NPR

Who Needs A Running Back To Win The Super Bowl?

Indianapolis Colts running back Joseph Addai has only racked up 828 yards this season. (Getty Images)

One thing football fans hear over and over again is that a team must run in order to be successful. You can't win in the NFL, TV experts still say, without a ground game. But that doesn't seem to be the case in the Super Bowl, and it doesn't seem to be the case overall in the NFL. Running, as a means to victory, is under aerial assault from the passing game.

Ask any retired NFL player. The old guard always had it tougher, even if the old guards were a hundred pounds lighter than the current offensive linemen. So, this memory from Joey Browner, a legendary defensive back for the Minnesota Vikings in the '80s and early '90s, should be taken with a grain of smelling salt.

"If the quarterback got hit and knocked out, you had to go get the water boy," Browner says. The quarterback, in other words, wasn't quite as important back then.

However, Browner does have a point. Over the years, rule change after rule change has stymied the defense and emboldened the passing game.

Karl Mecklenburg, who played with the Denver Broncos during the same era as Browner, recalls his bag of tricks being gradually depleted.

"Back in the day ... you just put your arms up. You could run over the quarterback. It wouldn't be roughing or anything. My last year, I got caught and fined for that, so I stopped."

The rule changes didn't open up the passing games by themselves. But like clever investment bankers operating in the wake of deregulation, coaches began to find loopholes they could exploit. Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant sees it every day in practice.

"Right now, there's more emphasis on making plays more interesting because you have more guys. If you have a pass play, there's five guys you can get the ball."

Grant ran for more than 1,200 yards this year — or 50 percent more than any running back in today's Super Bowl. On the pass-happy Packers, though, he is still but a complementary piece.

"Passing is taking over, because it's the fastest way to get into that end zone," Grant says.

The Indianapolis Colts have embraced the passing game. They come into the Super Bowl as favorites, yet had the worst running game in football this year. Last year, the team with the worst running game also played in the Super Bowl. These Colts and those Cardinals aren't an exception.

Of the top 12 passing offenses, nine made the playoffs. Of the top 14 passing offenses, none had a losing record. On the other hand, five of the top 14 running teams did. While you still hear the phrase, 'You can't win without running,' former offensive lineman Ross Tucker can't deny the evidence.

"I think we've seen as of late you don't need to run anymore," Tucker says. "I'm only 30, so I'm not exactly old school, but as a lover of the physicality of football, it's a little disheartening. It's a little bit upsetting."

Miami Dolphin great Mercury Morris is old school; he and his backfield mates ran into the record books as the only undefeated team in football history. He says the current aerial ways of the NFL isn't worse than the football played in his day, but he doesn't seem to mean it.

"The quintessential concept is to be able to run the football, and if you can't run the football now, you have to pass," Morris says. "Every time I see a team third-and-three, third-and-four, they don't think they have what it takes to handle a team upfront in the basic law of nature, which is fight or flight."

But now it's fight or take flight, which is still denied by a lot of the football commentators you see on TV. Merrill Hoge and Rich Gannon, both fine players in their day and now excellent analysts, said a team has to be multidimensional, and put the Colts in that category. That's the Colts — the worst running team in the NFL. If they can run enough, then anyone can.

But there's an appeal to the running game that strikes at the heart of the football man. Former Steelers quarterback Jim Miller hints at it.

"It's kind of the old last frontier, where men can be men and we're just out there getting physical, playing our sport, and they couldn't stop us — and that it's demoralizing for a defense when you beat them physically."

Miller notes he recently heard the architect of those demolitions, his old coach Bill Cowher, say he'd rethought the importance of the running game.

"I hate to say this," Cowher said on CBS, "but the running game is a complement." If Cowher's given up on the ground, you know change is in the air.

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Transcript

LIANE HANSEN, host:

One thing football fans hear over and over again is that a team must run in order to be successful. You can't win in the NFL, TV experts still say, without a ground game. But that doesn't seem to be the case in the Super Bowl, and it doesn't seem to be the case overall in the NFL.

NPR's Mike Pesca diagnosis the decline of the run as a means to victory.

MIKE PESCA: Ask any retired NFL player - the old guard always had it tougher, even if the old guards were 100 pounds lighter than the current offensive linemen. So, this reminiscence from Joey Browner, a legendary defensive back for the Minnesota Vikings in the '80s and early '90s, should be taken with a grain of smelling salt.

Mr. JOEY BROWNER (Former Defensive Back, Minnesota Vikings): If the quarterback got hit and knocked out, you just had to go get the water boy or somebody like that.

PESCA: However, Browner does have a point. Over the years, rule change after rule change has stymied the defense and emboldened the passing game.

Karl Mecklenberg, who played with the Broncos during the same era as Browner, recalls his bag of tricks being gradually depleted.

Mr. KARL MECKLENBERG (Former Denver Bronco): Back in the day, if you just put your arms up when you're rushing the quarterback, you could just run him over. It wouldn't be roughing or anything. My last year I got caught and fined for that, so I stopped that.

PESCA: The rule changes didn't open up the passing game by themselves. But, like clever investment bankers who elude regulators, coaches began to find loopholes they could exploit. Current Green Bay Packer running back Ryan Grant sees it every day in practice.

Mr. RYAN GRANT (Running Back, Green Bay Packers): Right now there's more emphasis on making passing plays more interesting because you have more guys. If you have a pass play, there's potential for five guys that can get the ball.

PESCA: Grant ran for over 1,200 yards this year or 50 percent more than any running back in today's Super Bowl. But on the pass-happy Packers he is still but a complimentary piece.

Mr. GRANT: Passing is taking over as of right now because it's the fastest way to get into that end zone.

PESCA: And the Indianapolis Colts have. They come into the game as favorites and had the worst running game in football this year. Last year, the team with the worst running game also played in the Super Bowl - and these Colts and those Cardinals aren't an exception.

Of the top 12 passing offenses, nine made the playoffs this year. Of the top 14 passing offenses, none had a losing record; five top 14 running teams did. Former offensive lineman Ross Tucker can't deny the evidence.

Mr. ROSS TUCKER (Former Offensive Lineman): I think we've seen as of late you don't need to run anymore. I mean, I'm only 30, so I'm not exactly old school, but as a lover of the physicality of the sport of football, it's a little disheartening. It's a little bit upsetting.

PESCA: Miami Dolphin great Mercury Morris is old school. He and his backfield mates ran into the record books as the only undefeated team in NFL history. He says the current way of the NFL with its aerial emphasis isn't worse than the football played in his day - I'm just not sure he means it.

Mr. MERCURY MORRIS (Former Miami Dolphin): The quintessential concept is to be able to run the football, and if you can't run the football now you have to pass. Every time I see a team third-and-three and third-and-four and they're lining up because they don't think that they have what it takes to simply manhandle somebody up front in the basic law of nature, which is fight or flight.

PESCA: But now its fight or take flight, something that's denied by a lot of the football commentators you hear. Merrill Hodge and Rich Gannon, both fine players in their day and now excellent analysts, told me that teams have to be multidimensional and put the Colts in that category - the worst running team in the NFL. If they can run enough, then anyone can.

There is an appeal to the running game that strikes at the heart of a football man. Former Steeler quarterback Jim Miller hints at it.

Mr. JIM MILLER (Former Quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers): It's kind of the old last frontier, where kind of men can be men and we're just out there getting physical, playing our sport and they couldn't stop us and that is demoralizing for a defense when you beat them physically.

PESCA: Miller notes he recently saw the architect of those demolitions, his old coach Bill Cowher, saying he's rethought the importance of running. I hate to say this, Cowher said on CBS, but the running game is a compliment. And if Cowher's given up on the ground, you know that change is in the air.

Mike Pesca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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