They get downgraded in the draft and told their NFL lifespan rarely goes beyond their 30th birthdays.

In the pass-happy pro football world, running backs sometimes become afterthoughts. Then, guys like C.J. Anderson, DeAngelo Williams, Matt Forte and Carlos Hyde go wild on the field.

Yes, the Patriots and Saints have found ways to prosper chucking the ball all over the yard. But as the first 17 games this season proved — including Forte’s 100-yard, three-touchdown extravaganza for the Jets on Thursday night against Buffalo — the ground game still matters.

Bigtime.

Just ask one of the NFL’s top passers.

“With all the fantasy football and all the stuff, from a player’s perspective, you have to stop the run first,” Arizona’s Carson Palmer says. “That’s what every defense wants to come in and do. You don’t talk about it maybe as much, you hear so much about protecting quarterbacks, passing games … but every team is trying to give up big chunks of yards in the run game, and every team is trying to run the football successfully. From a player’s standpoint, it’s a focal point of everything we do.”

From some coaches’ standpoint, too.

“Obviously, they are a huge part of what we like to do. There is not a substitute for a good runner,” says Browns coach Hue Jackson, a noted offensive mind. “If you have a guy who can wear the defense down a little bit and a guy who knows how to carry the ball, be physical and make those tough yards, there is no substitute for those guys.”

Would the Broncos have been champions without the performances of Anderson last year? In some ways, he’s more valuable than Peyton Manning and his replacement at quarterback, Trevor Simian.

No team has a better aerial game than the Steelers. Yet what makes it even more dangerous is what Pittsburgh gets from its backfield.

With Le’Veon Bell sidelined by a knee injury for much of 2015 and suspended for the first three games this season, Williams has soared. At 33, he appears in his prime — something Washington learned Monday night when Williams scooted for 143 yards and two touchdowns . He also had six receptions, and he can handle onrushing blitzers.

“It’s one of those things if you can carry the load, you can carry the load,” says Williams, who has prospered from splitting carries in Carolina with Jonathan Stewart before landing in Pittsburgh. “In this league now, you’ve got to have two backs if you want to be where you want to be, and that’s the Super Bowl.”

Few teams get that far without a strong passing attack, of course. With all the rules changes favoring throwing, and the onset of fantasy football, it sometimes seems like getting down and dirty with the running game is, well, down and dirty.

But one of the real pleasures of watching the NFL is how Adrian Peterson can befuddle defenses while bedazzling viewers. All-around backs such as Williams, Forte, Doug Martin, Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy spice up the sport.

Youngsters Hyde, Todd Gurley, David Johnson and Devonta Freeman add even more juice.

Maybe fans can’t wrap their allegiances around running backs (except in fantasy football, of course) because many teams use several RBs each game. The wear and tear of the position warrants a rotation, something inconceivable at quarterback and unlikely at wideout — no teams take out the top target when they go to multiple-receiver sets.

Behind the QB, though, sometimes there’s a committee toting the ball, catching it or blocking.

No club handles depth at running back better than Kansas City. Even with its star, Charles, hobbled, Andy Reid’s team can send Spencer Ware , Charcandrick West and Knile Davis at opponents. When Charles gets back to full health, that makes him even more dangerous: Reid can pick and choose when and how to use the versatile Charles because his other backs are dependable.

“Every running back is a little different and that’s the beauty of our guys, they’re all a little different,” says Chiefs co-offensive coordinator and running game mastermind Matt Nagy. “You have Jamaal with the speed, Spencer with the power, Charcandrick with the mix, and Knile with the power and the mix. So for us, it’s just a matter of us putting them in and letting them roll to their strengths.

“It’s a matter of identifying what your backs do well, and it’s dictated more by the player than the team.”

When teams can dictate the pace of a game on the ground, they can control the clock and, often, the scoreboard.

That’s not to say having a star or solid quarterback doesn’t lead to winning. But ask Ben Roethlisberger or Alex Smith or whoever lines up behind center in Minnesota about the importance of running the ball.

They know.


AP Sports Writers Dave Skretta, Tom Withers, Bob Baum and Will Graves contributed.


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