Can Lamar Jackson survive Ravens' run to NFL rushing record?

Lamar Jackson photo courtesy USA Today.
Ron Borges

When the day finally came, Hall of Fame center Jim Ringo sat down on an outdoor lawn chair stuffed inside the New England Patriots’ cramped locker room at outmoded Schaeffer Stadium on December 10, 1978 and looked at the tired offensive linemen he’d been coaching all season. Never one for effusive praise, the weather-beaten Ringo put his feet up on a table, lit a Winston, poured himself a glass of Johnnie Walker and raised his glass in their direction.

“Well, boys, we’re the best there was,’’ John Hannah once recalled Ringo telling them that day, minutes after beating the Buffalo Bills to clinch the AFC East title and for the past 41 years that is all that needed to be said because that is what that 1978 New England Patriots’ running game has been. For five decades it has been the best there was.

Few records are unassailable but the year the Patriots ran the ball for 3,165 yards has long seemed to be one. That is not only because the closest any one has come since were the 1984 Chicago Bears and 1986 Atlanta Falcons, who rushed for 2,974 and 2,939 yards respectively. It’s also because in the 33 years since 1986 the game has changed so much running backs themselves became an endangered species as the passing game came to dominate offensive football due to one-sided rule changes and a shift in philosophy that began with the advent of the West Coast offense and morphed into volleyball in cleats where the essence of the game became keeping the ball constantly in the air.

Yet with the midpoint of the 2019 season approaching this weekend, the Baltimore Ravens find themselves on pace to out rush Ringo’s Patriots, having piled up 1,429 rushing yards, an average of 204.1 yards a game. With nine games to go that’s a pace that would pile up 3,266 yards on the ground (3,265.9 to be mathematically precise), beating the Patriots’ mark by 100 yards. The difference, and in the end what may preclude the Ravens from breaking that single-season rushing record, is that 40 per cent of Baltimore’s yardage has come not from a running back but from quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Jackson leads the Ravens with 576 rushing yards on 83 runs. That is two more rushes than Steve Grogan made in 16 games for the ’78 Patriots when he ran for 539 yards as their quarterback. What that translates into is Jackson being responsible for 40.3 per cent of Baltimore’s rushing yardage where Grogan accounted for only 17 per cent for New England. Can a quarterback survive such sustained exposure to the massive hits defenders put on him each week? History says no but there are always exceptions, as the Patriots have proven these past 41 years.

Jackson has over 100 more rushing yards than the Ravens’ best back, Mark Ingram, who has amassed 470. Their third leading rusher is Gus Edwards, who has run for 234 yards. That is another critical departure from how New England did it in ’78.

The Patriots had no 1,000 yard rusher that season but four backs ran for over 500 yards and five ran for over 300. Leading the way was the kind of runner you don’t see today, power fullback Sam “Bam’’ Cunningham, who led the team with 768 yards. Next was Horace Ivory with 693 followed by Andy Johnson, who although coming off a serious knee injury the previous year ran for 675 yards. Then there was Grogan (who averaged 6.7 yards a carry) and Don Calhoun who had 391 rushing yards.

That New England team set a league record not only for yardage but also by amassing 671 rushing attempts and scoring 30 rushing touchdowns. The Patriots averaged 41.9 runs a game in ‘78 slightly more than the Ravens’ 36.9 attempts per game this season.

There is no arguing that Jackson isn’t the most dynamic rusher among those two teams but can he continue to carry so large a percentage of the load in pursuit of that record?

Perhaps but to do it he’ll have to eclipse or at least closely mirror Michael Vick’s 2006 season, when the then Falcons’ quarterback became the first at his position to rush for 1,000 yards. Vick amassed 1,030 on 123 carries, averaging 8.4 yards per rush to beat the previous single-season high set by Bobby Douglass in 1972 of 968 yards for the Chicago Bears. Jackson is presently on pace to rush for 1,317 yards.

According to the Ravens, Jackson is bigger than Vick so one may assume, perhaps incorrectly, that he is better able to sustain the pounding he’ll face if the Ravens continue sending him on designed runs between the tackles at the pace they have thus far. The note of caution comes from the fact New England set that record while only asking its quarterback to run 81 times. Jackson has already been asked to do more in just seven games.

The Patriots had the luxury of giving the ball to four pure runners working behind the greatest run-blocking line in history. Anchored on the left side by All-Pros Hannah and Leon Gray it also featured center Bill Lenkaitis and veteran guard Sam Adams and tackle Shelby Jordan on the left side. When Grogan ran it was seldom on inside runs, as Jackson has been asked to do successfully a number of times.

To be sure, a player can get hurt anywhere on the field but running between the tackles is where pileups happen most concussively. Records are made to be broken but running quarterbacks historically have been as well. Will the law of averages (not to mention the NFL Law of Mass Mayhem) come into play at some point? If the Ravens want to break a 41-year old rushing record they have to hope not.

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