As the chart (below) shows, team rushing yardage is increasing precipitously. This year only three teams, all of them weak ones (New Orleans, New England and Denver), have tried more passes than runs. By contrast eight of the 26 NFL teams have gained more yards running than passing, and of those, five either lead their division or are tied for the top.
O.J. Simpson of Buffalo, who is surpassed only by Washington's Larry Brown in total rushing yardage—despite playing for such a poor team—says, perhaps somewhat enviously: "The winning teams are running teams, and the other teams are trying to emulate them. The Cowboys and the Dolphins—the two Super Bowl teams last year—were running teams. When the Jets won the Super Bowl, they had Joe Namath and the pass, and a lot of clubs tried to develop the same thing. This led to defenses setting to stop the pass by using zones. So clubs began to run to beat the zone. Now all NFL teams have good runners."
Says Steve Owens of Detroit, who made the 1,000 club last year: "One back used to carry the brunt of the running. Now everybody has two, and the defense can't key on one runner. If they stop me, they can't stop Altie Taylor. It doesn't matter who carries, we're going to gain yards running."
So many colleges have turned to the Wishbone attack, which places a premium on running, that more of the best young athletes are being trained as runners. Now the quarterbacks coming out of college tend to be a new stampede breed. Chicago's Bobby Douglass, Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw, New England's Jim Plunkett and Dallas' Roger Staubach are all useful runners.
The threat of the deep pass has also helped to make the run a bigger factor. Walt Garrison of Dallas says, "The linebackers have zone responsibility on the pass and they have to drop deep. This leaves it up to the front four to stop the run. The linebackers can't get up quick enough to help out."
Calvin Hill, the other Cowboy running back, sees it somewhat differently: "It's harder to make a long run against the zone. Once you clear the line of scrimmage, the wide receiver often can't find his guy to block downfield."
Hill, like many running backs in the league, considers Washington's Larry Brown the best in the business. "Brown is unbelievable," he says. "And that's coming from a fellow who looks at him with a certain amount of jealousy."
Brown runs behind a sophisticated offensive line. George Allen, the coach of the Redskins, has taken a page from the Lombardi book—the book called Run to Daylight! Pittsburgh's Fuqua explains what this can mean: "I wouldn't want to be a defensive lineman, even if I was big enough to play there. Offenses today are running so many variations that look like the same thing that a defensive lineman has to be confused. If he reads his key and is sure it's a solid key read, it still may not be what he thinks it is."
Four Steeler backs—Fuqua, Bradshaw, Steve Davis and Franco Harris, the NFL's leading rookie rusher—have averaged more than five yards a carry so far this season. That means, at least theoretically, that if Bradshaw stuck exclusively with a running game the Steelers would make a first down every second play.
The rushing renaissance has been so sweeping that it has embraced all types. Everybody is running: quarterbacks and setbacks, old backs and young backs, all-star backs and mystery backs—such little-known names as Bob Thomas, Jim Harrison, Josh Ashton and Doug Dressier have all carried for 100 yards at least once this year—big backs and little backs. Bruisers like the Cowboys' Hill, the Lions' Owens, Csonka of Miami, John Riggins of the Jets, John Brockington of Green Bay and Marv Hubbard of Oakland all go well over 200 pounds, but at the other end of the scale there are a number of good, relatively small men: Fuqua, Essex Johnson of Cincinnati, Mike Garrett of San Diego, and the indomitable Little.