Never has the NFC North's transition been more visible than on the final day of the 2011 regular season. On a snowy day at Lambeau Field, the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions combined for 103 passing attempts and 1,000 passing yards.
By the time the Packers secured a 45-41 victory, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had exceeded 5,000 yards passing for the season and Packers backup Matt Flynn had convinced the league he was a starting-caliber quarterback. Where once we could have expected the teams to grind out a classic Black and Blue game, they instead combined for a total of 37 carries. No running back made it to the modest total of 50 yards.
We've spent some time this offseason noting what we could politely call a tilt toward the passing game in both Detroit and Green Bay. We've discussed the Chicago Bears' seeming ambivalence about signing tailback Matt Forte to a long-term extension, and we've pointed out the Minnesota Vikings' uncertainty as tailback Adrian Peterson rehabilitates his shredded knee.
If you looked at this division through a traditional lens, you could consider running back a significant draft need for at least half of the division, if not all of it. But the NFC North's frenzied quarterback acquisitions over the past few years have brought us to a precipice. Are we ready to jump off, once and for all, into the world of Air and Space? Or will our teams step away from that ledge and rebalance their personnel, if not their scheme, to double back on the running game?
As the NFL continues its push toward passing supremacy, it's hard to imagine any NFC North team making anything other than subtle changes. Why take the ball out of the hands Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler or Stafford? And why not give Christian Ponder every chance to take the next step in his development?
This offseason, we've heard the Vikings speak often about seeking more playmakers for Ponder. We've watched the Bears sign Michael Bush as insurance against Forte's possible absence, but otherwise the Bears have worked to fortify their passing game with the acquisition of receiver Brandon Marshall and private meetings with many of the draft's top receivers, from Michael Floyd to Stephen Hill to Alshon Jeffery.
The Lions are the case study here, followed closely by the Packers. Injuries to Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure, Kevin Smith and the brain tumor of Jerome Harrison left them little choice but to rely on Stafford's arm last season. They finished 2011 with the second-fewest rushing attempts in the NFL, managed 71 rushing first downs (No. 29 in the league), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Stafford told reporters this week that "everybody on our team would like to be a little more balanced than we were last year." It's reasonable to think they will be if Best and/or Leshoure are available full-time. But a serious commitment to improve would almost certainly require a draft investment. Best (concussion) has not been cleared for football work, Leshoure (Achilles) is coming back from a serious injury for a running back, and Smith has had difficulty staying healthy throughout his career.
How much do the Lions value that balance? We should find out over draft weekend. Again, most of us would look at their roster and toss question marks all over their backfield. But in 2012, how important is it to have an established and traditional No. 1 running back?
"We want to score as many points as we can," coach Jim Schwartz said at the NFL scouting combine. "Whether you do it running or passing, it doesn't matter. I think you want to try to get the ball in playmakers' hands."
In the end, the Lions might be best-served by pursuing a more modest goal: Being in position to capitalize against imbalanced defenses. Dictating a game on the ground might well be an NFC North artifact.
"If teams take the approach of playing the pass first," Schwartz said, "we should be in the position of having running backs who can make them pay for that."
Yes, there is a more than reasonable argument to be made that you don't need an elite running back when you have elite quarterbacks and receivers. A competent running back who doesn't miss the obvious yards might well suffice.
I don't know if the Lions, or the Packers for that matter, will invest a high draft pick in a running back. None of us do. But is it necessary? Probably not, at least not in our new Air and Space division. Soon we'll know how far off the cliff we've fallen.