Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Don't sleep on the run
By Jeffri Chadiha ESPN.com
If 2011 was the year the NFL went more pass-happy than ever, this fall looks like the season things literally will come back to earth. Tennessee's Chris Johnson wants to regain his spot as the league's top runner. San Diego coach Norv Turner is preparing more touches for Ryan Mathews, while Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley is bringing more balance to the Steelers' wide-open attack.
Don't forget about all the young backs returning from injury, either -- a group that includes Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, Buffalo's Fred Jackson and Oakland's Darren McFadden.
The reality of the league is that these men are as vital to their teams as all the higher-profile quarterbacks who've been slinging it like crazy lately. We just forget about them when the ball is in the air so much. We ignore them in an era in which five-wide receiver formations and supersized tight ends such as New England's Rob Gronkowski demand so much attention. We act like it's a foregone conclusion that a league in which teams are throwing on average 55 percent of the time will only see more of that in future years.
Most of this trend has to do with the way running backs are viewed today. Most are considered unreliable once they hit their late 20s. Many lose their value because they're linked to a running back-by-committee approach. All are suffering from a more clear-cut problem: It's simply cooler to watch quarterbacks chuck it.
The NFL is coming off a season in which a rookie threw for 4,000 yards (Carolina's Cam Newton), three veterans surpassed the 5,000-yard mark (New England's Tom Brady, Detroit's Matthew Stafford and New Orleans' Drew Brees) and 17 other full-time starters set career highs in either yardage or touchdowns.
Ray Rice powered the Ravens' offense to the AFC Championship Game. Will other teams follow Baltimore's blueprint for success?
Those numbers aren't likely to happen for a second straight year. Unlike last offseason -- when the lockout lasted until late July -- defenses will have several months to fine-tune their blitzes and coverages. With more teams focused on stopping the pass, there should be even more opportunities to run. There also should be plenty of coaches who are thinking more conservatively.
You can bet that New York Jets coach Rex Ryan falls into that category. His team strayed from the "ground-and-pound" attack that helped the Jets reach two AFC Championship Games and struggled after thrusting more responsibility onto young quarterback Mark Sanchez.
The San Diego Chargers also surprisingly suffered through their own tough times with Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers. He threw a career-high 20 interceptions in 2011 because he was trying to do too much. The emergence of Mathews -- who is primed for a career year after the departure of backfield mate Mike Tolbert in free agency -- should give Turner more opportunities to ease the pressure on his passing game.
What these coaches have long understood is that there is nothing quite like a strong ground attack. The Denver Broncos wouldn't have won the AFC West if they hadn't provided then-quarterback Tim Tebow with the league's best rushing offense. The San Francisco 49ers went 13-3 and they had a passing game that ranked 29th overall in the league. Houston revealed how far it could go with Arian Foster and Ben Tate. With quarterback Matt Schaub on injured reserve and star wide receiver Andre Johnson hobbled, the Texans relied heavily on that tandem to win the AFC South, despite starting a third-string rookie quarterback over their final six regular-season games.
Such evidence should make more teams lean more on the run this season. It doesn't matter if it's a running back-by-committee approach or one guy banging out 325-plus carries a season. This league simply doesn't have enough quarterbacks who can hoist a franchise on their sizable shoulders and carry it deep into the postseason. Once you get past names such as Brady, Manning, Brees and Aaron Rodgers, the list of serious, game-changing signal-callers narrows pretty quickly.
What can't be overlooked is the sheer amount of talent at the running back position. Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy, Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew and Chicago's Matt Forte are some of the league's most versatile offensive weapons. The Chiefs and Bills fell apart offensively when their star backs -- Charles and Jackson -- sustained season-ending injuries last fall, and Minnesota will do the same this year if Adrian Peterson can't fully recover from a torn ACL.
Even though Ray Rice hasn't signed his franchise tender in Baltimore, it's safe to assume that deal will get done. He's the one player the Ravens can't afford to lose on offense.
If you spend enough time studying these backs, you'll see they all have ample reason to elevate their games this coming fall. This league is filled with too many green quarterbacks and far too many coaches need a consistent running game.
Sure, offensive balance may have seemed like a lost art for much of last season. This year it will look very much like something that never should've been overlooked in the first place.