Every Wednesday until the Super Bowl, Brian Billick will write a weekly column looking in-depth at different aspects of the modern NFL and will discuss experiences and insights he gained while coaching and broadcasting.
The modern history of football — roughly the first decade of the Super Bowl era — was shaped by the old school running attacks that dominated the game in the ’60s and ’70s. The relentless nature of Vince Lombardi’s Packers — and their simple power sweep elevated to brutal perfection — along with Don Shula’s Dolphins and the early incarnation of the Steelers’ dynasty under Chuck Noll all shared the crucial qualities of a punishing, efficient running game and a suffocating defense. (It didn’t hurt, of course, that this was also the beginning of the cinematic documentation and celebration of those same teams through the seminal work of NFL Films.)
Though we are now 35 years into a new era, marked by the liberalized passing rules put through in the ’70s and refined since then, it’s amazing how people are still swayed by those indelible images of Larry Csonka bulldozing up the middle or Franco Harris slicing through gaping holes in the line. Pundits still talk about how important it is to establish the running game and, in turn, stop the run.
Of course, the diminished need for a powerful running game has been well documented in recent years. Of the past four Super Bowl champions, only New Orleans was a top 10 rushing team the year they won it all. In fact, the others were not simply mediocre — they were more like dreadful: the Giants ranking last in the NFL in rushing yards in 2011, Green Bay ranking 24th in 2010 and even the Pittsburgh Steelers finishing 23rd in the league in rushing in 2008.
Even in the case of the Saints, the running game was a byproduct of the prolific passing attack; with future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees at the helm, the rushing game was just an adjunct to the offense that allowed them to close out games once Brees had passed them into a big lead.
When you look at the top teams in the NFL in rushing so far this year, you see a few that do that one thing well, but little else. Minnesota, Buffalo and Kansas City rank 3rd, 4th and 5th, currently in rushing yardage in the NFL, and none have winning records. Meanwhile, at the top of the standings, several Super Bowl contenders — Green Bay, Denver, Baltimore, Atlanta — rank in the bottom third of the league in rushing yards. When James Starks ran for a touchdown for the Packers Sunday, his teammates (and many Packers fans) reacted like they’d just won a championship. It was understandable: Green Bay hadn’t scored a rushing touchdown in seven games.
But as smart fans know, rushing yardage is an overrated stat, largely shaped by circumstance. Defensive stats against the run are also a little sketchy. Tampa Bay currently leads the NFL in rush defense only because they are so bad at pass defense no one bothers to try and run on them. Denver ranks up there as well, but because Peyton Manning is having another MVP year the Broncos get ahead and everyone has to pass to try to keep up.
Still, there’s hardly a coach alive who doesn’t preach the importance of running the ball and stopping the run, because the ability to do those two things — if not well, then at least credibly — gives you so many more options in the rest of your attack and defense. Take Baltimore: The Ravens aren’t a dominant running team, but the ability to have a back like Ray Rice keeps defenses somewhat honest. Without him, the Ravens become a largely one-dimensional team, relying too much on Joe Flacco to fuel the passing attack.
Among the handful of teams that are in the top 10 in both categories, you will find some legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Behind Arian Foster, Houston is sixth in rushing yards, and also second against the run. San Francisco is second in rushing yards (with an impressive 5.3 per carry), and third against the run, allowing just 90 yards per game and just 3.6 per carry. New England is less impressive, but remains in the top ten in both rushing yardage (8th) and against the run (9th).
These three teams have been among the most consistent in the league this year, and that bodes well for the playoffs. And these teams offer game-plan headaches. It’s not enough to stop one mode of attack, since most of these teams can hurt you in multiple ways.
And a team that has been getting better in those categories as the season goes along — like Washington, where the Redskins are an RG3-assisted first in rushing offense but also fourth in rushing defense — will be a tough out if and when it qualifies for the playoffs.
It could be that we’re in the midst of a throwback year, in which running the ball and stopping the run are given renewed significance. If that’s the case, a team like the 49ers or Texans would fit the classic mold of a tough, punishing, unspectacular team that wears down its opponents at the line of scrimmage, then knocks it out with the big strike. Just like the Packers, Dolphins and Steelers did in the first decade of the Super Bowl era.