On Monday night, Sept. 24, the Buffalo Bills' Thurman Thomas gained 214 yards on 18 carries against the New York Jets, an average of 11.9 yards per carry. A day earlier, the Chicago Bears ran 43 times for 215 yards against the Minnesota Vikings, and at one point, from late in the second quarter until early in the fourth, Chicago called 19 consecutive rushing plays.
It has been suggested that these two performances be shipped to the Smithsonian and placed next to the dodo bird and the five-cent beer—because they represent a dying way of life, the NFL running game. The way things used to be but ain't no more. Imagine, all those yards from people like Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson, who had the ball handed, not thrown, to them.
Even with those gaudy performances by the Bills and the Bears, the standard of running the ball in the NFL has fallen to a depressingly low level. Through four weeks of the 1990 season (not counting Monday night's Cincinnati Bengals-Seattle Seahawks game), the single-game rushing average is 107.5 yards per team. If the running game doesn't pick up by the end of the season, that average will be the lowest since the league began keeping team rushing statistics in 1935. All right, you say, teams are calling fewer running plays. The rules adopted this year to speed up the game are taking away a few of them. Except that the average yards per carry, 3.91, is on the low end of the scale, too.
From the time the rules were modified in 1978 to open up offenses (freeing receivers' lanes and allowing offensive linemen to grab and push off, thus making the forward pass a very attractive means of traveling) through last season, backs rushed for 100 yards in a game an average of 21.5 times in the first four weeks of the season (not including '82, the strike season). This year there were 12 100-yard efforts after four weeks.
Of the top dozen rushers after four games last year, 10 have a lower average gain per carry in 1990. In 1989 the Atlanta Falcons were the worst rushing team in the NFL, with 1,155 yards, or an average of 72.2 per game. So far this year, six clubs have averages lower than that, including such former ground worthies as the Cleveland Browns, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers.
On Sept. 23, in a 27-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Los Angeles Rams—the John Robinson-coached Rams, who used to maul opponents with their ground attack—rushed for 35 yards, their lowest regular-season, single-game total since 1971. On the same day, the 49ers, whose nifty end runs formed the launching pad for their high-powered offense of the '80s, netted 26 yards on 18 sweeps against the Falcons. San Francisco had zero or minus yardage on 11 of those sweeps. At the end of the game, a 19-13 victory for the Niners, the Candlestick Park fans were chanting, "No more sweeps."
In training camp, Houston Oiler tailback Allen Pinkett, noting the wide-open rushing possibilities in his team's new run-and-shoot offense, surveyed the array of backfield talent on hand and said, "We could have two 1,000-yard runners in this offense." The Oilers are averaging 60.3 rushing yards a game, 27th in the NFL.
"It's so hard to consistently run the ball," says Houston coach Jack Pardee. "To line up and tell the other team you're going to run—well, to me that's the height of egotism. Who are you to think you're that much better than your opponent?"
That's part of the trouble, the mentality that says, "Let's do things the easy way. Let's take what they give us." The great teams of recent NFL eras weren't take-what-they-give-us teams. The Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, the Steelers of the late '70s, the Oakland/L.A. Raiders of the late '70s and early '80s, the last several 49er teams—they made people take what they dished out. Here's what we run, try to stop us. Today's defenses are giving offenses something difficult to run against, an eight-man front, and the offenses don't have the desire or, as we'll see, the skill to take it on. That, say the majority of offensive coaches, is why teams can't run the way they used to.
A normal front, or first line of defense, consists of seven men: three down linemen and four linebackers, or vice versa. The eighth man comes in the form of a safety, contoured along lines formerly undreamed of at this position, which once was reserved for smaller players. Now you see strong safeties like David Fulcher (6'3", 234 pounds) of the Bengals and Brian Washington (6'1", 220) of the New York Jets, plus the new phenomenon, the giant free safety—6'3", 213-pound Steve Atwater of the Denver Broncos; 6'2", 226-pound Louis Oliver of the Miami Dolphins; and 6'1", 221-pound Bennie Blades of the Detroit Lions.
"They're just sneaking 'em up into the heart of the pressure group," says Buffalo offensive line coach Tom Bresnahan. "They foul up the blocking schemes by creating an unblocked man. They're hard to account for."
"You're trying to block eight people with seven," says New Orleans Saints running backs coach Jim Skipper. "You can run against it; you've just got to know who to leave unblocked."
"There's got to be some more research on how to handle the eight-man fronts," says Phoenix Cardinals coach Joe Bugel.
All these excuses sound persuasive, but I wonder. If one man has so changed the game—the guy who looks like a linebacker but wears a safety's number—then every week these pseudo-safeties should have a phenomenal total of tackles, some number in the 20's. But they don't. And eight-man fronts are nothing new.
The 6-2 and 5-3 formations were basic in the NFL during the 1930s and early '40s—before the 5-2 Eagle and the 4-3 replaced them in the late '40s and early '50s—and teams still ran effectively. The post-World War II rushing stats, from '46 through '50, when everyone went to a seven-man front, were much better than the ones we see now, and sacks were counted as yards lost rushing in those days. True, teams used tight offensive formations then, and eight defenders were blocked by eight offensive players. However, teams do that now, too. They line up with two tight ends, sometimes even three, in an attempt to meet force with force—"outmass 'em," as Robinson says—but sometimes even that doesn't work.
The answer is personnel. Offensive backs could block in the 1940s—all of them. So could offensive ends, and especially interior linemen, who were skilled in a full repertoire of exotic techniques—hook blocks, crash blocks, reverse body blocks—techniques that are now obsolete in the era of the 300-pound belly bumper. The emphasis on passing has created the gigantic weight-room-and-steroid monster, who can hold off the Atlantic Ocean for 2.7 seconds but can't fire out, low to the ground, and move a defensive man out of the hole.
"If a guy can't pass-block he can't play," says Packer noseguard Bob Nelson. "Blow you off the ball? Big deal. First couple of downs, they run. That doesn't work, they go to the pass."
"Most NFL guards and tackles now, all they can do is short-set pass-block or hog it out and area-block on running plays," says Mike Giddings, who runs a scouting service. "In other words, they can do things that don't require much speed. You want to run a sweep? You've got to have guards pull and lead, and most guards today can't pull and lead."
In the 1970s, when defense dominated the game, the uncontrollable player was the defensive end, a 250-or 260-pounder who could run a 4.7 or 4.8 40. When coaches positioned this type of player at end, there was no offensive counterpart to stop him. So the rule makers stepped in and told the offensive linemen that it's O.K. to push off and hold a bit and even strangle, as long as the defensive guy doesn't turn blue. That evened things up.
Now two players are becoming unmanageable: the outside linebacker, who's too good an athlete for the tight end or the fullback (or, in the case of the run-and-shoot, the tailback) assigned to block him, and the defensive tackle, who's physically superior to the guard playing across the line. Besides, this is the era of the even-front defense, with the defensive tackles lined up directly in front of the guards. More teams are going back to the 4-3 defense because "the idea that the 3-4 was a better run defense was a mistake," says Steve Ortmayer, the Raiders' director of operations. Even 3-4 defenses go to an even front, or give a 4-3 look, by positioning an outside linebacker, such as the Giants' Lawrence Taylor, as an end and covering the guards with two interior linemen.
The NFL has a lot of terrific defensive tackles: Jerome Brown of the Eagles, Ray Childress of the Oilers, Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael of the Bears, Keith Millard and Henry Thomas of the Vikings, Michael Dean Perry of the Browns and the Jets' well-kept secret, Gerald Nichols. They're simply too good for the guards blocking them. They create too much havoc.
And there's another factor working against the running attack. No other part of the game requires everything to be so much in sync. "It's always the last thing to come around," says Skipper. "It can take almost until the last part of the season until the offensive line understands what's going on."
It used to be you lined up five guys and they played forever. The Bears, with a line that has been together for six years, is the NFL's best rushing team (158.3 yards per game). But now offensive lines are being crippled by injuries: This is the steroid era—nagging injuries don't heal.
This is also the era of training-camp holdouts. A linebacker can step right in after missing camp. For an offensive lineman, it's not so easy. "In the world of offensive line play, the holdout is the mortal enemy," Bresnahan says. "It takes awhile for the timing to come back."
The timing seemed to be there for Buffalo in that 30-7 victory over the Jets in which Thomas got those 214 yards, and for Chicago in that 19-16 win against Minnesota in which it had those 215 yards. Both teams might have opened a small window. Both played against defensive schemes that rely on constant stunting and looping and deep penetration by gap-shooting linemen. Viking defensive coordinator Floyd Peters has a theory that is shared by Pete Carroll, a former Minnesota assistant who is now the Jets' defensive coordinator: Turn your linemen loose to rush the passer, and if they're good enough athletes, they can pick up the run on the go.
The Bears obviously ran effectively against this Viking alignment, as did the Tampa Bay Bucs in a 23-20 victory on Sunday in which they rushed for 186 yards. The Bills broke up the Jets' eight-man defensive front by coming out in a three-wideout set, hoping to move the extra man, the safety, outside into coverage. Then Buffalo ran the ball, catching the New York linemen in between loops and stunts. "Yeah, I know, it's a way to attack the eight-man front," says Robinson. "And it works if you have good players."
Miami coach Don Shula has livened up the Dolphins' running game with three draft picks and a key veteran acquisition. In 1989, Miami's No. 1 draft choice was running back Sammie Smith. This year's first two picks were tackle Richmond Webb, who has been sensational, and guard Keith Sims, who plays next to him on the left side. But Shula also landed a much-neglected key to the ground game, a blocking fullback, in Tony Paige, who had been cut by the Jets and set free under Plan B by Detroit. "A vicious little pit bull," Raider defensive end Howie Long once called Paige.
And this kind of vicious backfield blocker is necessary for a good ground attack. Says Giddings, "The Steelers' running game never would have worked if they hadn't had a Rocky Bleier in the backfield with a Franco Harris."
For any running attack to succeed, a team has to be committed to it. Trouble is, says Pittsburgh defensive line coach and Hall of Fame tackle Joe Greene, "A lot of teams just don't practice it much, and that's why they can't run. Everyone's looking for the big passing yardage, glamour, the quick fix."
Pass-blocking linemen are drafted high, while the run-blockers go in the fifth round. Blocking backs come in as free agents. Tight ends are chosen for their speed and niftiness. "If Dave Casper came into the league now," says Raider scout Dan Conners, "he'd be a pass-rushing linebacker."
Is the running game doomed? Not likely. Football is cyclical. The best minds in the NFL will solve the problem—without, let's hope, the league's competition committee stepping in and passing rules that would further cripple defenses. It's an intriguing problem. They always are.
In Week 1, Atlanta hit Lorenzo White from all angles in holding Houston to 29 yards rushing.