ATLANTA – The Georgia World Congress Center was overflowing with running back talent this week.
On-air talents for NFL Network gathered inside Conference Room B for an hourlong media session to preview Super Bowl LIII between the Patriots and Rams. Part of the group included an impressive collection of former running backs: LaDainian Tomlinson, Terrell Davis, Reggie Bush and Maurice Jones-Drew.
Collectively, that group played 508 games, rushed for 34,948 yards, scored 309 touchdowns and made 11 Pro Bowls, seven first-team All-Pro selections, two championships (both won by Davis with the Denver Broncos) and two gold jackets (Tomlinson and Davis were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017). So they’re well qualified to discuss the state of running backs in the NFL, including the Buffalo Bills’ LeSean McCoy. Here in a roundtable format are their thoughts on McCoy’s 2018 season, and what should be expected of him moving forward:
On McCoy’s underwhelming 2018 season, which included 161 carries for 514 yards and three touchdowns ...
Bush: “I actually would text him from time to time, because there would be games where he would have like four or five carries, or six or seven carries. I was asking him, 'what was going on?' It was definitely weird to see the lack of production from him this year. I don't think it was because he couldn't do it, I think it was just a lack of opportunity. For whatever reason that was, that's a question for the coaching staff.”
Jones-Drew: “Well, I mean, what do you y'all want from him? Who y'all got out there? No disrespect. You give him a rookie quarterback, you trade away Sammy Watkins, you let Robert Woods out the door, right? You let Tyrod Taylor go. All these things. You just go to the playoffs, and then you want to rebuild. I'm not a big fan, obviously, of what happened.
“If there's a running back doing bad, I'll be honest with you, but it's just hard for me to be critical of Shady when I see you trade away everyone on offense, and then you're like, 'all right, we still need you to be the guy.' That don't make sense."
Tomlinson: “I think a lot of things went into LeSean having the season he had. The off-the-field stuff was hanging over his head. I'm sure that took away a lot of his focus, worrying about what was going to happen off the field, as it did with Ezekiel Elliott the year prior, right?
“Midway, three-quarters of the way through the season, you saw him kick into a little gear and then start playing better. I can't say if it was distractions that caused him to play that way. I'm not sure. I need to see next year. Because he showed flashes that he can still be that guy. I don't want to jump to conclusions, because I know he had a lot of stuff going on, and he dealt with some injuries.”
On whether McCoy can regain the form that made him a consistent 1,000-yard rusher earlier in his career …
Bush: “I know he can still do it at a high level. I've seen him do it time after time after time. I think he's still a great player, still a great running back in this league. Without a doubt he can still be a great player. He can still be effective. He's still one of the most dangerous running backs in this league. He's still one of the hardest people to tackle in the NFL, period. Not just from the running back position, he's still one of the toughest players to tackle one on one. I'll be interested to see how they use him next year.”
Jones-Drew: “I feel like you've got to put players around him. It's a team game. The same way we talk about quarterbacks and how they need a running game, as a running back you need receivers on the outside that are going to make it unloaded boxes. You're going to need a playmaker at the quarterback position. I see that Josh Allen's been running the ball well, but you've still got to be able to throw the ball consistently. ... They've got to put some pieces around him. You can't trade away your left tackle, too. You're trading away all these guys away and saying 'LeSean, we still want you to be successful and do these things.' ”
Tomlinson: “The expectations are huge because of who he is. When you're that type of player, people are going to always say ‘we expect you to perform at a certain level,’ and then when you start to slip, questions come. LeSean is in a place where he's not old enough to say he can't still perform. My first year with the Jets I was 30, 31, something like that, and I felt great. I had a great season. So if Adrian Peterson is still performing at a high level, I'm not ready to say LeSean is done. I think he still has something left.”
Davis: “At this age, unfortunately as you get older, your production goes down. He is still a very gifted running back. I love Shady. I love the way he runs, you know, but he's probably no longer the guy you want to give the ball a lot to a game. It's probably more that you want to tailor his touches to a certain amount per game, because he can still be explosive. I don't expect or envision him being the back we saw a long time ago, and that's rarely the case. We all get to that point where we're not the same back once we get over 30. That's just the way it is.
“It's a hard thing to swallow when you're a competitor like that. Nobody wants it. Adrian Peterson, he probably wants to get 40 touches a game, but the reality of it is, it's probably not going to happen. Shady came in and we had a good talk with him before the season. He was encouraged about this year, too. He was nicked up as well. Those things start to add up, and then all of a sudden you look up and you don't feel as great as you once felt. As a back, it's important that you feel really good. I'm not talking about where you can play, I'm talking about where you're not thinking about your ankle or your toe or some pulled hamstring. Those are things the last couple of years that really hampered him.”
On what McCoy might need to change about his game …
Bush: “Sometimes it's not sexy to see a running back rush for 4- or 5-yard runs at a time, but it's effective in the long run. When you've got a guy like Shady that can do a lot of different things, that's a weapon, and from what I've seen, they need weapons on that team -- especially to help Josh Allen.
Davis: “He actually told me that. He wanted to work on that more, just getting those 4-yard runs. It's a hard thing to do. I remember the first time my coach told me, 'all you have to do is get 4 yards.' I was like, '4 yards, that's it? Are you kidding me?' I thought I was failing because I wasn't breaking 60-yard runs. When I got to Denver, my coach said, 'son, in this offense, I want my 4 yards. If you get more than that, that's fine. If you bounce it, I want my 4 yards.' What it does, it allows you to work in a system with a mindset that keeps everything pretty clean. Then you can take chances when you feel comfortable. I don't know what his coaches have told him, but I always tell my players -- I've coached high school for two years -- 'I want 4 yards.' When you think like that, everything's leaning forward."
Story topics: LeSean McCoy