Evolution or Revolution?

A second look at what's happening to NFL offenses

A couple of weeks back I wrote a column about what appeared to be the decline of the running game as a major factor in the NFL's seemingly new offensive direction. That observation seemed to be, if I may be so bold, spot-on after a late October weekend and four 400-yard passing games by NFL quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 522 yards, Andrew Luck for 400 yards, Aaron Rogers for 418, and Nick Foles for 400, on the same Sunday.  All totaled, seven quarterbacks have thrown for over 400 yards in a game this season and two with more than 60 pass attempts.

So, is the "evolution or revolution" (my erstwhile phrasing) at hand?  Offense like this, so said the Wall Street Journal" is "the new football reality."

But then, maybe not.

The NFL is a copy-cat league and the world champion Seahawks are available for guidance.

The Seahawks became football darlings after last season and their pasting of the pass-crazy Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Fellow NFC West competitors, the San Francisco 49ers, weren't far behind.  Both teams featured quarterbacks who could run, if necessary, and both had strong running games that quickly ate up time on the clock, while their defenses sat around only to feast on opposing offenses when they had their chance to take the field. 

More recently, the Dallas Cowboys, long recognized for Tony Romo's preference to throw the ball, won a game early on this year by running it again and again behind DeMarco Murray in a thrashing of the Tennessee Titans on the road, and then followed up what must have seemed like the right thing, to do it again, and again, and still again.   

The Cowboys entered the season supposedly looking vulnerable on defense, so this new course appeared to be the wise move.  The team's defense played only 18 minutes against Tennessee, 22 minutes against Seattle, 25 against New Orleans and 26 against the Giants, according to the Dallas Morning News. Wins came in all these games, but when the Washington Redskins came to town the roles were reversed and the outcome was a loss at home. Washington ran the ball and the Dallas defense found itself on the field "again, and again, and still again."

Running the football at the expense of throwing it has a history in Kansas City, so many of its best teams built around offensive lines. Three of the best offensive lines in team history were fashioned by Hank Stram, Marty Schottenheimer, and Dick Vermeil and the results were obvious. 

Under Vermeil, whose teams ran up some substantial numbers in passing, the Chiefs featured the likes of Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson running the football behind one Pro Football Hall of Famer (Willie Roaf) and one apparently soon to be (Will Shields).

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The current Chiefs, whose coach has "West Coast" roots, have seen the positive results of running the ball and Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis appear the perfect complement to one another.  Charles is good inside and out in space.  Davis can grind it out inside and his return skills appear fist-rate. This mix has helped the passing game, and the defense. 

In the win over then once-beaten San Diego, the Chiefs held the ball for 39 minutes by running it, keeping it away from quarterback Philip Rivers who at that point was in the midst of a banner year. The following week, the Chiefs ran it 22 times in the second half against the Rams racking up 129 yards in the process.  Time of possession favored the Chiefs again, 35 minutes to 24.   

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So, while passing numbers continue to climb, and fans pine for throwing masterpieces that Roethlisberger, Luck and others put up, there is still plenty to like about running the football. Perhaps love is not too strong a word. As for the "evolution or revolution" part, the jury remains out.  The old pound-it-out Martyball once so despised by the populace may still have some life left in it after all. The numbers at the close of the season should tell us more, perhaps the teams still standing come playoff time even more still. Stay tuned.

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