Two running backs, Arian Foster of Houston and LeSean McCoy of Philadelphia, each caught more passes last season than Boyd Dowler and Carroll Dale, the Packers’ leading two receivers in the team’s NFL championship season of 1965, caught combined that year.
What does that tell you about the direction of pro football? Even Vince Lombardi would’ve had to agree that football is no longer first and foremost a running game. You don’t know how it pains me to pen those words.
Here are some more stats for you: Last season, the Packers rushed for 1,606 yards and threw for 4,124 net yards; in 1961, the Packers’ first title season under Lombardi, the Packers rushed for 2,350 yards and threw for 2,364.
Now that’s what I call balance and that’s also what I call the kind of balance we’ll never see again because the gap between running and passing is likely only going to widen.
In the year 2011, football is first and foremost a passing game, as evidenced by the fact the Packers that threw for 2,518 yards more than for which they ran in 2010, also won the league championship. What does that say?
Running backs aren’t important any longer? No, that’s not what it says.
It says you better have some semblance of a running game to prevent defenses from loading up against the pass, because if you can’t pass you can’t win. That’s what it says. It says the running game, though not nearly the force it was in Lombardi’s time, is still important because it keeps defenses honest.
With that in mind, here is this reporter’s opinion of the top 10 running backs in the league.
10. Ahmad Bradshaw—He’ll hurt you with the run and the catch; defenses fear his big-play ability. Fumbles are threatening his effectiveness, but there’s no denying his stats: 1,235 yards rushing and a 4.5 yards-per-carry average, while sharing carries with Brandon Jacobs. Bradshaw also caught 47 passes last season. If Tom Coughlin can do for Bradshaw what Coughlin did for Tiki Barber, it could put Bradshaw over the top. In that offense, Bradshaw has 1,500 yards written all over him.
9. Michael Turner—His numbers last year were very good, but not up to the 1,699 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns he scored in 2008. Turner, however, was in his recovery year from a significant ankle injury in ’09. He’s still an effective, punishing runner and if Julio Jones does for the passing game what he was drafted to do, then Turner might be the big winner in the draft-day trade that brought Jones to Atlanta. Mike Smith remains a defensive-minded coach that loves to control tempo and the clock with the running game.
8. Steven Jackson—He’s an intimidating figure with the ball under his arm. Jackson’s got all the skills: size, speed, power, elusiveness and hands that caught 90 passes in 2006. So what’s the disconnect? Is it the result of having played for a weak team for a long time? If that’s what it is, and it probably is, then that situation might soon be rectified because Sam Bradford gives the Rams another weapon and a bright future, and Jackson might see defenses actually train their focus on someone other than him. Jackson might be headed for a big season in 2011.
7. Darren McFadden—After having largely been a disappointment in his first two pro seasons, McFadden exploded for 1,157 yards rushing and a 5.2 yards-per-carry average last season. In 2010, McFadden flashed the big-play talent that made him a fourth overall pick out of Arkansas. He might be on the verge of becoming the league’s star ball-carrier. McFadden is a guy to watch.
6. Ray Rice—Tough, durable and productive. He followed his breakout season in 2009 (1,339 yards rushing, 78 catches for 702 yards receiving) with another star-quality performance in ’10 (1,220 yards rushing, 63 catches for 556 yards receiving). The only negative in his career is a fumble he lost when the Ravens had the lead in Pittsburgh in the playoffs last season. Rice is poised to battle for the AFC rushing title in his fourth pro season.
5. Jamaal Charles—Who is this guy that averaged 6.4 yards per carry last season? Charles had a quiet breakout season in 2009 and is another one of those backs from the ’08 draft that will battle for the AFC rushing crown. Charles rushed for 1,467 yards in Coach Todd Haley’s ball-control offense. Haley figures to give Charles the ball even more in 2011.
4. Maurice Jones-Drew—He was on his way to a huge season last year when a knee injury that bothered him all season caught up with him in week 15. Without him, the Jaguars were never the same. If ever there’s a guy that plays too big for his body, Jones-Drew is that guy. At 5-7, 208, he’s a power back. He’s the Jaguars’ best first-down back, third-down back, short-yardage back and goal-line back. He’s also a devastating blocker and was a lights-out kickoff-returner early in his career. Will he make a full recovery from knee surgery? That’s the question facing the Jaguars now. There aren’t many players that mean as much to their team as Jones-Drew does to his.
3. Arian Foster—He’s for real but I’d like to see him do it again before I put him in my top two. He signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009, and then showed enough bounce late in his rookie season to warrant a harder look in ’10. Pow! Foster won the NFL rushing title with 1,616 yards en route to a 4.9 yards-per-carry average, 16 touchdowns rushing and 66 receptions for 604 yards and two touchdowns receiving. Those are big-time numbers in any era. So, what will he do in ’11? He’ll be the target of every defense he faces. That was not the case last season.
2. Chris Johnson—His numbers are staggering: 1,228 yards rushing in his rookie season and then 2,006 yards in 2009, followed by 1,364 last season, when contract discontent may have dulled his focus. Johnson’s speed makes him the most feared runner in the AFC. He’s a threat to go all the way every time he touches the ball and that’s the kind of running game that still works in this league. When you have that kind of back, you can say football still is first and foremost a running game.
1. Adrian Peterson—Some think it should have been first and foremost a running game in Minnesota, where the game’s best combination of speed and power saw his role reduced the past two seasons. Peterson rushed for 1,760 yards in 2008, after bursting onto the scene as a rookie in ’07 with 1,341 yards. No back is feared more. The Vikings know that and will likely return Peterson to his role in 2011 as the team’s featured player.