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A Matter of Balance

The NFL's top rusher says a ground game is key to winning. He's right—but teams still have reason to shy away from elite backs

A popular trending topic on Twitter is #thatawkwardmoment when. In the case of Maurice Jones-Drew the hashtag could be followed by: your points to support an argument wind up making a case for the opposing viewpoint.

The Jaguars' Pro Bowl running back experienced such a moment last Friday in Washington, D.C., where he was attending a three-day life-business retreat organized by a law firm. Normally quick with a smile, the NFL's 2011 rushing champion turned serious when asked about ballcarriers' being devalued in today's pass-happy game. "That makes no sense," he said. "There are more game changers at running back than quarterback."

Jones-Drew listed them, in no particular order: Arian Foster, Chris Johnson, Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Steven Jackson, Marshawn Lynch and himself. Next, his list of elite QBs: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick.

The awkward moment: Only three of those running backs went to the playoffs last season, while five of seven QBs did. (Peyton Manning was not included after missing 2011 with a neck injury.) What's more, six of the QBs on that list have combined to win 10 of the last 11 Super Bowls.

Checkmate, right?

"Quarterbacks are as good as the players around them," Jones-Drew said after a slight wince. "The key to winning championships is balance. When the Giants started to run the ball effectively last season, that's when they got on the roll in the playoffs and won the Super Bowl."

Jones-Drew is correct about the need for offensive balance—but one of the biggest changes in the game is how teams achieve it. It used to be done with workhorse backs such as Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis. In the modern NFL it's done by committee. Only two of the last 12 Super Bowl winners relied on featured ballcarriers: the 2000 Ravens (Jamal Lewis) and the '04 Patriots (Corey Dillon).

Why? For starters, the rule book now makes it easier to achieve big plays in the air. Plus, teams can't pay big money at every position, and in a pass-oriented era it's little surprise that the highest franchise tenders on offense this off-season went to QBs, wideouts and linemen. One reason teams are hesitant to shell out for top backs: health. Only 19 of last season's top 50 rushers played 16 games.

Jones-Drew, who wants the Jaguars to renegotiate his contract before the season, has a vested interest in pumping up the value of elite backs. And prideful runners will point out that of the four teams that had more rushes than passes last season, three won a playoff game. However... there's #thatawkwardmomentwhen you realize none got beyond the conference finals. The primary ballcarriers in the Super Bowl were BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Ahmad Bradshaw. Neither had more than 17 carries.

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NUMBER CRUNCHED Jones-Drew, in the market for a new deal, defends the value of big-name runners, but the data don't always support his claim.