Nobody cares about running backs. That's been the NFL line the past few seasons. The running back position has been devalued in professional football and it shows in how running backs are paid.
It's as if Roger Goodell hates seeing 2,000-yard rushers, because it's all about 5,000-yard passers these days. Nobody wants a 20 touchdown rusher. They want 50 TD passers. 80-yard TD runs are boring, but 80 yard bombs are absolutely captivating. Everyone wants players to shatter records, so long as they are passing records. Who cares about running backs?
Eric Studesville does. He received his first coaching opportunity in 1997 with the Chicago Bears, as an offensive quality control coach. Studesville was then hired by the New York Giants as their running back coach in 2001. He then helped Tiki Barber break out with consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
In 2004, Studesville joined the Buffalo Bills as their running back coach and when he left, following the 2009 season, he had guided 3 different runners to 1,000-yard seasons; Willis McGahee, Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson. During Studesville's time in Buffalo, there was only one season where a running back did not hit the 1,000-yard mark. It happened in 2006 when McGahee gained 990 yards on the ground; only 10 yards short. What's even more impressive, is that Studesville was able to guide McGahee and Lynch to the 1,000-yard mark during their rookie seasons.
In 2010, "Hurricane Josh" McDaniels brought Studesville to Denver. The following season, under John Fox, the Broncos signed McGahee and Studesville helped him return to a Pro Bowl level, leading him to one of the best seasons of his career at 30 years of age, which is also known as running back purgatory.
The following season, Denver's first with Peyton Manning at the helm, McGahee was off to another solid start, until he landed on injured reserve following the 10th game. But he was well on his way to another 1,000-yard season, before the injury bug bit him. The Broncos decided to dust off Knowshon Moreno, who had been in the deepest, darkest corner of the doghouse.
Studesville never gave up on Morneo, during his time spent in the doghouse. As a running backs coach, Studesville always has 4 or 5 players under his wing, to shape and mold. While Moreno was in the doghouse with head coach, John Fox, Studesville was there to pull him out of his hole.
When he was finally called upon, Moreno returned reinvigorated and he revitalized the Broncos run game and became the perfect compliment to Manning. Moreno played great down the stretch that year, up until suffering a knee injury in the first half of the Divisional playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, who went on to win the Super Bowl.
Following that heartbreaking loss, Moreno had surgery. While he was on the mend, the starting running back job was handed to Ronnie Hillman. Hillman took the job and looked great during training camp, only to fumble away his opportunity during the preseason. Come week 1, Moreno was inserted back into the lineup as the starting running back and the rest is history. Moreno went on to have a career year, while Hillman took over Moreno's lease on the doghouse and watched his role with the team diminish, culminating in being inactive for the Super Bowl.
Ronnie Hillman has had every reason to give up, swallow his pride and quit. A year after being drafted in the 3rd round, the Broncos drafted another running back, Montee Ball, in the 2nd round; a shot across his bow. In two short years in the NFL, Hillman has gone from a high draft choice, to being named a starting running back, to a gameday inactive and now, back to a starting running back. Hillman has been through more in his short time in the NFL than some 10-year veterans have and he's still only 23 years old.
This brings us back to "The Running Back Whisperer", Eric Studesville. He is a running back architect. His rehab program for young, troubled, or older running backs has become tried and tested. What Studesville helped Knowshon Moreno accomplish over the past two seasons, is nothing short of miraculous.
Two seasons ago, Broncos Country, on the whole, had soured on Moreno. He was viewed as a busted 1st round pick. He had worn out his welcome. He was a draft choice of a coach best known for his near destruction of a very proud franchise. Yet, Moreno turned everything around and became a fan favorite.
This offseason, Hillman has had a similar experience. Fans didn't trust him and many wanted him gone. Much was expected of him, but little had been delivered. In many ways, Hillman is the second coming of Moreno, which is not necessarily a comparison an aspiring NFL running back would want. But they should. In regards to what Moreno did, Studesville once said:
"I hope guys, young guys, older guys, anybody, look at what Knowshon did for himself, how he worked, how he carried himself to go from where he was to do what he did, and see that's exactly how you handle football adversity."
Hillman followed Moreno's example, put his head down, worked his tail off, forcing his way back into the team's plans. Studesville, just as he did with Moreno, helped Hillman right the ship, and couldn't stop raving about him along the way.
"But I love what Ronnie has done," Studesville said. "From when we started this spring, in April forward, he has been unbelievable. He's a completely different guy in the best possible way and I'm just excited about what he's doing, how he's approaching it, how he's making plays on the field. It's been great. It's been there the whole time, but we're finally seeing the maximum side of it."
When Hillman came into the NFL, he was the best RB prospect to come out of San Diego State since Marshall Faulk. He's finally starting to resemble the first running back that ever played with Peyton Manning in the pros. Hillman now has the opportunity to be the last running back to play with Manning in the NFL. He's been compared to Darren Sproles, and his burst is finally validating that.
Hillman gets it. Playing football isn't a hobby anymore. It's not just something he is good at. Playing football is now his job, and that's how he is going to approach it moving forward. Even the Super Bowl favorite Denver Broncos won't be able to win without a solid run game. The running back position still matters. He may never become Marshall Faulk, but he can proudly call himself the starting running back of the Denver Broncos.