Lawrence: Running In Circles

Sports are cyclical, Amy Lawrence says, and a running back renaissance has teams handing off early and often  

Amy Lawrence
October 15, 2019 - 10:45 pm
Christian McCaffrey Panthers

USA Today Images


Is the NFL pendulum swinging back in the other direction?
Life is cyclical. Did you know the ’90s are back?? Sports follow the same pattern, so it's not surprising to see a course correction in the first six weeks of the football season. Teams are running the ball more. Even franchises with elite quarterbacks are taking pains to hand off early and often. It may be considered old school—the whole "three yards and a cloud of dust" philosophy associated with legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes. But what's old is new again as the NFL trends back toward powerful ground games and ball control.
In 2018, much of the buzz revolved around high-octane, high-flying attacks like the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams. MVP Patrick Mahomes racked up 5,097 passing yards and a whopping 50 touchdowns. He averaged 8.8 yards per completion and steered the Chiefs within an eyelash of the Super Bowl. Ben Roethlisberger paced the league with 5,129 yards; another ten QBs surpassed the 4,000-yard plateau. That group did not include Drew Brees, who fell eight yards shy of 4, design. The New Orleans brain trust relied extensively on Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to bring balance and versatility to the offense.
Brees is the only QB in history to pass for 5,000 yards more than once. He's done it five times, in fact. However, on only two of those occasions did the Saints reach the playoffs. In 2011 and 2013, they earned Wild Card berths but fell short of the NFC Championship game. Coach Sean Payton was ready to try something different after they missed the postseason a third straight year in 2016. So the Saints drafted Kamara the following spring and paired him with the Pro Bowler Ingram to create a formidable duo who could share the load with Brees. The shift produced instant results: back-to-back NFC South titles and a trip to the conference championship last winter.
New Orleans is just part of the crowd now. San Francisco, Seattle, Minnesota, Baltimore, Houston, Buffalo, Indianapolis and Oakland all sport winning records while averaging better than 130 rushing yards per game. If we round up, Carolina belongs with this group as well, thanks to Christian McCaffery who's tops in the league with 618 rushing yards.

The Ravens offer a unique prototype. With Lamar Jackson showing the way, they're slicing, dicing and knifing their way to 205 rushing yards per contest! The sophomore QB is the first in the Super Bowl era to pass for at least 200 yards and run for 150 in a single game. As much as he's worked on his technique and pocket presence, Jackson is still an athletic, dangerous dual threat who can hurt defenses multiple ways. While there is concern about the number of bone-rattling hits he takes, the Ravens are giving him the freedom to do what he does best. Going back to Week 11 last season, they've won 10 of his 14 starts. Baltimore rallied to win the AFC North in 2018 and now sits atop the division again.

A competent rushing attack creates balance and versatility; offenses have options when they can pass AND run the ball effectively. Defenses then have to be wary of both. They essentially need to pick their poison. Teams that can run the ball also control the ball and wield a valuable tool in the time of possession battle. The longer an offense keeps the ball, the more the opposing defense wears down. On Monday night, the Packers strung together three drives of at least 13 plays, including their final drive (with an assist from the umpire's bogus flag for "illegal hands to the face.") Sure, Green Bay can rely on one of the most dynamic QBs the league has ever seen, but Aaron Rodgers is more successful when he doesn't have to do it all himself. In consecutive victories, a Pack back has rushed for at least 100 yards. Aaron Jones motored for four scores in Dallas, while Jamaal Williams did most of the damage in the rally against the Lions.
For the first time since 2015, the Chiefs have lost two games in a row at home. In Week 5, the Colts laid out the perfect blueprint: run the ball, control the ball and keep Mahomes off the field. He can't hurt you watching from the sidelines! Indianapolis possessed the football 14 minutes longer than Kansas City; the visitors' 180 yards on the ground played a crucial role. This past Sunday, the Texans made life more complicated for themselves with a trio of turnovers; but they also doubled up the Chiefs in time of possession (40 minutes to 20) by running for nearly 200 yards. They, too, made Mahomes sit and wait with Deshaun Watson engineering a half-dozen drives of at least 10 snaps. It's not as flashy as chucking the ball all over the field, but a win is a win. Plus the passing lanes tend to be cleaner when a defense is forced to account for the run.
The Cardinals earned their first W under Kliff Kingsbury by running roughshod over the Bengals with 266 yards. The Niners battered the Browns with 275 rushing yards. Cleveland itself escaped Baltimore with a division win, thanks to almost 200 yards on the ground. The Vikings relied heavily on Dalvin Cook to start the season, and because he is now a recognized weapon (and with a little coaxing from the receiving corps), Kirk Cousins is finding more space to air it out. Hello, Stefon Diggs!
In the first six weeks, there are numerous examples of teams working to establish the run FIRST before they try to throw. The benefits of a productive ground assault are obvious. There is no downside to running the ball, and winning is never dull or boring. Back to five-time national champion Woody Hayes. He famously stated that three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad. In a "get off my lawn" kind of way, Hayes believed running the ball was the most effective strategy. Yes, he coached in a different era, but NFL teams in 2019 are on board.

A well-traveled veteran of sports radio and television, Amy is the passionate host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program, After Hours with Amy Lawrence, from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Listeners can tune in from Canada and overseas, thanks to SiriusXM, and the CBS Sports app. Amy has also handled basketball play-by-play and color duties for various radio and TV outlets over the past 15 years. Amy graduated from Messiah College with bachelor’s degrees in Communications & Accounting before earning her master’s in TV & Radio from Syracuse University. She is a native of Concord, NH.