- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
By contrast, you have to go down 48 places among the NCAA leaders in rushing statistics to find a Division I college team that didn't roll up 200 yards a game on the ground. Nebraska, Oklahoma and Alabama averaged more than 300. Since the early 1970s the NCAA rushing average per game, both teams, all teams, has been close to 400 yards every single year.
One might further argue that the reason for this huge disparity is that colleges sacrifice total offense for the safer aspects of the running game and that the pros, with their greater emphasis on the forward pass, offer a livelier blend of entertainment, but one would be dealing in nonsense. On either count. The college running attacks are not only more productive, but they are also more imaginative, as we will see, and stimulate a greater yield in total offense. Not one NFL team came within 100 yards of the collegiate total offense leaders, BYU's 535 yards and Nebraska's 506.9 yards a game. Since the late 1960s, college rushing leaders have averaged more than 450 yards a game (Oklahoma's 566 in 1971 is tops). The first 15 college teams in total offense last year averaged more than 400 yards a game. Only one NFL team could make that statement—San Diego, quietly, at 400.6 per game. That would have been 16th on the NCAA list. Four NFL teams didn't even get 300 a game, despite the league's well-ballyhooed increase in "passing efficiency."
The indictment carries an added charge on that particular point. Increased passing in a game ordinarily means more plays because incompletions stop the clock. Yet pass all they might, NFL teams still manage, somehow, to give their fans about 10% less offense (i.e., fewer plays) than the colleges. Year after year, games involving Division I college teams average more than 140 plays. The pros average about 130. That conclusion is obvious if you can remember what makes you fall asleep before the second half every Monday night. The NFL always leads the colleges in dragging out of and back into the huddle and in standing around doing nothing while waiting for "commercial" breaks and two-minute warnings (same thing).
But the subject here is the waste of talent, not its existence. The NFL is, of course, loaded with talented running backs. Their names are familiar to any college fan who sees them being developed and delivered on a platter to the pros: Campbell, Sims and Payton. Anderson, Dorsett and Cribbs. Pruitt, Harris and White. And now Rogers and McNeil. The pros get them all. The pros have great running backs, no doubt about it. What they do not have is great running attacks.
In the hands of the NFL, the talent that seems to squirt from a thousand holes at the undergraduate level takes on a sameness of application (where and how they run the ball) and a poverty of fulfillment (the yards they make) that is often painful to see. Ironically, deception and finesse are the earmarks of NFL passing attacks. College coaches marvel at the sophistication of the pro passing game. They laugh up their sleeves at pro running attacks.
Option running, crisply blocked counters and misdirection plays, effective double-team blocking, successful bootlegs—the elements of a versatile running attack—are virtually alien to the pro game. Hand-offs are simple and to the point, easily followed from the last row of the upper deck. If you lose track of the ball in a pro game, you're either blind or have had a peanut vendor pass in front of you. When a pro team runs a reverse, it looks like cows on ice.
The most thrilling play in football has always been the breakaway run—the long broken-field run that leaves tacklers strewn in the wake of a skilled ballcarrier and his blockers. When a long run occurs in the pros, it's usually an accident. About the only time you see one is when the opposition is in a short-yardage defense, everybody commits, a mistake is made, the back pops through and is gone. That, or when a Payton, Sims or Campbell, through the exercise of a prodigious ability, makes a lot more out of something than he should.
Through the first nine games last year, some of the finest backs the game could muster—Tony Dorsett of Dallas, Don Calhoun of New England, Delvin Williams of Miami, Lynn Cain of Atlanta, Joe Washington, then with Baltimore, and Joe Cribbs of Buffalo—hadn't made a run of more than 20 yards. Cain was the sixth-leading rusher in the National Conference, and his longest run was a 14-yarder. At season's end, only one NFL back, the irresistible Campbell, averaged 100 yards a game. Some of the best—Cain, Chuck Muncie, Vagas Ferguson, Ricky Bell, Elvis Peacock, Dexter Bussey, Franco Harris—were all under 60. That's not bad, it's pitiful.
No amount of NFL propaganda or rules and statistics-keeping modification has been able to bury the body. Some years ago, the league even changed its accounting procedures so that yards lost on quarterback sacks would be charged, justifiably, against passing totals instead of rushing. The fact that the colleges still count sacks against their rushing totals only makes their rushing preeminence that much more discernible. For example, in a game against Nebraska, Florida State wound up with a net of 12 yards rushing—but sacks totaling 88 yards were charged against its rushing production. The NFL would have called that a 100-yard rushing day.
So why can't NFL teams run the football better than they do?