The running back has always been a big part of the mystique of football. Red Grange practically made the game, college and pro. If he didn't, the Four Horsemen did.
When the songwriters wrote, "You Gotta Be a Football Hero," they meant left halfback. Betty Coed had lips of red for the ball carrier.
Grantland Rice rhapsodized about these romantic figures, made folklore out of them. The Galloping Ghost. Mr. Outside. Crowds came to see them dash perpetually out of reach of the troglodytes in the line, like characters out of Tom and Jerry cartoons. Everybody rooted for them. They were like the lone ace in the skies over no-man's land in World War I, the hero on the white horse getting away from the bad guys in the Saturday serials.
The Heisman Trophyist is a running back. It's the glamour role in the game, the football equivalent of the guy who gets the girl, the money, the gold watch and everything.
But does he win games? Not lately.
Ask any of pro football's defensive linemen, the highest practitioners of the art, and they will tell you the runner is the least of their nightmares. It's not the guy who tucks the ball under his arm that keeps them awake nights--it's that little guy who goes scrambling around back there with his arm cocked, the football held high and his eyes firmly fixed downfield for the waiting receiver that makes their calves ache, their ankles turn, their mouths dry and their Achilles' tendons snap.
"We'll never get beat by the run," the great Deacon Jones said one night, just after he had gone through four quarters of lung-bursting pursuit of Frantic Fran Tarkenton, the quarterback who was to defensive linemen what the flood was to Johnstown.
Still, legends die hard. It's been years since a genuine scourge of the gridiron ran his team right into the Super Bowl--or even the Rose Bowl.
College coaches are the slowest to learn. Brigham Young University is the current national champion and a chronic top-10 team largely because its coach years ago saw the strategic value of the forward pass and scrapped the traditional collegiate recruiting techniques of pushing for the boy who could run fastest. BYU wanted the ones who could throw farthest.
The snorts of derision that were heard from coast to coast when the struggling United States Football League signed as its No. 1 draft choice a 5-9 3/4 football player should have tipped us that nothing has changed. The NFL scoffed that Doug Flutie would be a second-round choice in its league, if that. Probably the 55th player chosen, no better.
Probably so. But it is well to remember that Dan Marino was the 27th choice in the NFL two seasons before. And he was No. 1 in the USFL that year.
Not that the USFL is immune to the lure of the ball packer. Two years ago, it broke several of the unwritten laws of football, including a pair of its own, to sign the running back Herschel Walker out of Georgia.
You remember Herschel Walker, don't you?
Well, if not, how about Mike Rozier?
"Who?" you say.
Rozier. R-o-z-i-e-r. A football player from Nebraska. I'll give you a hint: He was the Heisman Trophy winner and he came into the league about the same time as Jim Kelly, the quarterback for the Houston Whozits. The famous Kelly. Rozier plays for Jacksonville. I guess. You don't hear much about him because the really productive players in that league are quarterbacks.
"Student body right" just doesn't work in the pros. I suppose the greatest, most devastating running back in the history of the pro game was Jim Brown. But not even Jim Brown could run the Cleveland Browns into an annual championship with quarterbacks like Milt Plum.
The quarterback, Otto Graham, was the one who made the coach, Paul Brown, famous and won all the titles. Neither Jim Brown nor Leroy Kelly could, so to speak, foot the bill.
Franco Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers may have been one of the greatest runners in the pro game, but it is a fact of history that his team, the Steelers, didn't win the championships till the quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, came of age.
When Earl Campbell couldn't run a franchise right into the Super Bowl, you have to know nobody could. Tony Dorsett may be as great as Grange ever was, but Dallas hasn't been in a Super Bowl since Roger Staubach, the QB, left.
The reigning NFL champions, the San Francisco 49ers, don't even have a running attack as such. They don't need it. Neither did the team they played in the Super Bowl. Detroit moved heaven and earth to sign, and then to keep, Billy Sims, the runner. It's a bigger waste of money than the Edsel. They should have gone for the quarterback model.
Doug Flutie may be too little, too light, too lucky, too slow, or too bright. But he's in the right profession. If you're going to make a mistake in drafting, make it in favor of the guy who gets rid of the ball. Gives it to somebody else. The guy who hangs onto it in today's game really is the galloping ghost. Because he usually disappears at the line of scrimmage. Well short of the Super Bowl.