Walter Payton. Those two words are the sweetest in the English language. As Bears fans we reminisce about the long lost days of yore, where 34 would run around, over, under and through opponents. Watching him do what he did best was what made me a Bear for life. But the list doesn’t begin and end with him. In fact, the list of RB greatness in Chicago must surely be a point of frustration for other NFL teams, especially when the 6th most productive back in your team history is Thomas Jones. This seething anger most assuredly doubles when you think about the fact that "great teams establish the run." Of course, maybe their plight is soothed in the knowledge that the "era of the RB is at an end." After all, now that this is a passing league, perhaps they can be satiated in the understanding that running the ball isn’t as important as it once was.
Or is it?
Is it critical to establish the run if you want to win in the NFL? Or as a fan of one of the greatest running franchises in the NFL; am I clinging to a false hope that a great running team will resurrect our team as a whole and bring us another Super Bowl Shuffle?
Now the premise for this statement is broken into 2 parts. First, how have offensive teams built their personnel? Do they stack the run first or the passing game? Second, do defensive driven teams have to rely on a good run stopping unit to be elite?
Premise #1: Offense is built on rushing - Undetermined
Ricky Watters, Terrell Davis, Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Edgerrin James, and LaDainian Tomlinson headline some of the most prolific offenses over the last quarter century. There is no question that the 2006 Chargers were build on running the ball, with LT posting 1815 yards and 28 touchdowns. In addition, the 2003 Chiefs were built on the legs of Priest Holmes. The Priest totaled 27 touchdowns that year. The 2000 Broncos were definitely built on running the ball as Mike Anderson (who?) rushed for a league’s 4th best rushing total of 1487 yards. To put this into perspective, that puts him right behind Edgerrin James and Eddie George; who are both potential HOF backs; in the AFC that year. The QB for the 2000 Broncos? Brian Griese, who passed for a whopping 2688 yards. I know the argument that will ensue, "but X, that was a run first NFL. This is a pass first NFL. That 2688 wasn’t bad back then." Well, Manning threw for 4413 that year. Followed by Jeff Garcia (4278), Elvis Grbac (4169) and Daunte Culpepper (3937). So no, that wasn’t pretty good for the year.
Of course, the 2007 Patriots were built on anything but the run. Kevin Faulk rushed for 265 yards in a year that saw Tom Brady pass for 4806 yards, 50 touchdowns, with only 8 interceptions. The 2011 pukers, led by Aaron Rodgers were definitely a pass first team. And the juggernaut of them all, the 2013 Broncos. They were led by Payton Manning and his 5477 yards, 55 touchdowns and 10 interceptions; making Tom Brady the bridesmaid to the greatest season ever posted by a QB.
To define whether the rush or the pass came first, it appears to be a chicken vs egg argument. In final analysis, it appears that great offensive teams just simply build around the most talented skill position player. Have a Priest Holmes? Congratulations! You get Trent Green as your QB. You have a Drew Brees you say? Well here is a Mike Bell to tote the rock for you.
In fact, when the dust settled, it truly came down to this one factor – coaching. The head coaches for these teams were all highly adaptive coaches that recognized talent and built around it. (Cue the "Fire Fox!" chants) They threw the arm out of Payton Manning, and ran the wheels off Terrell Davis.
Premise #2: Great defensive units stop the run - TRUE
This one wasn’t even a debate. The best defense to stop the run? The 2011 49ers. They allowed only 3 rushing touchdowns all year, and allowed opposing running backs a whopping 77.2 yards per game. To put into perspective how good that is, the vaunted 2000 Ravens allowed 5 rushing touchdowns. In fact, as good as the 2011 49ers defense was, they were only 3.88 TD’s allowed better than the average. That’s right, great defenses absolutely shut the door on the run. The average of ALL 25 teams was 6.88 rushing touchdowns allowed. Again, I am sure to hear the argument "but this is a pass first NFL nowadays, X!" But even the 1991 Saints allowed 6 rushing touchdowns. In fact, the only top 25 defensive unit to allow double digit touchdowns was the 1991 Redskins. This weak defensive unit faced Barry Sanders week 1, Emmitt Smith in weeks 2 & 13, Neal Anderson, Rodney Hampton, and Barry Foster, and allowed 11 rushing touchdowns.
Offensively, are Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen good enough to build an offense around? If so, Trubisky is probably good enough to win and we just need to focus on building a better (less injured) line and throw in a single WR that is capable of actually creating some semblance of a threat. Perhaps Trubisky can refine his game and be the centerpiece? If so, then we better look to sure up our pass protection and giving him superior firepower on the edges with quality receivers. Or perhaps would it be easier to complete the rebuild by focusing around the defensive unit? In which case we need a playmaker at each level. Whichever you prefer, two things are clear. A new coach is required for us to move into the next phase of the rebuild. We need a coach that can adapt to the offensive pieces in place and build around it. Dave Toub comes to mind, and I know he’s been mentioned by many of you. And as far as the D is concerned, we will need some higher quality run stuffing to compete for a Super Bowl.
It appears that the phrase, "establish the run," was originally uttered by the Hebrew leader Moses as he led his people across the Red Sea. As Pharoah and his armies gave chase, you could hear Moses (with John Madden telestrating) saying those now famous words. However, it today’s game of football, the phrase is attributed to Woody Hayes. He penned a book in 1957 about football at Ohio State. Anyone who is going to understand football should read it as it is full of simple fundamentals for the running game. In the heart of the book Hayes can be quoted as saying "our offensive football is based upon the principle that we must first establish a sound running game." While Wayne Woodrow Hayes was a fine coach, he would be dismayed to find that over the last 25 years it really has not had much bearing when looking toward the offensive side of the ball. Whether an offense establishes the run or not, they can be successful if they play to their strength. He would be proud to know that on the defensive side of the ball; the converse of his offensive mindset is the hinge to greatness. It appears that to be a successful defensive team, stopping the run must be priority number one. It forces a team to become one dimensional. And when you throw the ball, according to Woody, 3 things can happen and 2 of them are bad. Some of you cringe as you think of Aaron Rodgers beating us with his arm, but remember Bears faithful, there are only so many QB’s good enough to do that.
To help provide those of you who rely on numbers with some fodder to discuss in the comments below, let me give you the average of all offensive and defensive units.
Top 25 offfenses average: 25 rushing td’s vs 37.68 passing td’s
Top 25 defenses average: 6.88 rushing td’s allowed vs 13.64 passing td’s allowed