Is the resurrection of the running game a fad or the future of NFL offense?
Even in this inflated “Era of the Quarterback” in the NFL, the return of the running game is upon us. And it may be no passing fancy.
All season one team, the Baltimore Ravens, ran roughshod over NFL defenses even as much of the league continued to throw the ball at record-breaking levels. The result was a record-shattering season for the Ravens’ running game, led by remarkable quarterback Lamar Jackson.
But that turned out to only be the beginning of what may well be the resurrection of the running back.
Jackson broke the quarterback rushing record set by Michael Vick (1,039 ) by nearly 200 yards (1,206) and the quarterback yards-per-game mark, held by Bobby Douglass (69.1 yards per game). Jackson averaged 80.4 rushing yards a game. He also became the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards and pass for over 3.000, which is a difficult package for any defense to wrap.
Or should that be “rap?’’
Jackson’s 1,206 rushing yards were more than a third of Baltimore’s 3,296 rushing total, a number that shattered a 41-year-old record set by the 1978 New England Patriots. They ran for 3,165 yards on a record 671 carries in the first 16-game season in NFL history.
Considering the rise of a passing game powered by rules changes that emasculated pass defenses it was predicted that running backs would become obsolete. The running game was on pro football’s endangered list. Then came not only the Ravens but the recent dominating playoff rushing games of Tennessee’s Derrick Henry and the 49ers’ Raheem Mostert, and you began to wonder if predictions of extinction had come too soon.
Henry led the NFL in rushing but really went off in the last month, running for 677 yards in his last three games, including the playoffs. In the first three he ran for 211, 182 (vs. the Patriots’ top-rated defense) and 195 (ironically, against Baltimore) to drag the Titans to the AFC championship game.
In those two playoff wins, Titans’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw only 15 and 14 times respectively for 72 and 88 yards. It was no accident that when he returned to more normal numbers in the AFC championship game (21 of 31, 209 passing yards, 67.4 completion percentage) and Henry’s production shrunk to only 89 rushing yards Tennessee lost to the Chiefs by 11 points.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the 49ers coupled a stingy defense with a power running game that allowed a guy cut six times to rush for a near-playoff record 220 yards and four touchdowns on a day when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw only eight times. The result was the destruction of the Green Bay Packers and a strategic breakthrough that seems to have altered the fragile balance between offense and defense.
Pro football is not likely to return to the pounding ground games of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s when backs like Bronko Nagurski, Marion Motley and Jim Brown ruled the game. But what the Ravens, Titans and 49ers have done is a reminder to defenses that, if you want to put five and six defensive backs and one or two quick but undersized linebackers on the field to reverse the havoc of today’s passing game, there is a counter move to make.
That move will look like a horse, like the 250-pound Henry or Mark Ingram, the equally pounding Raven rusher.
It is unlikely this shift in emphasis will utterly change the present-day model used by most offenses, which is to say spread formations with a flood of receivers and tight ends that look and run like receivers. But it is a strong counter move in the ongoing chess match between offensive and defensive coordinators, one that will require teams to not only rely more on the run but also to invest in it with backs and linemen like the road graders the Titans hired to bury undersized defenders.
Patriots' coach Bill Belichick is often on the leading edge of the NFL’s strategical shifts and was this season. The foundation of his latest 12-4 team was a league-best defense and a running game that rushed for over 1,700 yards and ran the ball 42 per cent of the time (447 runs, 620 passes).
Add to that the fact that the NFC-champion 49ers and the top-seeded Ravens both ran the ball more than they threw it (498 rushes, 478 passes for SF; 596 to 440 for the Ravens), and it indicates the beginning of a change in offensive football. Whether it becomes a sea change remains to be seen, but something’s going on that cannot be denied.
Of the 12 playoff teams, seven ranked in the top 10 rushing, with Baltimore, San Francisco and Tennessee the top three. After Henry and the Ravens trampled the Patriots on New England’s home turf, Belichick admitted that this team was prepared for what the Titans brought to the party but just couldn’t stop it.
“When you can run the ball very effectively, even when the other team knows you’re going to run it, that says a lot to everybody on the field,’’ Titans’ coach Mike Vrabel said. “It is proof there are still a lot of ways to win in this league.’’
In the Titans' two post-season victories Henry rushed 64 times. Tannehill threw only 19. That’s a playbook out of the 1940s, one with few pages and fewer options. Few teams are likely to go that far, but the NFL is a copycat league.
And while the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes reminded us that an overpowering passing game can disarm a run-heavy offense like the Titans, as he did in the AFC title game, what Tennessee, Baltimore and San Francisco proved this season is that defenses had gone too far selling out to stop the pass.
What they also reminded us is that the counter move is finding backs like Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas or Saquon Barkley with the Giants to carry the load. When Elliott plays, Dak Prescott is far more efficient in the passing game, and the Cowboys are far more successful. When Elliott can’t run, Dallas can’t win. Same was true this season for the 49ers, Ravens and Titans.
Their success is not going to create a rush back to the days of “three yards and a cloud of dust’’, but it may have launched the resurrection of the long-absent running game and a revival of high-paying job opportunities for guys who carry the ball.
For two reasons: First, it’s the best way to lacerate defenses overloaded with defensive backs and miniature linebackers. Second, it’s easier to find elite running backs than elite quarterbacks.
Which one is more significant is debatable. What is not is that the runner is back in the NFL. And if the 49ers run their way to victory in Super Bowl LIV everyone else will be looking for a back to help them do the same thing.