Running back

What is the Definition of a Running Back?

A running back in American Football is a crucial member of the offensive backfield, tasked with receiving handoffs from the quarterback and rushing the ball down the field. Their primary objective is to gain as many yards as possible, and they may also act as a blocker or catch passes in certain plays. As one of the most exciting and high-profile offensive positions on a football team, running backs must navigate through the defensive lineup, dodging linebackers and overpowering safeties to achieve success on the field.

There are two main types of running backs, the halfback and the fullback. The halfback is typically responsible for carrying the ball during running plays and is often the primary ball carrier. On the other hand, the fullback is a versatile player who combines both the offensive lineman and running back positions. They often take on the role of a blocker, paving the way for the primary ball carrier to advance up the field. To excel as a running back, players must possess a combination of speed, agility, and power, as well as exceptional field vision and decision-making abilities.

Key Takeaways

  • Running backs play a crucial role in advancing the ball down the field, primarily through rushing.
  • There are two types of running backs: halfbacks, who focus on carrying the ball, and fullbacks, who often act as blockers.
  • Successful running backs must have a combination of speed, agility, power, and excellent decision-making skills.

Role of a Running Back

A running back (RB) is a vital position in American football, with a diverse set of responsibilities that contribute significantly to a team’s offensive success. The primary functions of running backs are running with the ball, blocking, and catching passes. Depending on the nature of the play and the strategic considerations, a running back’s role can shift between these responsibilities. We shall now examine their roles as a ball carrier, pass protector, and receiver.

Ball Carrier

As the name suggests, the primary duty of a running back is to carry the ball and advance it upfield. During a rushing play, the running back receives a handoff from the quarterback and sprints through holes created by the offensive line, attempting to gain as many yards as possible. Gaining yardage on the ground is essential for maintaining offensive momentum and controlling the pace of the game.

Pass Protector

Besides carrying the ball, a running back is also responsible for protecting the quarterback when the latter drops back to pass. As a pass protector, the RB must identify and block potential pass rushers, preventing them from reaching and sacking the quarterback. Efficient pass protection by the running back allows the quarterback enough time to scan the field and make accurate throws.


In addition to their primary rushing and blocking duties, a running back can also be involved in the passing game as a receiver. When the play calls for it, the running back runs a specific route and becomes an eligible receiver, creating an additional option for the quarterback to target. Running backs can catch passes both out of the backfield and when positioned further out as a slot receiver, using their agility and speed to exploit mismatches in the defense.

Types of Running Backs

There are three main types of running backs in American Football, each with their own unique role in the offense. They are often strategically utilized depending on the play design and situation. In this section, we will discuss halfbacks, fullbacks, and tailbacks.


A halfback is a running back positioned close to the quarterback on running plays. They are typically the primary ball carrier, often possessing speed and agility to find gaps in the defense and gain yards. Halfbacks may also contribute as pass-catchers, providing a valuable receiving option for the quarterback during passing plays. Some well-known halfbacks include Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders.


A fullback is a running back with a primary focus on blocking. They are positioned in the backfield, ahead of the halfback or tailback, and provide lead blocks to help create running lanes for the primary ball carriers. Fullbacks are generally more robust and stronger when compared to halfbacks, allowing them to take on defensive players and clear a path. While they do occasionally carry the ball, it’s usually in short-yardage situations. Notable fullbacks include Mike Alstott and Lorenzo Neal.


A tailback shares many similarities with a halfback, as both positions involve carrying the ball and contributing in the passing game. The key distinction between a tailback and a halfback lies in their alignment on the field. A tailback is typically lined up directly behind the quarterback or off to the side, providing them with a wider view of the field. This position allows for better cutting and maneuverability as the tailback runs with the ball. However, the term “tailback” is more commonly used in specific offensive formations, such as the single-wing or T-formation. Some famous tailbacks include Gale Sayers and Eric Dickerson.

Running Back Skills and Attributes

Speed and Agility

A running back in American football must possess exceptional speed and agility. This enables them to quickly navigate through gaps in the defensive line, dodge incoming tackles, and accelerate into open space down the field. A running back’s ability to change direction and maintain balance during sharp cuts and high-speed movements is crucial to their success on the field.


While speed and agility are key, a running back also needs strength to withstand physical contact from defensive players. This includes breaking through tackles, pushing forward for extra yards, and providing effective pass protection for the quarterback. Strength training is an essential component of a running back’s development, as it helps build the necessary power and endurance to succeed in their position.


One of the most important skills for a running back is vision. This involves the ability to quickly assess the defensive layout, identify gaps and running lanes, and make split-second decisions on the best course of action. A running back with strong vision can anticipate what defenders will do, allowing them to exploit weaknesses in the defense and maximize their yardage on each play.

Pass Catching Ability

In modern football, the role of a running back has expanded to include responsibilities as a receiver in passing plays. As such, it is crucial for running backs to have excellent pass-catching abilities. This includes running precise routes, displaying soft hands to securely catch the football, and utilizing speed and agility to turn short receptions into long gains. A versatile running back who excels in both rushing and receiving adds a dynamic element to an offense, making it more unpredictable and difficult for defenses to counter.

Famous Running Backs

Jim Brown is widely considered one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. Throughout his career, Brown led the league in rushing yards eight times and was a three-time MVP. His combination of power, speed, and agility made him a dominant force on the field.

Another notable running back is Walter Payton, also known as “Sweetness.” Payton had a long and successful career with the Chicago Bears, where he amassed 16,726 rushing yards and 110 rushing touchdowns. His ability to break tackles earned him a reputation as one of the toughest runners in history.

Barry Sanders, who played for the Detroit Lions, is another legendary running back. Known for his elusiveness and agility, Sanders rushed for over 15,000 yards in his ten seasons. He was a 10-time Pro Bowler and won the NFL MVP award in 1997.

Emmitt Smith holds the record for most rushing yards in NFL history with 18,355. He spent most of his career with the Dallas Cowboys, winning three Super Bowls. Smith’s durability and consistency are key reasons he is regarded as one of the best running backs of all time.

Adrian Peterson, a more recent star, has had a highly successful career. Drafted in 2007, Peterson quickly established himself as a premier running back. He holds multiple records, including most rushing yards in a single game (296) and the fastest player to reach 8,000 rushing yards.

In recent years, running backs such as Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott, and Alvin Kamara have emerged as elite talents. They continue the tradition of exceptional running backs in the NFL, showcasing a blend of power, speed, and versatility that keeps defenses on their toes.

Evolution of the Running Back Position

The running back position in American football has undergone significant changes and evolved in complexity over the years. In the early days of the sport, running backs were simply referred to as “backs” and were differentiated by the distance they stood behind the forwards. Overtime, distinct roles and responsibilities were assigned to various backfield positions. The halfback, fullback, and quarterback became the primary players involved in carrying, blocking, and passing the ball for an offense.

Early on, the fullback position was more prevalent as a ball carrier. However, as strategies and tactics changed, they transitioned into becoming primary lead blockers, paving the way for halfbacks or tailbacks to gain yardage. The shift towards a more balanced offensive approach, intertwining running and passing plays, led to the introduction of specialized backs tailored to a team’s game plan.

In modern football, the running back position now encompasses a wide range of roles, including ball carriers, pass catchers, and blockers. This versatility has made running backs an essential component of any successful offense. The rise of committee-based backfields, in which teams feature multiple backs with different skills, is a testament to the importance of adaptability in this position.

The increasing emphasis on passing the ball in today’s game has also led to the emergence of the multidimensional running back, who is adept at both running and catching passes out of the backfield. These dynamic playmakers provide a valuable weapon for offenses, as they can exploit mismatches against slower linebackers or less physical safeties.

By adapting to the shifting strategies and innovations in the sport, the running back position has continually reinvented itself throughout the history of American football. As the game continues to evolve, one can only imagine what new skills and responsibilities the future may hold for these crucial offensive players.