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Football's Offensive Team: What Makes a Good Running Back

Running backs need more skills than American football players at other positions. During any given football game, a running back may run the ball, catch a pass, or block an opposing player. Occasionally, running backs are even called upon to throw a pass or kick the ball.

On most football teams, the running back is the best athlete on the team. The demands on him, both physical and mental, are great. Every running back must be able to do the following well:

  • Line up in the right stance. The most common stance for a running back is the two-point stance. A tailback often uses the two-point stance with his hands on his thighs, his feet shoulder width apart, and his weight on the balls of his feet. His head is up, his legs are slightly bent at the knees, and his feet are parallel to one another, with his toes pointed toward the line of scrimmage.

  • Receive a handoff. A runner must receive the football from the quarterback without fumbling. To do this properly, his arms must form a pocket outside his stomach. If the back is right-handed, he bends his left arm at the elbow in a 90-degree angle, keeps his forearm parallel to the ground, and turns up the palm of his left hand. His right arm is up to receive the ball so that when the quarterback places the ball in his stomach area, his right forearm and hand close around it.

    This figure shows how a running back takes a handoff and holds the ball while running. After he has possession of the ball, the back grips the ball at the tip and tucks the other end into his elbow with one side of the ball resting against his body (so his arm is in somewhat of a V-shape).

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  • Run at top speed. Ideally, a running back is running at near top speed when he grabs a handoff. His head is upright and his shoulders are square to the line of scrimmage. He’s also leaning forward slightly to keep his body low, and his legs are driving forward. For cut-back running, the back fakes a step away from the defender (trying not to shift too much weight) and then turns quickly to the inside of the defender (of course, the defender must move for the cut-back to be successful).

  • See the field. Like a basketball guard running a fast break, a back needs to have peripheral vision. He needs to be able to see what’s coming at him from the corners of the field. Backs with exceptional speed (4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash) can gain many more yards by seeing where the defensive pursuit is coming from and running away from it. However, backs without great speed can be successful by sensing danger while trying to maintain a straight line to the end zone (these backs are called north/south runners). But backs with great speed can outrun many defenders by heading to the corner of the end zone if a defender is 10 yards away to their left or right.

  • Block for another back. A team’s principal running back is rarely a good blocker. The best blockers among the backs are the fullbacks, who are asked to block players 30 to 100 pounds heavier than they are. A running back needs to stay low and explode into the defender’s upper body while using his hands (in closed fists) and forearms to make contact.

    A lot of backs try to block a linebacker or defensive back low (at his legs), but this technique is rarely successful. Many defensive players are capable of jumping up and then shoving the back down to the ground as they move past him.

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