Unabated to the Quarterback, Week 1: Running Back in Time

Unabated to the Quarterback–everyone’s favorite NFL penalty–will run every Tuesday during the NFL season.

“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads…. I’m gonna throw you in my DeLorean and gun it to 88.”

—Knocked Up

Back in the 1990s, there were some things we all took as basic facts of existence: The Atlanta Braves would win the NL East, Michael Jordan and the Bulls would win in six, and you won football games by running the football.

Seven of the 10 teams who won the Super Bowl in the 1990s ran the ball more frequently than they passed it (NYG, WSH, all three DAL,* both DEN). While the ’90 Giants averaged a shade under 21 points per game en route to their championship, the other six teams finished in the top three in the league in scoring. An efficient and dynamic running game—led by running backs such as Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis—was often the foundation for an unstoppable offense.

*People often forget that Hall of Famer Troy Aikman threw 20+ touchdowns once in his career and never topped 3,500 yards in a single season.

Over the past several years, the focus on the running back has shifted. Sure, this decade has seen incredible individual seasons from the likes of Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Shaun Alexander, Jamal Lewis, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Adrian Peterson. If Peterson wins the MVP this season—and he was one of three preseason favorites along with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady—he will become the fourth running back this decade to do so, matching the number in the ‘90s.

The odd thing is the lack of correlation between having a star running back and having postseason success. There is a long-held axiom in the NFL that to win in the playoffs, you need to run the ball and stop the run. But only three of the nine Super Bowl winners this decade ran the ball more than they passed it (BAL, ’04 NE, ’05 PIT), and the Ravens and ’05 Steelers had average offenses at best. The best running backs this decade—see all the ones listed above—have not won Super Bowls. Faulk’s greatest season came when the Rams slipped to a Wild Card berth in 2000—and it can be argued his biggest contribution was in the passing game. Holmes’ Chiefs, Lewis’ Ravens, Tomlinson’s Chargers, and Peterson’s Vikings all lost their first playoff game in their best seasons. Alexander purportedly got to the Super Bowl, but nobody takes that Seahawks team seriously.

The consequence of this is what we saw in Week 1 of the NFL season. Namely, teams stopped running the ball, some earlier than others. The Texans, entering the season with the highest expectations in their franchise’s history, ran the ball 13 times against the Jets. Steve Slaton got only nine carries. The Chiefs, starting an inexperienced backup against the Ravens, handed the ball to Larry Johnson 11 times. DeAngelo Williams had 14 carries, roughly equivalent to the number of interceptions Jake Delhomme threw. Willie Parker had 13 carries.

In all, only five teams (NO, PHI, MIN, NYJ, NYG) ran the ball more than 50 percent of the time. The Saints ran it once more (35 to 34), but threw six touchdowns. The Eagles had a 31-7 lead by the second quarter. The Vikings have Peterson. The Jets started a rookie quarterback. The Giants were the best running team in the league last season.

Traditional running teams like the Ravens, Titans, and Steelers all dropped back more than they handed off. It’s not unreasonable to see the Vikings being the only team to finish this NFL season with more rushes than passes.

What might be more interesting is that many of the teams that failed to run the ball effectively still won. The Steelers won despite 19 yards from Parker, the Falcons despite 65 from Michael Turner, the Niners despite 30 yards from Frank Gore.

And sure, nobody wants to extrapolate too much from Week 1 (it seems safe to assume Santana Moss will end up with more receiving yards than Drew Brees has passing touchdowns, even though they’re currently tied). But is it too much to ask if the days of the I-form, good teams with only two good receivers, and dominant rushing attacks are not only numbered, but gone? Teams are choosing to gun it to 88 (a receiver, of course) rather than taking the traditional route on roads. And they aren’t being penalized. Can a team that passes the ball 60-70% of the time be successful in the NFL? And how long until we see the spread on an NFL stage?

Other thoughts from Week 1:

  • More fun with extrapolation: Jake Delhomme will turn the ball over 80 times this season. Adrian Peterson will run for 2,880 yards. Donovan McNabb will break 16 ribs. Brandon Stokley will finish with 1,392 yards worth of game-winning touchdown catches. The Lions will go 0-16.
  • I thought it was odd in the off-season when the Redskins pursued Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez with as much aggressiveness as they did, and then when a small minority of Washington fans called for Colt Brennan to become the quarterback of the future in the preseason. But seeing Jason Campbell on Sunday…man. I don’t remember him being this bad last year, and it seems the off-season of turmoil has made him worse. He almost single-handedly crippled the Redskins’ offense against the Giants, and the interception he threw when he was about three yards beyond the line of scrimmage was one of the worst plays I’ve ever seen a quarterback make.
  • In case you’re wondering, the two worst plays I’ve ever seen a quarterback make were the Aaron Brooks backward pass (taken off YouTube by the NFL) and Dan Orlovsky succumbing to light pressure in the back of the end zone.
  • You just knew the Patriots weren’t going to lose, right? That something was gonna happen their way? That’s why they’re the Patriots, and the Bills are still the Bills, especially on Monday Night Football (it was even the same score!).
  • That said, New England’s offense wasn’t very impressive throughout that contest. Tom Brady wasn’t settling for too many field goals in 2007. It will be fun to see how the Pats do against Rex Ryan’s invigorated (and further along than I suspected) Jets’ defense in Week 2.
  • Did you notice that 10 of the 24 members of the Patriots’ 50th Anniversary Team played for them since 2001?
  • Not sure how to interpret the Chiefs-Ravens game. Joe Flacco apparently put up some stats, but shouldn’t Baltimore have handled a supposedly awful Kansas City team without its starting quarterback a little easier? Or is Tim on to something with his AFC West sleeper?
  • Give Steve Spagnuolo some time in St. Louis. His first two games with the Giants (45-35 loss in Dallas, 35-13 home loss to Green Bay in 2007) led to my calling his defense “the worst in the history of football.” He proved me wrong.
  • And enough with killing the Bengals’ secondary there. Leon Hall made a great play to get his hand on the ball, and the safety made the right play in going after Marshall. If he sticks back (you know, to prevent a batted ball being caught by the receiver several yards away, obvs) and Marshall makes the catch, it becomes a race down the sideline, and the safety has to take the exact right angle to prevent a long TD that way. He was being the last line of defense: He just thought the guy he had to stop was Marshall.
  • I don’t see Brett Favre being content with 14-for-21 for 110 yards for 16 weeks this season.
  • It failed horribly in practice, but I liked the Bears’ fake punt in theory. If the defense has 12 men on the field—and obviously, the center needs to be beyond 100% sure that the defense has 12 men on the field—there’s no downside to the fake. The running back either runs for the first down and you decline the penalty, or he doesn’t and you accept it and punt. It gives your offense, in essence, a free play.
  • I warned you, Chicago, about Cutler. I warned you. Isn’t it fun to have Jeff George back in the league?
  • O/U 500 points for the Saints’ offense this season? I’ve got the Over.
  • O/U 400 points allowed by the Saints’ defense this season? I’ve got the Over.
  • The Eagles beat the Panthers to Jeff Garcia, so…Carolina’s season is over.

The Week 2 Early:

KANSAS CITY (-3) over Oakland

TENNESSEE (-6.5) over Houston

New England (-5) over NY JETS

GREEN BAY (-9) over Cincinnati

DETROIT (+9.5) over Minnesota

New Orleans (PK) over PHILADELPHIA

ATLANTA (-6) over Carolina

St. Louis (+10) over WASHINGTON

JACKSONVILLE (-3) over Arizona

Seattle (+1.5) over SAN FRANCISCO (outright)

BUFFALO (-4.5) over Tampa Bay

DENVER (-3) over Cleveland

SAN DIEGO (-3) over Baltimore

Pittsburgh (-3) over CHICAGO

DALLAS (-3) over NY Giants

MIAMI (+3) over Indianapolis (outright)

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