11:55 PM CDT, September 26, 2013
Quarterbacks are putting up gargantuan numbers. Yardage totals are rolling up like pennies on a gas pump. Defenses are scrambling to patch holes.
And power running backs are all but forgotten.
What used to be a cornerstone to building a strong offensive attack, the ability to grind out a few hard yards, is almost an afterthought in today's NFL.
"We have gone almost totally away from the power running attack," said longtime NFL personnel man Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst. "That old play where you'd take the big fullback and lead up on the linebacker, double-team the nose tackle and blast away, that's not quite as prevalent anymore."
Through the first three weeks of the season, the NFL has been even more of a quarterback's league, with all but three teams — the Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans and Carolina Panthers— passing more than they run. And some teams pass a lot more. The Cleveland Browns have thrown on 77% of their snaps, the St. Louis Rams on 74%, and the New York Giants and Washington Redskins on 72%.
The touchdown numbers only underscore the emphasis on passing, with more than two-thirds of the touchdowns (155 of 222) by air. That's 30.2% of touchdowns scored on runs, down from 37.6% four years ago.
Although conventional wisdom says that teams will begin running the ball more when the weather gets colder and wetter, the numbers indicate the league-wide run-pass ratio stays relatively steady throughout the season.
There are exceptions, of course. The Seahawks pound the ball with Marshawn Lynch. Indianapolis traded for Trent Richardson with that very strategy in mind, and he scored a one-yard touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers the first time he touched the ball for his new team. And no one runs harder than the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson, who last season came within nine yards of breaking Eric Dickerson's season rushing record.
But those backs who take the ball and jackhammer their way into the heart of a defense have become increasingly rare, as are those offensive lines that impose their will on defensive fronts.
"The old Bill Parcells power running attack, there are very few attacks like that left in the league," said Polian, referring to the Hall of Fame coach who led the Giants to two Super Bowl victories.
"What we now have is a zone-running game, best epitomized by [the Houston Texans], where you have a daisy chain of blockers, with the offensive linemen reaching up to the linebackers, not trying to move people with power but trying to create space with quickness. And then the running back weaving where the hole in the defense occurs."
It used to be that teams looked to establish the run to set up the pass. That doesn't seem as essential anymore. Teams with accurate quarterbacks are able to pass from the start, and their no-huddle, hurry-up offenses quickly have defenses gasping.
"I would have loved to play in some of these offenses today," said former San Francisco running back Roger Craig, who in 1986 became the first NFL player to run and receive for at least 1,000 yards in the same season. "I was doing a 21st century system back in the 1980s. Now everybody is doing it."
Rules changes have played a big part too. The emphasis in recent years on protecting "defenseless" players — frequently receivers running across the middle — has contributed to the uptick in passing yardage.
"I really believe that the rules are set up for these offenses to thrive passing the football," said former All-Pro safety John Lynch, now a Fox analyst.
Lynch said receivers now "have this halo … where 'Hey, these guys can't hit me. They're going to get fined.' And as a result, that fear factor that was once there is not there."
The fear factor now rests with the defenses, and the numbers reflect that. Two years ago, Green Bay surrendered 6,585 yards, most in Packers history. Last season, the New Orleans Saints gave up 7,042, most in NFL history. And this season, Washington already has given up 1,464, the most by any team through the first three games of a season.
The hottest quarterback in the NFL is Denver's Peyton Manning. He has 12 touchdowns, no interceptions and an astronomical passer rating of 134.7, and looks accurate enough to squeeze a pass through a mail slot.
Has it hampered the Broncos at all that they have yet to have a 100-yard rusher, something that was once a benchmark indicator? They are averaging 42.2 points a game.
"Peyton, his deal's always been balance," Manning's father, Archie, said after his son threw seven touchdown passes in a rout of Baltimore. "He likes to call plays at the line and make choices, but I've never seen him pass-happy. He'll take what they give him. But he likes to have a running game — and he needs a running game. At age 37, you've got to have a running game."
That said, as they continue to rack up the sky miles, Manning and others are proving that the future of the NFL is up in the air.
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