NFL 2011 Week 4: What Happened To All the Running Backs?
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Three 3-0 teams remain heading into week 4: the Green Bay Packers, the Detroit Lions, and the Buffalo Bills. Instead of the ghosts of Ahman Green, Barry Sanders, or Thurman Thomas leading the defending champs and two perpetual losing franchises, however, the undefeateds are led by slingin’ quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Last week, the usually pass-happy Packers managed to get a decent ground game from RB Ryan Grant for 92 yards on 17 carries. Yet his backup only mustered 5 yards on 11 carries while the Packers held the Chicago Bears to 2 yards on NINE carries by RB Matt Forte! Meanwhile, the feel-good Lions fed RB Jahvid Best 12 times for a fantasy football embarrassing (if you’re not in a PPR league) 14 yards.
So what gives? The trend in recent years have pointed towards the NFL morphing into a passing league. Pundits might argue that it’s just another trend that as soon as defenses adjust, in true circular nature, before you know it the wishbone will be popular again. That being said, with rookie QB Cam Newton breaking first-year passing records on the heels of QB Tom Brady who leads the league with 1,327 yards through only three freaking games of this still young season, you can see how the NFL has turned into a league of pass-happy gunslingers. From Drew Brees to Tony Romo, at least 9 different starting quarterbacks have at least 900 yards through 3 games. And 9 other different quarterbacks from Mark Sanchez to Joe Flacco have 800 yards through the first 3 games. Consider the fact that these 18 starting quarterbacks who represent more than half the total teams in the NFL, are averaging at least 270 yards per game through the air. Compare that to only 5 running backs who average more than 100 yards per game. The end result is teams like the 0-3 Indianapolis Colts, the 0-3 St. Louis Rams, and the 0-3 Kansas City Chiefs have serious offensive concerns as none of these dubious teams have a passer or running back in the top 18 or top 5, respectively, in terms of total yardage.
But not so fast, like any new sexy fad, just because the Lions are 3-0, or they are re-releasing beloved cartoon lions in 3D, does not mean up is down, black is white, or Dancing With the Stars have actual real celebrities on the show. So lately, while Detroit has been more Mufasa than Hakuna Matata, the Oakland Raiders, whose QB Jason Campbell has as much passing yards for the year as Brady in one single game, have won two out of three on the back of a beast of a tailback in RB Darren McFadden. McFadden has rumbled to almost 400 total yards in only 3 games. Knocking off the New York Jets positioned the Raiders at the head of the AFC West and among one of the early surprises. Of course, much of the success could be attributed to the teams themselves, or rather a product of an arguably soft early schedule. The latter might not hold much water because anyone who thinks the high-octane Patriots or the rambunctious Jets are rollover teams might need to go sniff some smelling salt.
What this means now is that Bill Parcells was right. You are who you are. Based on your personnel, you should play to your strengths and try to keep your weaknesses from being a liability. The Raiders know they don’t have Rich Gannon under center so they build their offense around their strong RB corp. What this means for the rest of the league in the long run remains to be seen. Take last week in the Patriots’ loss to the Bills, without a good defense, it doesn’t matter how good your offense might be if you cannot stop anyone. All it takes is a bad/off day from your pivot (Brady’s 4 interception afternoon) to keep you from a win.
That being said, any arm-chair quarterback like myself can tell you that if teams like the Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons, and the Philadelphia Eagles know what’s good for them then they would feed their RBs more. The Bengals should heed my unqualified advice because they have a rookie signal-caller, and the Vikings should follow suit because they have RB Adrian Peterson and a three-years-past-his-prime QB Donovan McNabb. As for the birds of the same mediocre feather, the Falcons and Eagles should strive to ease the pressure off of their below-average offensive line by feeding their talented tailbacks more. This way, it just might allow QBs Matt Ryan and Michael Vick to stay upright long enough to throw to their very gifted receiving corp.
Ironically, as the debt-ridden Greeks might tell you, all things in moderation. Too much of a good thing can be bad at the cost of balance. Competent NFL coaches could theoretically scheme against a team that has no balanced attack and force that team to score through their most ineffective offensive option. Until we see more competent NFL coaches, however, fans and fantasy football fanatics will continue to see the rise of running backs by committee and the need for the likes of Rex Grossman and Matt Hasselbeck. Much like the way the NBA favors higher-scoring, faster-paced games by abolishing hand checks, allowing 5 steps to the basket, etc…, the NFL’s recent impetus on “safety” through headhunting fines on headhunting defenders, and various referee-induced calls that favor wide receivers and quarterbacks more are just some of the ways to attract casual fans by producing more points on the board through the sexiest means possible. It’s just the business side of the game.
In other words, air it out.
Last Week: 9-6-1
Detroit Lions @ Dallas Cowboys -2.5
New Orleans Saints @ Jacksonville Jaguars +7
San Francisco 49ers @ Philadelphia Eagles -9.5
Washington Redskins @ St. Louis Rams +2.5
Tennessee Titans @ Cleveland Browns +1
Buffalo Bills @ Cincinnati Browns +3
Minnesota Vikings -3 @ Kansas City Chiefs
Carolina Panthers @ Chicago Bears -6.5
Pittsburgh Steelers +3.5 @ Houston Texans
Atlanta Falcons -4.5 @ Seattle Seahawks
New York Giants @ Arizona Cardinals +1
Miami Dolphins +7 @ San Diego Chargers
Denver Broncos @ Green Bay Packers -11.5
New England Patriots -6 @ Oakland Raiders
New York Jets +4.5 @ Baltimore Ravens
Indianapolis Colts @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers -10