What Does a Tailback Do in Football?

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Key Takeaways

  • A tailback is a running back that lines up farthest from the line of scrimmage in the offensive backfield.
  • The main role of a tailback is to receive handoffs and run the ball upfield.
  • Tailbacks need speed, agility, power, and vision to find open running lanes.
  • Tailbacks also frequently catch passes coming out of the backfield.
  • Good blocking and pass protection skills are important for a tailback.
  • Famous tailbacks include Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, and LaDainian Tomlinson.


In American football, what does a tailback do? The tailback, sometimes referred to as the running back or halfback, is one of the most important positions on the offensive side of the ball. As a key contributor in both the running and passing games, the tailback must possess a diverse and well-rounded skill set to excel. This article will provide a comprehensive overview of the tailback position by answering key questions:

What Does a Tailback Do in Football?
  • Where Does the Tailback Line Up on the Field?
  • What Are the Main Responsibilities of a Tailback?
  • What Skills Does an Effective Tailback Need?
  • How is a Tailback Used in the Offense?
  • Who Are Some of the Best Tailbacks in NFL History?

Whether you are a football novice or a seasoned fan, this guide will help you understand the vital role that tailbacks play in football success. By the end, you’ll have a firm grasp of what tailbacks do on the gridiron.

Where Does the Tailback Line Up on the Field?

The tailback lines up deepest in the offensive backfield, farthest away from the line of scrimmage. The typical lining up position is directly behind the quarterback, about 4-5 yards deep. This alignment led to the “tailback” name, as this back is positioned like the tail of the QB.

What Does a Tailback Do in Football?

The QB-tailback duo forms a “T” shape before the snap. This allows the tailback to build up speed and momentum after receiving a handoff from the QB to charge upfield. Tailbacks line up deep to have more time and space to assess the defense before running.

What Does a Tailback Do in Football?

What Are the Main Responsibilities of a Tailback?

The primary role of the tailback is to receive handoffs and run the football. Tailbacks are expected to find holes in the defense and explode through them, making sharp cuts when needed to elude tacklers. Good tailbacks possess excellent vision to identify the best running lanes.

Tailbacks serve as the workhorse rushers of the offense. They will carry the ball on straight running plays between the tackles, but can also run outside sweeps, counters, draws, and more. Tailbacks often receive 10-30 carries per game.

Though known for rushing, tailbacks also frequently run pass patterns out of the backfield. Tailbacks utilize their speed and hands to catch screen passes or checkdowns from the QB in the flat or over the middle. This dual running-receiving threat makes elite tailbacks dangerous offensive weapons.

In pass protection, tailbacks must be able to pick up blitzing linebackers or defensive backs. Blocking prowess keeps the QB upright and gives time to hit open receivers downfield. Tailbacks generally do not run block as often as fullbacks.

What Skills Does an Effective Tailback Need?

To fulfill their demanding role, tailbacks require both physical talents and intangibles:

Speed and Acceleration – Tailbacks rely on pure speed to outrun defenders and break big gains. Quick acceleration helps tailbacks explode through holes and elude tacklers in tight spaces. Even tailbacks lacking elite speed must have good burst off the snap.

Power and Strength – While agility and finesse help, tailbacks also need power and strength to break tackles, push piles forward, and handle interior runs up the middle against stout defenses. Lower body strength aids in breaking tackles and driving legs through contact.

Vision and Agility – With play direction changing in a split second, tailbacks must locate running lanes and seamlessly change direction using sharp cuts, jumps, and spins. Agility and lateral movement are essential.

Hands – Tailbacks must securely catch passes out of the backfield without losing momentum or focus. Good hands make them a dual running-receiving threat.

Pass Blocking – Solid blocking technique and courage allow tailbacks to stonewall blitzing defenders. This keeps the QB upright.

Durability and Toughness – The position demands durability to withstand hits. Playing through injuries and showing mental resilience is also important.

How is a Tailback Used in the Offense?

Tactically, tailbacks align deep to allow coaches flexibility in play calling. Tailbacks often run in between the tackles on dives, isolations, and power runs or bounce outside on stretches and tosses. Screens, swings, and flat routes get tailbacks the ball in space with room to run after the catch.

Today’s NFL offenses emphasize versatility, so tailbacks sometimes motion into the slot or outside like receivers. Tailbacks may also rotate based on situation and skill set. Downhill power runners sub in for early downs and short-yardage while third down backs enter for passing situations.

Overall, modern offenses aim to get creative in getting their most dynamic athletes the ball any way possible. Tailbacks thrive when used in innovative and unpredictable schemes.

Who Are Some of the Best Tailbacks in NFL History?

The NFL has featured some all-time great tailbacks who dominated the record books and left enduring legacies:

  • Walter Payton – The legendary Bears’ back earned the nickname “Sweetness” for his smooth running style. At retirement, he held records for career rushing yards and all-purpose yards.
  • Barry Sanders – The elusive Sanders made defenders miss with crazy jukes and cuts for 10 seasons in Detroit. He twice won NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
  • Emmitt Smith – The Dallas Cowboys star was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 18,355 yards and 164 rushing touchdowns over 15 seasons.
  • LaDainian Tomlinson – One of the most versatile tailbacks ever, LT had over 18,000 scrimmage yards and 145 touchdowns for the Chargers from 2001-2009.
  • Adrian Peterson – A powerful runner with a rare combination of speed and strength, Peterson has led the league in rushing yards 3 times for the Vikings.


In conclusion, the tailback is arguably the most important offensive skill position in football. The tailback’s main job is to receive handoffs and aggressively run the ball, but tailbacks also catch passes out of the backfield and provide key pass protection. Top tailbacks possess exceptional running instincts, quickness, power, hands, and blocking ability. While a great runner alone can excel, tailbacks are most effective when creatively utilized as dual rushing-receiving threats in innovative, unpredictable offenses. The NFL’s legendary tailbacks have repeatedly demonstrated how a truly gifted athlete can dominate and change games from this position. Any fan watching a spectacular tailback eletrically running through defenses will gain a deep appreciation for their unique abilities.


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