Devalued and left for dead as the NFL transitioned into a passing league, running backs are muscling themselves back into the forefront of conversations as the NFL playoffs kick off with this weekend’s wild card round.
“We’ve gotten to a point where everyone thinks the running back position isn’t important,” Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “But look at the good teams. Pittsburgh, Dallas, Seattle, some others. They got outstanding quarterback play, but they’re able to run the ball and they have a dominant runner.”
In Dallas, DeMarco Murray has shared MVP chatter and 12 wins with Tony Romo while rushing for a league-high 1,845 yards on 392 carries. Only six runners in NFL history have carried the ball more times in a season.
In Pittsburgh, the Steelers’ playoff chances might be riding on whether Le’Veon Bell, the AFC’s rushing champion with 1,361 yards, can eventually play through the pain of a hyperextended knee. He is out for Saturday’s game, meaning it could come down to Josh Harris and Ben Tate. Yeah, that Ben Tate.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, the defending champion Seahawks are defined equally by a smothering defense, a composed quarterback and Marshawn Lynch, an angry runner with 1,306 yards, a 4.7 average and 13 touchdowns. In his ninth season, Lynch’s value increased and included career highs in catches (37), receiving yards (367) and total touchdowns (17).
For the 18th time in 19 seasons, the NFL playoffs include at least five teams that didn’t make it a year ago. Pittsburgh, Dallas, Baltimore, Arizona and Detroit are the newbies this year. With Detroit on board, the NFL has now gone eight consecutive years with at least one team making the playoffs a year after firing its head coach.
“Nothing in this league stays the same,” Vikings rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said Monday. “Teams are going to get better. Look at last year. The Carolina Panthers were a 12-win team. The New Orleans Saints had 11 wins. This year, the Saints didn’t make the playoffs and Carolina won only seven games. Individual success doesn’t mean anything.”
Six of the top 10 leaders in passing yards made the playoffs. But six of the top 10 rushers also made the playoffs.
Baltimore probably wouldn’t have snagged the AFC’s sixth seed without the surprising rise of Justin Forsett. All he did was step into the Ray Rice void and produce a 5.4-yard average and 1,266 yards, fifth most in the league.
In Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers is, well, Aaron Rodgers. But it’s Eddie Lacy — seventh in rushing with 1,139 yards — who amplifies Rodgers’ lethalness to an MVP level.
Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, the Bengals had two backs — rookie Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard — combine for 1,804 yards on 390 carries. Over the past seven games, Hill’s 720 yards rushing is No. 1 in the league ahead of Murray’s 712.
The hottest team entering the playoffs is Seattle. The Seahawks have won nine of 10, including six consecutive while holding teams to an average of 6.5 points per game.
Carolina, Dallas and Pittsburgh have won four in a row. Carolina has allowed an average of 10.8 points per game during that stretch, while Dallas has scored 41, 38, 42 and 44 points.
Arizona is the coldest team. The Cardinals have lost two in a row with third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley starting. Throw in the worst running attack still alive (31st) and, well, that’s why the Cardinals are 5 ½-point underdogs against a 7-8-1 Panthers team in Carolina.
Meanwhile, another sign that running backs aren’t extinct came when Patriots coach Bill Belichick jumped at LeGarrette Blount the day after the Steelers dumped the disgruntled player. In five games since he returned to New England, Blount has had rushing averages of 6.5, 5.8 and 6.2 yards.
The Patriots are pleased and the Steelers might be wincing now that Bell is out for Saturday’s game.
Meanwhile, as Turner spoke about the value of the running back position, his attention shifted to a future in Minnesota that may or may not include the suspended Adrian Peterson, who will be 30 and carrying a $15.4 million salary cap figure in 2015.
“In my mind, I hope it includes Adrian because he’s one of the most unique guys I’ve ever been around,” Turner said. “But you have to have alternatives.
“We won seven games. You look at the season and that number could have gone to 10 and it could have gone to four because of those close games. But I would think that if Adrian had played, that number would be closer to 10 than four.”