In "Rise of the Running Game Part I," I mentioned how the Dallas Cowboys broke out of their multi-season mediocrity on the strength of their running game, and here I'll just add that their running game, in turn, begins with their offensive line.
Last year, I don't think it's blind luck that the 'boyz went up to 12-4, were clearly the superior team in the NFC East, and had the NFL's leading rusher. Their strong running game drove the team's success instead of "just" taking pressure off of Romo.
Running the Ball Helps Young QBs Develop
Despite the success Cam Newton had in passing as a rookie, the team ran the ball well enough to keep the passing lanes more open than they should have been with a rookie at the helm. Certainly, Newton's strong, dynamic style had something to do with that, but if you'll recall the defense was weak at the time, particularly up the middle against the run, and other teams took advantage. They ran the ball to close-out games against the dangerous cannon-armed, fleet-footed, tight end-sized giant kid. Newton was completely powerless to help since he was standing on the sidelines because the defense couldn't get off the field.
Indeed, it's a tall order to ask a rookie QB of ANY lineage to come in, put the team on his shoulders, and head straight to the playoffs. That was tried with Peyton Manning's rookie season in Indy. The result? A 3-13 record with the other four AFC East teams all finishing with winning records. Remember, Peyton came into the NFL before realignment.
Simply put, being able to run the ball takes some pressure off young, developing quarterbacks and gives them a little bit of room to maneuver. However, the fact is that it's not unusual for teams that are drafting a hotshot young QB to be one of two things: bad, and really bad. Look at where Jameis Winston is projected to go. Yes, to our divisional rival, the Bucs. They actually are "just" bad, not really bad, as they have a talented roster but Lovie Smith couldn't get it done with the QBs on the roster. Prime example right there. If he's what "they say" he is (hat tip to Denny Green), he should instantly make the Bucs a team worthy of being worried about. He already has some huge, potent WRs outside and and they can run the ball a little bit, but they'll only go as far as the rookie can take them. It will be interesting to see how much they lean on the run in order to force defenses to loosen up against the pass.
I don't think this point is in much question and is probably common sense for most fans, but it bore pointing out for the purpose of this discussion.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Closely related to my previous point is that a balanced offense is actually ideal in the NFL. Most of the better, playoff-caliber teams either can run or pass OR actively are seeking to improve balance. The Indianapolis Colts, for another example, gave up a first-round pick, stupidly in my opinion but that's fodder for another post, to get Trent Richardson - an RB who had already failed in Cleveland. Perhaps Indy didn't believe Trent is as over-rated as he is because of the fact he was playing in Cleveland, but he didn't play any better in Indy. They have already made moves to upgrade the position and it doesn't look like they'll stop until satisfied with the results.
Andrew "Caveman" Luck so far has mostly lived up to his billing coming out of college as he has taken his team to the playoffs every year. A porous defense and.....lack of a consistent running game foiled their Super Bowl aspirations each time while Luck throws more interceptions than he should. Even an average running game should mitigate that and allow Neckbeard to reach his full potential as the Colts also build their defense, work-in-progress that it is; however, it's coming along in some areas with cornerback Vontae Davis having as good a season as anyone's.
Once they get their running game going and finish building their defense, they'll be in the hunt in earnest. The Panthers' needs are different and fewer, although the Panthers do need an injection of youth at the RB position. Having a healthy Jonathan Stewart helps quite a bit, but as previously noted, the guys at that position take a real pounding (#KeepPounding right?) and the two late-round 'backs David Gettleman drafted are no longer with the team.
Speaking of variety, Gettleman has obtained two offensive tackles-on-the-cheap in Michael Oher from Baltimore and having recently picked up troubled lineman Jonathan Martin of "RaceGate" fame...as a rookie with the Miami Dolphins, he was the target of the filthy "hazing" from then-teammate Richie Incognito. Martin might be emotionally sensitive, but I think the Carolina Panther locker room is a good strong one that will NOT tolerate any behavior remotely approaching that of Incognito.
Never known as a "physical" offensive lineman even at Stanford, where he protected Neckbeard's blind side, he was projected to become a right tackle at the NFL level. While his ability to play either tackle spot remains to be seen as a professional, he should provide at least some depth for whomever does start while getting coached-up from an organization that is more stable than either of his first two employers.
His signing now gives David Gettleman the flexibility he needs to be nimble in the draft and not be quite so obvious as to the position he wants to fill with that top pick, but the consensus currently is that Georgia RB Todd Gurley is the manly man he's likely targeting.
We have under a month remaining to find out the answer to that one.
Part III to come.....
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