010 they averaged 8.5 players per season.
The rise of running back-by-committee and the increase in pass attempts has changed the role of the modern running back.
Nobody, save for maybe Christian McCaffrey, accentuated this transformation more than James White. The New England Patriots running back is 5'10" and 205 lbs. He's a different species to Jamal Lewis. The Patriots have always had a specialist receiving back from Kevin Faulk to Danny Woodhead to Shane Vereen to White. But Faulk's peak year was in 2008 when he caught 58 passes for 486 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 83 rushes for 507 yards and three touchdowns. He was truly a role player who was limited as a runner because he was even smaller than White.
White has had more than 50 receptions in each of his past three seasons. He is coming off a season in 2018 where he caught 87 passes for 751 yards and seven touchdowns along with 94 carries for 425 yards and five touchdowns.
It's not controversial to suggest that White was one of the best running backs in the NFL last season.
Patriots skill position players tend to be underrated by media to prop up the quarterback and sell the idea of Patriots magic. But while Julian Edelman's google search is filled with so many people calling him underrated that nobody actually underrates him, White is often actually overlooked.
Not only is he a focal point of the passing game, the versatility with which the Patriots use him is unrivalled across the league.
As a simple breakdown, NFL running backs can be tiered. Some backs are exclusively runners. They might catch the ball when you throw it to them, but they're going to be limited to executing screens instead of running routes from the backfield or lining up out wide. A step above that you have backs who are capable of running into either flat, these are more dynamic backs who can create after the catch. Then you have running backs who can run routes past the line of scrimmage from the backfield, the most popular type of route is an out route. After that you have backs who can do all that but also execute option routes past the line of scrimmage, at a basic level those are an out-breaking route or an in-breaking route underneath the coverage. More layers can be added with additional routes for better receiving backs. One step above that back is the runner who can line up out wide and run past a linebacker down the sideline before reading the ball coming over his shoulder. Then, finally, you get the running back who can do everything already mentioned, but also line up in the slot or out wide and run a complete route tree.
White falls into the final category.
This play comes from Week 3 against the Detroit Lions. Some important elements set up White for success. Firstly is the play call from the defense. They're playing two safeties deep in halves while the underneath coverage is man. When Rob Gronkowski advances upfield from a tight alignment on the right side, he occupies the safety to that side of the field.
Not only does that leave a huge amount of space for White to work in, it also isolates him against safety Glover Quinn.
Matt Patricia, the Lions head coach and former Patriots defensive coordinator, understood the importance of White. It's why he put Quinn on him rather than a linebacker. But Quinn makes a critical error. He's anticipating an option route. A route where the receiver stalls then breaks either outside or inside. He's not expecting the running back to try to beat him upfield. Therefore, he gets tight to his body.
White recognizes the coverage and sees the space created by Gronkowski. He wastes no time accelerating upfield, past Quinn's outside shoulder. He's immediately on top of the defender in the endzone and comfortably catches the ball over his shoulder for the touchdown.
This was a very technical play from White even though it looks straight forward. He has to read that defender in an instant and then use the proper technique at the catch point to control the ball. You expect that from a receiver, not always from a running back.
Quinn probably made a mistake because of the down-and-distance. It was Third-and-8. But his actions were also the mark of respect for how good White is in space. He could easily catch the ball short of the first down line and run to the endzone if he got a step either side of his defender. Quinn had to be aggressive and force him to win upfield. White ran in the type of touchdown Quinn was scared of giving up in Week 17 against the New York Jets.
That's what a vertical route looks like against man coverage. The following week against the Miami Dolphins, White scored a touchdown on a vertical route against zone coverage.
A key aspect of being an effective receiver against zone coverage is recognizing how to adjust your route to the called coverage. White lines up in the backfield and if you drew his route on the ground in front of him like the yellow paint in Madden, he'd run a corner route toward the near pylon.He'd also run right into Kiko Alonso.
Number 47, the right outside linebacker in this instance, is concerned more with the underneath drag route than he is White. For that reason, he's not as deep as the receiver would anticipate.
As White breaks his vertical release toward the outside, he changes direction to gain more depth and run behind Alonso.
Now White has found space. Alonso is pulled forward to Cordarrelle Patterson, leaving White all alone. Brady's pass is high but he's purposely landing it in the right spot at a time when White can catch the ball uncontested. Again, it's not a spectacular catch, but it's an over the shoulder catch that not all running backs are comfortably attempting. White makes it look natural because for him it is.
Brady had two downfield connections with White last season. But he targeted him six times on throws that travelled further than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. That's unusual for a running back.
For most of his career Brady has done his best work on short throws. For the offense to continue to be effective over the length of his career he's relied on receivers who could execute option routes and create separation underneath even when opponents understood exactly what routes they were likely to run.
On this play from the Chicago Bears game White releases to the right side of the offense so he's picked up by left outside linebacker Leonard Floyd. Floyd is one of the most athletic linebackers in the NFL. He doesn't have safety help over the top but he does have Khalil Mack dropping into space in the middle of the field. As such, Floyd overplays the outside.
White takes the bait and happily angles his route back infield so that he's open. The design of the play is crucial because the shallow crossing route coming from the same side of the field takes Mack out of the play.
Because Floyd was overplaying the outside and White was quick to recognize it and turn, the running back actually has time to slow down. He settles in the widest window for his quarterback to throw into, creating an easy eight-yard gain on Third-and-2.
This is what it looked like when Floyd had help. It got much worse when he didn't.
At the goalline, the Bears either blow an assignment or call an awfully-designed play. They only rush three players after the quarterback but play man coverage outside and with Floyd. They crowd the middle of the field but there's too much space outside so Floyd is essentially working one-on-one while the quarterback has time in the pocket.
He has no shot.
This is the type of play that makes you a mismatch receiver. It's not just that it's easy to get open when left one-on-one, it's that White is three or four steps away from the linebacker when he catches the ball. He expertly used an elongated, aggressive step upfield with his inside foot to push off outside and get open.
Brady got a simple touchdown throw because of how talented his running back and because of how poorly the play was designed by the defense. That's a theme with the offense. Short throws where the receiving option is set up in space to continue downfield. Or at least it's been a theme of the offense for much of Brady's career. Two years ago they played more like a vertical attack.
Last year, 50.8 percent of Brady's yards were gained after the catch. That was the 10th-highest rate in the league. White obviously played a huge role in that.
Not surprisingly, White's smooth and sudden transitions through his routes translates to how he makes defenders miss in space with the ball in his hands. This is an il-advised checkdown from Brady but White is able to make the defender miss with ease before accelerating past the first down line for a 20-yard gain.
That play came on Second-and-5, ahead of the down-and-distance. Despite being a running back, White is also valuable behind the down-and-distance because of his YAC ability.
While Brady's role in this play shouldn't be overstated, it is important that he puts the ball inside instead of leading White toward the sideline. He allows his running back to turn sharply as the ball arrives. This was a teaching moment for rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Edmunds is an incredible athlete but was anticipating White continuing outside.
That error on its own wasn't enough to give White the first down, he still had to show off incredible balance and then explode to the first down line for the conversion.
Part of the Patriots' YAC came from an effective screen game. They had the 13th-most efficient screen game in the league, with White providing a large chunk of the positive plays. One drive in particular stood out during the regular season matchup with the Minnesota Vikings. But before we get to that game, let's look at this screen against the Tennessee Titans to outline how much thought the Patriots put into their screen designs.
Long before the ball is snapped, Chris Hogan motions from a slot alignment to the outside. After that initial action he becomes a jet sweep option as the ball is about to be snapped. Brady is under center. Without delaying his dropback or holding the ball longer than would necessary for a normal play fake, he executes three handoff fakes. The first to Hogan, then to White up the middle, then to Edelman around the back.
The design of this is beautiful because it's a slow-developing screen that has been accelerated by the timing of the handoff fakes. Brady can turn around and get rid of the ball with the screen action going right while everything else on the offense moves left. The secondary defenders have been pulled away from White and the pass rushers didn't have an opportunity to get to the passer before the play had fully developed.
From a defender's point of view, you have to sift through three play fakes and not react to the flow of the offense to read this screen. It's incredibly difficult.
During the second quarter of the Week 13 matchup with the Vikings, the Patriots faced a Second-and-14. A difficult scenario to overcome. Instead of attempting to throw downfield to regain the lost yardage, the Patriots put Brady under center and used a run-oriented alignment. This suggested a play fake or running play to the defense.
Executing a screen from under center generally requires a play fake beforehand. This design is different from the previous one against Tennesse because Rob Gronkowski is used as a pulling blocker rather than Hogan on an end-around action.
Gronkowski is often the Patriots lead blocker so his sells the run call to the defensive line. The left defensive end crashes infield and confronts White before continuing past him to pursue Brady. The play design has taken the leverage away from that defender so Brady can easily escape into the flat.
He's forced to hold the ball longer than he's supposed to because of a defensive lineman in his passing lane, but that defender is eventually drawn to Brady.
That clears the lane for the ball to get to White. White is closer to the line of scrimmage than he wants to be because of the delay. That's a critical detail because now it's harder for White to sell the outside run behind his engaged blocker. Eric Kendricks uses the lack of space to turn inside away from that blocker and tackle White.
It's a great play from Kendricks but he can only prevent the first down. The Patriots still gained eight yards to set up a more manageable Third-and-6.
On that Third-and-6, White lines up as the widest receiver on the right side of the field. It's important to note that Eric Kendricks follows White outside and Harrison Smith drops onto the line of scrimmage accordingly. This means the defense now has a linebacker who can't run with White trailing him and a safety who is more easily blocked in the middle of the field.
White begins the end around action and catches the ball from Brady with blockers out in front. Harrison Smith moved left when White began his motion, taking himself out of the play. Smith was concerned with Gronkowski on that side of the field and had Kendricks moving back into the middle of the defense so he thought he could bail.
Chris Hogan is blocking Everson Griffen on the other side of the defense. That's a mismatch. But leverage negates mismatches. Hogan only needs to wall Griffen off after his first step takes him inside and upfield. Hogan accounting for Griffen allows left tackle Trent Brown to pull outside in front of White as his lead blocker.
White gets past the first down line untouched.
Had he not been out wide to run the end-around screen design, White would have still been a threat to run routes downfield past Kendricks. Kendricks is one of the better coverage linebackers in the NFL so it would be a good matchup. White roasts limited linebackers, such as on this slant against Oren Burks who was terrified of being beat down the sideline so he gave up a free slant for 10 yards and a first down.
After using elaborate screen designs on successive plays to reach an unlikely First-and-10, the Patriots come back with the simplest of screen designs for a big play. This time it's a one-man screen. One-man screens can be extremely effective because the defense has nothing to read, so if it's man coverage, the one blocker who leaks out is able to block the defender covering the running back. That leads to immediate space.
On this play, White breaks off a huge gain downfield after initially being set up by the simple screen design.
So after facing a Second-and-14, the Patriots took three plays, each of which were screens to White, to gain two first downs and 34 yards. Brady's deepest throw was two yards behind the line of scrimmage. That's easy offense for the quarterback.
Realistically, White was robbed of a Super Bowl MVP mantle two years ago. He became one of only six players ever to score three touchdowns in the Super Bowl and the only player to add a two-point conversion to one of them. He's in the perfect scheme to maximize his talent because the Patriots excel at using him in so many different ways.
But that being the case shouldn't overshadow the fact that you have to be a supreme talent to fill that role as effectively as White does. You can't just swap him out for Damien Williams, a very good receiving back, and expect the same quality of execution.
White is a reflection of this era at an extreme. He's smaller, lighter and contributes more as a receiver than as a runner. Sony Michel excelled in the playoffs last postseason so the Patriots are still running a committee approach to their backfield, but Michel's rise won't lead to any drop-off for White. He's one of the best running backs in the NFL without even running the ball 100 times last year.