NFL 2015: The Rise of the Running Game: Part I

The NFL is many things. Some things are more obvious than others. You hear "It's a copy-cat league," "It's a quarterback-driven league," "Run to open up the pass," "Pass to open up the run," or "Defense wins championships."

Well, all of these are true of course, but I want to hit on a subject that might be a little more subtle; that the NFL is cyclical.

As such, over the last 30 years we've seen the likes of Dan Fouts and Dan Marino tear up the air, despite rules existing that allowed receivers to get...well, MUGGED would be the closest descriptor. These days, a defender gets a flag just for looking at a receiver funny beyond 5 yards.

We have also seen the fall of the running back. It used to be that a top RB commanded nearly as much attention as a top QB. For real! These past few years, it has been an odd thing for a RB to even get drafted in the first round, and it's not for lack of some good talent...Trent Richardson aside.

There are several reasons for the de-emphasis on the running back, and only one of them is more or less another "universal truth:" they take a pounding. Their careers are often largely washed up by age 30, although number of career carries is probably as good a measure as anything, but age 30 is that "magic age" for RBs to begin declining. And it's nearly always accurate.

But a quarterback often lasts until his late 30's. Mid-70's if you include Steve DeBerg. If you get a good seven or eight productive years out of any given RB, he's approaching borderline Hall of Fame status. However, with the much more liberal rules favoring the offense and in particular the passing game, the NFL brass has been pushing for more and more scoring because that's what they feel draws the most fans over time. The idea is that a 41-38 game is more exciting than a 3-0 game, and they would be correct for the vast majority of fans. I get it.

The league is also actively trying to draw more female fans as evidenced by October being "Breast Cancer Awareness" month, and everybody wears pink as a primary or secondary color mixed with their team colors. It's often an odd sight and a fashion train wreck, but that's not the point. Exposure is.

The picture that I'm trying to frame first here is that receivers, left tackles, and even second-tier quarterbacks (ex: Manziel) have been pushed UP the draft board just as running backs have fallen in response to the shift in the focal point of the typical NFL offense. These days, the "bell cow" RB is rare and as I said, they're often sent to the glue factory once the age reaches one that starts with a 3-handle, and most teams deploy a 1-2 punch at the position, using sub-packages depending upon down and distance. Not many RBs stay on the field for all three downs and in order to do so, an RB has to have a wide skill-set to start with.

Shifting to the Running Game

I think some of that is changing. The Dallas Cowboys, for example, had the needle stuck on 8-8 for I think three seasons in a row under Head Coach Jason Garrett. However, in a surprisingly patient move for owner Jerry Jones, Garrett was allowed to keep going to see if he could get the team over the hump.

Jones' patience has paid off even as fans began to get restless over so many literally "average" seasons, but Jones earned respect as the Cowboys' owner with the three rings he helped bring to town shortly after he bought the team and replaced an aging legendary "system" coach in Tom Landry with a legendary but younger college coach in Jimmy Johnson.

One now-legendary trade involving RB Herschel Walker was what helped. The Cowboys "sold high" to the Minnesota Vikings and Walker was out of the NFL a couple of years later. The riches of draft picks reverberated through a decade of high-powered Dallas teams once they turned those picks into bodies.

One of those bodies? All-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith. It's no coincidence the Cowboys won three championships with him in the backfield, as Troy "Acheman"  threw 20+ TD passes in a season only once; he had 23 TD passes in 1992 - his fourth season. Aikman's strength wasn't in being a Daryle "The Mad Bomber" LaMonica-style chucker but rather an accurate mid-range passer who didn't make a lot of mistakes. Had he not been the leader of so many championship teams and led them to perennial playoff berths, he'd likely have the dreaded "game manager" label to this day.

MANY more examples will come in follow-up posts about this subject that I'll flesh out, but here are a few teasers:

Looking at the modern (Super Bowl) era, was it the passing game that powered the Green Bay Packers to the first two Super Bowl wins, or does the phrase "Power Sweep" ring more of a bell?

Was the Miami Dolphins' perfect season done on the arm of Bob Griese or was it more of a powerful running game, ball control, mistake-free discipline and tough defense that made the grade?

Was Terry Bradshaw a clone of Fran Tarkenton throwing the ball all over the field to Stallworth and Swann that made that team so great or when you think of those four Super Bowl winning teams of the 70's, does tough running by Franco Harris and the phrase "The Steel Curtain" come to mind more?

Was Joe Montana the unsung Dan Fouts-style passer of his day or did he largely win with the balanced rushing and short-pass-receiving of Roger Craig, the explosion of Jerry Rice, and a stingy, opportunistic defense of a team that could beat you any number of ways?

Can you even name Michael Irvin's starting counterpart? Hint: It rhymes with Calvin Sharper.

Did the Baltimore Ravens win on the arm of Trent Dilfer?

How many Super Bowl wins did Dan Marino have?

I think the jersey the President is helping to hold up in the photo might be a bit of a clue...

This is the first in a series of articles I'm doing leading up to the NFL draft explaining why I see a resurgence in the running game coming for 2015 and beyond as an overall trend.

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