Running still paves path to NFL success

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Blessed with the league’s best running back, the Minnesota Vikings stick to their run-first philosophy on offense, an approach that’s built as much on the legs of the remarkable Adrian Peterson as coach Leslie Frazier’s preferred style of play.

Frazier knows the NFL is considered a passing league these days, with throwing and receiving records falling yearly. Frazier understands the advantages given to quarterbacks and receivers because of rule changes in recent years. But Frazier, as consistent as ever, hasn’t swayed from his belief.

With Peterson around to support his preferred style of play, why change?

“I know, for us, where we are, this is the best thing for our football team,” Frazier said. “It gives us the best chance to win. It’s a formula we believe in, our players believe in, and it has worked. … When you have the best running back in the National Football League, from our vantage point, why wouldn’t you focus your offense around him, build the offense around him? It’s proven to be a successful plan for us.”

Turns out it was successful for a few other teams, too. The NFL is a passing league? Not so fast.

Sure, Minnesota has Peterson and his 2,000-yard season, but six of the league’s top eight rushing teams advanced to the playoffs this season while the top three teams in passing yards missed the postseason.

“It’s coming back, man,” Minnesota fullback Jerome Felton said of running the ball. “I was talking to (former Dallas Cowboys fullback turned announcer) Moose Johnston a few weeks ago when they were doing our game and I was saying, ‘Man, keep pumping up the fullback. We’ve got to bring it back.’

“It’s a cyclical league, so I think it will come back. I think the run game is important. I think everybody knows that and you always hear about it, you always hear people say it. You look at the teams that just pass the ball, outside of maybe the Patriots this year, they struggle sometimes. So I feel good about how we’re built and I feel good about the running game.”

Not only have the league’s top running games succeeded while nursing leads, but many of them are run-first teams. The Washington Redskins, who ran for a league-high 169.3 yards per game this season, called 519 running plays and only 442 passes. Washington running back Alfred Morris was second in the league with 1,613 yards rushing on 335 carries, the third-highest total in the league. Peterson finished second with 348 carries, three behind the Houston Texan’s Arian Foster, who helped lead the league’s eighth-best rushing attack into the playoffs.

The Seattle Seahawks finished third in rushing with an average of 161.2 yards per game behind leading rusher Marshawn Lynch, who was fourth in the league with 315 carries and third with 1,590 yards. Even the New England Patriots, who finished with the league’s top overall offense in terms of yards, were seventh in rushing to complement their fourth-ranked passing attack. San Francisco (fourth in rushing as a team) is also in the playoffs. Only Kansas City (fifth) and Buffalo (sixth) are among the top eight teams in rushing that didn’t advance to the postseason.

Meanwhile, New Orleans, Detroit and Dallas were the top three passing teams this season.

“When you have a quarterback throw for 5,400 yards or whatever and you have a receiver almost get 2,000 yards receiving, I think that’s kind of the trend,” Vikings guard Charlie Johnson said. “I think when you look at the teams who are successful, they’re able to throw it, but they have that balance with the running game. When you become one-dimensional your success can kind of wane a little bit.”

Minnesota bucked the trend and almost had its own record-breaking season from Peterson. Frazier believes in a run-first philosophy, combined with limiting turnovers and playing strong defense. The approach paid off this season for the Vikings, and Frazier maintains it’s the same tactic that can bring success in the playoffs.

“I don’t know what the conditions are going to be at Lambeau yet, but I’m still going back to what I think is best for us,” Frazier said of Minnesota’s road playoff game Saturday in Green Bay. “It’s a formula that I think can work no matter the conditions. Warm day or in this case a potentially cold day, a real cold day, it can work. When your players have an identity and they know what that identity is, they tend to think less about what some of the other ramification can be with the weather. They know mentally this is what we’re going to focus on no matter the conditions and I think it has to be an advantage for you.”

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