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Thursday, October 13, 2011
Strong running games in short supply

By Jeffri Chadiha
ESPN.com

Darren McFadden
Darren McFadden and the Raiders are one of the few NFL teams relying heavily on the running game.

The first five weeks of this NFL season have given us high-scoring games, high-powered offenses and highlight-producing quarterbacks hell-bent on erasing every last passing record that ever existed. What they've also given us is a distorted sense of reality.

Lost in all these jaw-dropping passing numbers is the relative importance of a little thing once known as the running game. The less we see of it, the more we should be wondering what kind of slippery slope the league has perched itself upon.

As exciting as football is when a big-time quarterback finds a groove, there is one basic tenet about the game that should never change: The toughest guys always win in the end. At its core, football is about brutality, intimidation and detaching somebody from his spirit. Sure, you can do that if somebody like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers is throwing the rock. But it's also a hell of a lot easier when you're consistently running the football up somebody else's behind.

The problem is that the NFL is such a copycat league that the average team currently is throwing on nearly 60 percent of its overall plays. Brady already is on pace for nearly 6,000 passing yards. Carolina's Cam Newton became the first quarterback to start his career with a 400-yard game, and then produced even more yardage in his second start.

As Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome recently said, "I'm surprised the spread offense has come into the NFL as quickly as it has, but I don't see things going the other direction. I'm not saying everybody is going to be [wide open], but I also don't expect to see 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust coming back, either."

We actually don't need football so conservative that it draws to mind the grainy image of Vince Lombardi sketching the power sweep on a dusty chalkboard. We just need to remember that running the football still has tremendous value in a world suddenly overwhelmed by four-receiver sets and empty backfields.

Forget about the mere fact that leads are safer and teams have better control of the clock with strong running games. A viable ground attack also still wins teams championships, as the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints discovered when they won their Super Bowls with potent passing attacks balanced by capable ball carriers.

This year, the league has its share of breakout teams led by their ground games. The Buffalo Bills are relevant again partly because they have the fourth-best rushing attack in the NFL. The Oakland Raiders have ridden the Pro Bowl-worthy legs of Darren McFadden and a dominant offensive line to respectability. Two other surprise teams -- San Francisco and Washington -- also have used strong running games to generate unexpected optimism at the start of their respective seasons.

Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor
The Steelers have struggled to run the ball this season, and they've struggled to win, too.

One team that has struggled partly because it can't run the ball effectively is the Pittsburgh Steelers. In fact, one of their most noteworthy losses of the season came two weeks ago, when the Houston Texans beat them 17-10 behind a 30-carry, 155-yard performance from Arian Foster

"It wasn't just that we beat them," said Texans right tackle Eric Winston. "It was the way we beat them. We played them a few years ago and they really pushed us around. It was nice to be the more physical team this time."

What was most glaring about that contest was the lack of rushing offense by the Steelers. While quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took a beating behind a porous offensive line, the truth is the team routinely struggles when it falls in love with the idea of Big Ben slinging it all over the park. Even longtime Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward once acknowledged that his team is at its best when it is pounding people on the ground. Without that element, the Steelers are a team basically battling an identity crisis.

Amazingly, the Steelers aren't the only team grappling with that issue. Minnesota didn't get its first win until it leaned on Adrian Peterson against Arizona, and that was after Peterson's father complained about his son's lack of touches. Atlanta's Michael Turner has seen his touches and his yardage decrease this year after gashing opponents for an inconsistent Falcons team that had the NFC's best record last season.

The struggling New York Jets rank 31st in the league in rushing. They were first in the NFL when they made the AFC Championship Game in 2009 and fourth when they returned to that contest last season.

All those teams are discovering the same reality: It's a much tougher world in the NFL when you can't run the ball effectively. The Jets should know that as well as anybody. When they beat New England and Indianapolis in last year's postseason, their defensive strategy was built around the belief that those teams wouldn't run.

"We just played small ball," said Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. "We put our smallest defenders on the field and dared those teams to run. We knew they didn't like to do it."

Now, this isn't to say that dominant passing teams don't have their own place in the game. It's just that finesse can only take you as far as the playmakers on your roster. If you've got a healthy Peyton Manning under center, then you don't have to worry so much about having a mediocre running game, such as the one the Colts have clearly shown during their 0-5 start.

If you've got a running back who's tossing the ball into the air while trying to score a 1-yard touchdown -- as Philadelphia's Ronnie Brown did in a recent loss to San Francisco -- you've got ample evidence of a game that is drifting into uncharted territory.

It's bad enough that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is legislating the violence out of the game. Now it appears too many offensive coordinators have decided it's best to capitalize on an environment in which defenders can't intimidate and receivers can operate with no fear.

The scary part of all this is that some teams have lost track of the middle ground on offense. Let's hope they don't get so deluded that they can't find their way back to that place.