One of the most well-worn NFL adages that you’ll likely ever hear is that you need to be able to run the ball and stop the run on defense. It’s especially re-tread when discussing what it takes to have success through the playoffs.
Clichés become what they are for a reason though – behind what eventually becomes seen as a tired or hackneyed saying is usually an undeniable truth. The question then becomes, why do people get tired of the truth?
Well, it’s tough to say. We come to things like the NFL for entertainment, so sometimes it’s inconvenient for the inner fan in us who’s seeking something new and exciting that hard boiled truths get in the way of a fun new narrative.
Going back to the initial conceit about running the ball and playing stout up front, the exciting new storyline would have to be that those things just aren’t quite as important as they used to be. Obviously, this is due to the birth of the new NFL which incorporates a combination of new-fangled spread concepts with a type of athletic prowess that we’ve never seen before to effectively scatter the old way of thinking about offense to the wind.
To pay due respect to those ideas and lines of thinking, it’s probably fair to say that the passing revolution of the 2010’s is a bit more than just narrative. Rather, it’s just that – a revolution of the way we think about how to attack defenses, and execution of said ideas by offenses such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles (Rams), and Kansas City just to name a few prime examples.
However, there are plenty of people within the media (and probably the league) who now see this as the end-all-be-all approach to things. In all fairness, it very well may be, but it leaves some of the more run-heavy teams such as Dallas, Baltimore, and Seattle asking themselves just one question; now what?
Or are they? All indications from those type of teams seem to be that they’re happy to zig while the rest of the league zags, and from their perspective it does make some sense. Russell Wilson is incredible but Seattle has always been run heavy, and with the other two teams, a heavy rushing attack may take away from some of the passing deficiencies of guys like Dak Prescott and Lamar Jackson (up to this point).
There’s no way to necessarily 100% predict where the league will go and what type of hold this pass happy mindset is going to take over it, but as far as the rushing teams go, history is instructive. While these teams haven’t bothered trying to fit a square peg into a round hole when it comes to trying to emulate some of the heavy air raid attacks that are more well-equipped to do so, a look back at how some more run based teams have fared in terms of overall success may just paint a clearer picture as to how they’ll perform in 2019 and beyond.
With that, let’s go on a bit of a walk down memory lane via a 10-year retrospective on how the league’s rushing leaders have fared over the past decade.
2009: Rexy and the Jets
This was a very interesting year for the NFL for several reasons, but one of the more dominant storylines was the rise of the one of the funnier and more colorful characters the league has seen in recent memory: Rex Ryan. Rex left Baltimore to join the Jets with a clear blueprint in mind, and it’s one that was very familiar for Ravens fans who had just watched him be a part of a staff that did the same thing a year prior.
They traded up in the first round of the draft to grab USC quarterback Mark Sanchez who would be their starter for the season, though hardly the focal point of the offense. Instead, it was their stout D and high horsepower running from veteran Thomas Jones (1,402 yards, 14 TDs, 4.2 Y/A) that got them not only into the playoffs, but all the way to the AFC Championship game.
What’s ultimately interesting about this is in regards to this exercise is who the Jets played (and eventually lost to) in that conference title game: The Indianapolis Colts. That season, they were dead last in total rushing with a paltry 1,294 total yards – none of their carriers reached the 1,000-yard mark with their leader Joseph Addai posting 828 to go with his 10 touchdowns.
What we had in that game was a difference in philosophy, with the ground and pound Jets and their 2,756 total ground yards coming out on the losing end to what were the proverbial new age high octane Colts. It was around that time that the passing boom truly began in earnest, so this may serve as a first example of the new age style of offense winning out over the old.
That’s just one perspective though; another is that an even competent quarterback may have been just what the Jets needed to get over the hump that year. After getting off to a nice start with two first half touchdown passes, the young and nervy Sanchez fell apart in the second half, with the offense stalling out to punt three times in a row - the game essentially ended on a Sanchez interception late in the fourth.
In fairness to him, the previously vaunted rushing attack stuttered out as well. Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene both barely eclipsed 40 yards, and neither broke an explosive 20+ yard run.
In that sense, our first rushing leader tells us an important lesson; as much as the league may trend one way or another, balance is key to a long-term run. A great rushing game will only carry a guy like Sanchez so far, unless the entire team around him is truly special – another example of imbalance working against you is that same Colts team that went to the Super Bowl two weeks later and lost to the Saints on the heels of a fourth quarter pick-six by Peyton Manning.
While it doesn’t end in a Super Bowl, the story of the 2009 New York Jets is one that tells us a run heavy team with limited quarterback play can go very far in the playoffs. Put that feather in your cap, Mark Sanchez.