Lawrence: Attack Of The Throwback

Pass-happy league? Eh, not quite. As the best teams in the NFL are showing, running the ball is back en vogue

Amy Lawrence
December 10, 2019 - 8:31 pm
Dalvin Cook Vikings

USA Today Images


Have you noticed most NFL teams aren't chucking the ball around the way they did a year ago? In fact, the sport bears only a scant resemblance to 2018 when high-octane, high-powered passing attacks dotted the league. Those prolific offenses were credited with attracting old and new fans back to the sport. Television ratings spiked after a couple down seasons; analysts highlighted the entertainment value of nearly 12,000 total points and more touchdown passes (1,371) than any other season in history.

In 2019, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction: toward establishing the run, toward 1,000-yard rushers, toward ball control. The NFL's top teams are relying less on finesse and more on brute force. They want to control the line of scrimmage, win the battles in the trenches, and pound the ball down your throat. Moving the ball the "old-fashioned way" also eats up clock and keeps your opponent on the sidelines. It's tough to win when you don't have the football!

As we race down the proverbial homestretch of the regular season, the best teams in the league are committed to running the ball. The top five rushing teams in the league are all likely to be playing in January. Baltimore, San Francisco, Seattle, Minnesota and Buffalo are pacing the field. The next five includes another trio in Houston, Tennessee and Dallas that are also in line for the playoffs. With three weeks left, the league already boasts as many guys over 1,000 yards rushing as there were all of last year. Based on their averages, another three backs will probably join the list, including Mark Ingram. With Lamar Jackson becoming the second quarterback in history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a single season, the Ravens could feature two "rushers" past that mile marker.

Most of the highlight reels from a year ago focused on the gun-slinging style of quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, who earned the MVP award with a gaudy 5,097 passing yards and 50 touchdown strikes. Kansas City was the third highest-scoring team in history with 35.3 points per game. This season, Baltimore and San Francisco are the only franchises putting up more than 30 points per game; and they're the top RUSHING teams in the league. In 2018, a dozen QBs eclipsed 4,000 passing yards, second most in history. While there's a chance that number is matched by the end of the season, we're unlikely to see nine QBs amass at least 30 touchdown passes like last year.

Another marked difference is found among receivers. Twenty-one players racked up more than 1,000 receiving yards last season, with a half-dozen of them over 1,400 yards. With three weeks remaining, Michael Thomas is tops in the NFL with 1,424 yards. But with Mike Evans of Tampa Bay injured, only his teammate Chris Godwin has a realistic chance of joining Thomas. Even more telling, the Saints' star wideout is the only one in the league with more than 100 catches this season. In 2018, a whopping 11 guys reached the century mark in receptions, a new NFL record, and seven receivers caught at least 110 passes. The final statistics from this year won't look anything like those.

The obvious question is why. WHY the drastic change for so many offenses this season? One ready answer is the number of teams who've switched quarterbacks. Already 19 of 32 clubs have used multiple QBs because of injuries or ineptitude. Among last year's most prolific passers, Ben Roethlisberger didn't make it past the second week. Mahomes and Drew Brees missed time with injuries. Eli Manning got benched. Andrew Luck retired just before the season kicked off. Philip Rivers, Jared Goff and Tom Brady are scuffling through difficult campaigns with passer ratings in the bottom half of the league. Aaron Rodgers is healthy and happy, but his passing yards per game have dropped off with Aaron Jones commanding a prominent role in the offense.

The influx of young, inexperienced quarterbacks also affects production and efficiency. Kyle Allen, Gardner Minshew, Daniel Jones, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges are adjusting to the responsibilities and pressure of the position, not to mention the speed and complexity. Even top draft picks like Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray are still navigating the NFL learning curve. Naturally, their passing numbers won't be as flashy, and the trends reflect that. At 22 years old, Baltimore's Lamar Jackson appears to be the exception to the rule. He leads the league with 28 touchdown passes, and his rating is fourth best among starters. But his entire offense revolves around the ground assault! Because the Ravens average better than 200 rushing yards per weekend, there's more space and room for the receivers to operate. They use the run to set up the pass, and it's working because of Lamar's athleticism and speed and elusiveness. Throw in Ingram and the stout offensive line, and the Ravens are locked into a formula that fits their personnel perfectly.

A team that finds a way to run the ball consistently can also wear down opposing defenses. By methodically eating up chunks of yardage and moving the chains, by stringing together drives that last 12 or 13 or 17 snaps, offenses force defenses to expend more energy and stay on the field longer than they would if the quarterback was chucking and ducking. A pass-happy offense comes with higher risk. Slow and steady wins the race. But by no means does this reduce the role of a live arm. To have Aaron Jones AND Aaron Rodgers, Chris Carson AND Russell Wilson, Dalvin Cook AND Kirk Cousins, Derrick Henry AND Ryan Tannehill—those combinations cause headaches for defensive coordinators. Preparing for a balanced offense is that much harder.

Ultimately, a dynamic rushing attack allows a team to control the football. When you control the ball, you control the game which is the goal for every team...every time out. Just like the 90s, running the ball is back en vogue!

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.