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The Running Back Position: An In-Depth Guide

Posted by Throw Deep Publishing Staff on

It doesn't matter what offense your team runs- the running back is an extremely important position.

Often one of the team's most athletic players, the running backs job has remained the same as the game of football has continued to evolve. Possessing many important jobs in an offense, below you’ll find why the running back is one of the most important offensive football positions

What does a Running Back do?

The primary responsibility of the running back is to run the football efficiently for the offense. Taking handoffs from the quarterback, it is his job to find positive yardage running through the teeth of the defense, while doing a good job of protecting the football.  Within this role, the best running backs possess a variety of talents, as they look to make defenders miss with a combination of speed, quickness, and strength.

What is a Running Back in Football - Derrick Henry 

Lining up in the backfield with the quarterback, the running back also needs to be proficient in pass blocking, as well as pass catching. These jobs are equally important, and a big reason why versatile running backs are a prized possession in today’s game. 

Why is it called Running Back?

As you may expect, the running back’s name is pretty self explanatory, as their main job is to run the football. While they have other duties within the game of football, their duty to find yards running the football is crucial to the success of football teams at all levels of the game.

The term "back" refers to the fact that they line up behind the offensive line, in the "backfield" either behind or next to the quarterback, depending on the formation. 

What are some other names for the Running Back?

A running back can often be referred to by a couple of other names, like tailback or halfback. You may also hear coaches refer to the fullback as a running back from time to time, but usually that position is defined by its own special set of characteristics and requirements.

What are the Skills & Body Type needed to play Running Back?

Body Type (General Estimate)

Height: (5’9-6’2)

Weight - 190-235

Build - Athletic/Filled out

While you will see different body types from the running back position, at the highest levels, running backs are always guys who are well built physically to meet the demands of the position. Many running backs are smaller in stature, and aren’t typically all that tall in comparison to their teammates.  


A good running back will have a combination of speed, agility, vision (the ability to find the open spaces to run the ball), toughness, and good pass-catching ability.

Simply put, running backs are stud athletes. Their position is extremely physically demanding, combined with the need to be able to make guys miss and make big plays. Depending on the team you’re watching, you will see some different skill sets from the position. 

If you’re familiar with the game of football, you may have heard the term “short-yardage back” or “all-purpose back.” These two terms help explain the need for a variety of running back skill sets, as short-yardage backs are great for getting tough yardage, and all-purpose backs serve as a great receiving threat out of the backfield. Most NFL teams will look to have RB’s with a variety of skill sets, as it helps their offense be ready for any situation thrown at them on the football field.

Developing Running Back Skills

Coach AJ Steward of Oregon State explains some of his favorite running back drills that he does every single day with his guys at practice.

Who are some of the best Running Backs ever?

Barry Sanders (1989-1998) - Standing at only 5’8, Sanders made up for his lack of stature with a combination of quickness and speed. Winning the NFL’s MVP award in 1997, Sanders had a stellar career that included him leading the league in rushing yards in 4 separate seasons.

Emmitt Smith (1990-2004) - A 4-time Super Bowl champion, and the all-time leader in career rushing yards in NFL history, Smith’s career goes down as one of the best in the history of the NFL.

What is a Running Back in Football - Emmitt Smith 

Walter Payton (1975-1987) - With over 16,000 career rushing yards, and 125 total touchdowns, Payton’s career is highly regarded in his time with the Chicago Bears. 

Jim Brown (1957-1965) - Holding the NFL career record for rushing yards and touchdowns when he retired, Brown’s lasted nearly a decade and was full of success. In his time with the Browns, Brown was a 3x NFL MVP while winning an NFL title. He is still the only player ever to average more than 5 yards per carry for a career. Even though many of his records have since been broken, he is still considered by many to be the greatest running back of all time.

What is a Running Back in Football - Jim Brown

Ladanian Tomlinson (2001-2011) - Recording 28 rushing touchdowns in the 2006 season, Tomlinson was a dominant force in his NFL career. Recording nearly 5,000 yards receiving out of the backfield in his career, Tomlinson was a true all-purpose back in his time with the Chargers. 

Why is the Running Back so important?

Coaches will often tell you that their players, rather than the plays that they call, are what catapult a team to find success throughout a season. This holds true for running backs, as their ability to turn a negative play into a 50 yard run are what separate average and elite running backs. Breaking tackles, making guys miss, and outrunning defenders are all aspects of a successful football play, and efficient running backs do a combination of all of these things. 

Elite playmakers are what make offenses productive and special, and the running back plays a big piece in the success of a football team. In modern offenses, having a smart, reliable running back who can run, block and catch is a huge asset to any team. 

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