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Franco Harris is running wild. Walter Payton's got the giddyaps back in his legs. Tony Dorsett's blowing by 'em in Dallas. And look at those rookies. After five games Seattle's Curt Warner had more than doubled the '82 yardage of the Seahawks' leading rusher. Project Eric Dickerson's six-game rushing stats for the L.A. Rams over a full season and you've got 2,099 yards. Dickerson has gone over 190 yards twice already, and the last time an NFC runner got that many in a single game was in 1977.
New legs, old legs, it doesn't matter. Everybody's doing it. Take the Pittsburgh Steelers' Harris, a notoriously slow starter. Franco had three 100-yard games in his first five, the quickest he has come out of the blocks in his 12-year career. Usually in September and October he's just waking up. Chicago's Payton is off to his best start since 1980. Dorsett has 150 more yards than he did after six games last year—on seven fewer carries. Atlanta's William Andrews, Buffalo's Joe Cribbs, Cleveland's Mike Pruitt, Washington's John Riggins...they've never started better.
So what's happening? This is supposed to be the era of the pass, remember?
Dim the lights. Presenting, fresh from its long-run engagement in San Diego, that darling of the '80s, the formation everyone's talking about, the one-back. Just note the beautiful symmetry. Tight ends left and right. A wide receiver outside each of them. Quarterback under center, running back lined up directly behind him, forming the down stroke of a perfect T. Beautiful. Now start the music. One tight end goes in motion, stops, goes back the other way. The other tight end goes in motion and keeps going. One wide receiver jumps up a step. The other jumps back. Quarterback takes the snap, retreats seven yards and hands to the runner. He waits, checks the line for holes, guns his motor. Defense is waiting for a pass. It's always waiting for a pass these days. There's a hole. Bam, he's into it.
Now it's second-and-five, a passing down. Time for the defense to go into the nickel. Get those big linebackers off the field, bring in some smaller ones—pass defenders—and a fifth defensive back. Offense is changing, too. Now there are three wide receivers and one tight end, or maybe two runners and two wide-outs. (See diagram page 47.) Up front the defensive linemen are rushing the passer, sack happy. There's a blitzer coming, too. Everyone else is dropping back into coverage. Hey, we fooled you. Power sweep, two guards pulling, big guys blocking little guys. Make the nickel back play like a linebacker. Crunch! First down.
The long, agonizing drive. Eat up the clock. Keep your defense off the field, keep the enemy quarterback playing catch on the sidelines. The pendulum swings, and we welcome back, from the pages of history, the running game. This, of course, is a reaction to all that defense against the passing game, which grew wings when the NFL changed the rules, which were changed because everyone was stopping the pass. Got it?
"If there's a trend developing, I'm not aware of it, or at least it's not that noticeable," says Buffalo Coach Kay Stephenson. O.K., the guy's new. He'll learn. The first three times the Bills gained over 100 yards rushing this year, they won. The two games that they've lost they were held to less than 100. The L.A. Raiders' offensive line coach, Sam Boghosian, is another who doesn't notice any great increase in running. Well, in 1981 the Raiders ratio of plays called was 45% run to 55% pass. In '82, when Marcus Allen came, it was roughly 50-50. This season, after six games, it's 54% run, 46% pass, with the same people.
Still not convinced? O.K., let's go to the charts. Two six-year trends have been reversed this season, both of which started when the NFL began introducing rules to help the passing game in 1977. The year before that, rushes per team per game (39.7) plus yards rushing per team per game (150.7) reached high-water marks for the postmerger era, but for the next six years both those figures dropped steadily. This year, through the first five weeks of play, the rushes-per-game statistic made a slight upward swing, but the yardage was up more dramatically—from 117.8 to 130.5, an 11% rise and the highest that figure has been since 1979. Even more striking, though, was the increase in yards per rush—4.1, fractionally higher than 1976 and the highest since 1972, when the hash marks were moved in, opening up the running game.
"Everyone's afraid of a bombing," Raider Center Dave Dalby says, "so they're all playing pass defense and giving teams a lot more room to run."
Raider Linebacker Ted Hendricks puts it another way: "Running is up because we have so many sacks."