Lions Running Back Duo a Sign of the Times


One of the aspects of football that makes the game so appealing is that it is always evolving. You don’t have to go back to the leather helmet days to see drastic changes between the game today and the game of the past. Replays of old games on ESPN Classic or Big Ten Network shows just how much the size of the players, their overall skill level, style of play, and even the equipment has changed in the last ten or twenty years alone.

One of the big changes that has occurred is the move towards a running back tandem instead of one featured back. The Indianapolis Colts have used this model to complement their all-world passing game. Running backs Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai split the workload to help the Colts win Super Bowl XLI. Addai and Donald Brown, two first round draft choices, form the Colts tandem of today. The Dallas Cowboys can plug in Marion Barber, Felix Jones, or Tashard Choice. The New York Giants have rotated Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.

Duos of old were often characterized as “Thunder and Lightning”. One back was a physical runner that often stayed between the tackles; the thunder. The lightning was the quick back, usually much smaller and more prominently used on third downs and passing situations. This distinction is not often clear anymore. In the case of the Lions, Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith figure to each get their fair share of the carries. Best has fans excited because of his speed but he and Smith don’t fit the traditional thunder and lightning model. (More after the jump)

The Lions staff hasn’t tipped their hand about how the running back duties will be divided other than revealing that they have put Jahvid Best in a lot of places on the field and he has soaked up the offense. Best may be a quick learner but he won’t have any advantage because of Kevin Smith’s knee injury. Now that Smith is back and fully practicing both players can audition head to head for their fall roles. First glance would tell me that Jahvid Best’s game-breaking speed pushes him into action when the Lions have a long field ahead of them with Kevin Smith coming in when Best needs a breather or when the Lions get into the red zone. A second glance tells me that the roles won’t be quite so defined.

One of the things the Lions have always liked about Kevin Smith is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He may not break a screen pass for a 60-yard touchdown but his hands are solid and he has the ability to make a man miss in the open field. Smith also has the advantage of being the incumbent. Experience alone won’t win any player a job but his experience in the offense and against opposing defenses is something the Lions can use to their advantage.

Despite concerns over durability, Best carried the load for the Cal Bears running game. He is a lot more than a speedy change of pace back and will be used as such in Detroit. Like Titans running back Chris Johnson, Best has the speed and vision to run between the tackles, find a hole, and take it the distance. He will be a valuable part of the passing game from the backfield and the slot. It will be fun to see the ways offensive coordinator Scott Linehan comes up with to get the ball in Best’s hands.

The only thing we know at this point is that the Lions will use some sort of running back by committee approach. Kevin Smith and Jahvid Best can’t be shoehorned into “Thunder” or “Lightning” labels and either player could see action in a variety of scenarios. I expect Jahvid Best to lead the duo in touches, but who will lead the team in carries?