All the running backs in this league, they're not bad running backs. All of the guys in the league were stars at some point in their college career. —Browns running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Matt Asiata had been splendidly impersonating Adrian Peterson when the Minnesota Vikings played the Atlanta Falcons last weekend, the relatively unknown running back bludgeoning their backpedaling defense on the first two drives of the game.
When he got winded, Jerick McKinnon trotted in and ripped off a 55-yard run.
Their combined performance in place of the Vikings' suspended star was only the latest example of a seismic shift in the running back position, once one of the NFL's glamour jobs.
Teams have found that they no longer need a big-money star to carry the load. Overlooked and underappreciated options can often do the job at a fraction of the price.
"Every team is different. And some of the guys you're talking about are No. 1 guys who've played or they're pretty darn talented guys," Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. "That's what we're hoping, that we come out of this over the next period and say, 'Hey, these backs are really good and they really contribute and are doing a good job.' We need to find that out."
Whether it's Justin Forsett taking over for Ray Rice in Baltimore, or Knile Davis poaching carries from All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles in Kansas City, illustrations abound these days.
The Dolphins' Lamar Miller was the NFL's sixth-leading rusher, even though he was supposed to back up the injured Knowshown Moreno. Terrance West was a breakout star for Cleveland when Ben Tate was sidelined, and Bobby Rainey has been a rare bright spot for Tampa Bay.
Not exactly the star-studded list of names that fans are accustomed to seeing.
Asiata went undrafted out of Utah. McKinnon was picked out of Georgia Southern. Yet Asiata had three touchdowns and McKinnon ran for 135 yards against the Falcons on Sunday, leading him to say he "definitely didn't imagine" that he would have that kind of production.
"Well," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer replied, "he needs to raise his expectation levels."
It's not just that hard-luck teams have been forced to use other options because of injuries and suspensions, either. Many teams are using multiple running backs to keep them fresh or provide a change of pace. Some are using wide receivers such as the Seahawks' Percy Harvin on sweeps and other creative running plays. Often, running backs are used extensively in the passing game.
All of which seems to signal the end of the workhorse running back, that dying breed of Jim Brown, Franco Harris and John Riggins that preceded the pass-happy offenses of the modern era.
"All the running backs in this league, they're not bad running backs," said Browns running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery, who starred for the Eagles in the 1970s and '80s. "All of the guys in the league were stars at some point in their college career."
More and more, they're finding their way into the NFL, too.
Through the first four weeks of the season, 166 different players have logged at least one carry in the NFL, not including quarterbacks, according to STATS. That's 20 more players than at the same point a year ago, and a total that has only been eclipsed once since 1989.
All despite the fact that no running backs have been drafted in the first round the past two years. Bishop Sankey was the highest selected in May, going 54th overall to Tennessee.
The pronounced change in the way NFL teams view running backs is thrown into stark contrast when you compare this year's draft to 2008, when five players were plucked in the first round. That draft also may have represented the last clutch of truly identifiable stars: Rice, Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson and Matt Forte.
Even teams that still have a clear-cut star, such as the Chiefs, have plenty of other options. So when Charles went down with a high ankle sprain that caused their star to miss a start in Miami, coach Andy Reid felt comfortable in Davis, Joe McKnight and Cyrus Gray to pick up the slack.
Davis ran for 132 yards against the Dolphins. McKnight had two touchdowns.
"You have to tip your hat to guys who can do the job," Reid said. "Any time you're a relief pitcher and whatever position it is in this league, that's a tough assignment."
Even when Charles returned this past week, he merely became part of the committee.
"Coach Reid is a great offensive mind," Charles explained, "and he knows how to put us in the best situation to help our team win. He's been doing this for a long time — since I was probably a little kid. He knows how to control the game."
Even in an ever-evolving version in which, it seems, anybody can play running back.
AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and Tom Withers in Berea, Ohio contributed to this report.