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On Monday night, Sept. 24, the Buffalo Bills' Thurman Thomas gained 214 yards on 18 carries against the New York Jets, an average of 11.9 yards per carry. A day earlier, the Chicago Bears ran 43 times for 215 yards against the Minnesota Vikings, and at one point, from late in the second quarter until early in the fourth, Chicago called 19 consecutive rushing plays.
It has been suggested that these two performances be shipped to the Smithsonian and placed next to the dodo bird and the five-cent beer—because they represent a dying way of life, the NFL running game. The way things used to be but ain't no more. Imagine, all those yards from people like Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson, who had the ball handed, not thrown, to them.
Even with those gaudy performances by the Bills and the Bears, the standard of running the ball in the NFL has fallen to a depressingly low level. Through four weeks of the 1990 season (not counting Monday night's Cincinnati Bengals-Seattle Seahawks game), the single-game rushing average is 107.5 yards per team. If the running game doesn't pick up by the end of the season, that average will be the lowest since the league began keeping team rushing statistics in 1935. All right, you say, teams are calling fewer running plays. The rules adopted this year to speed up the game are taking away a few of them. Except that the average yards per carry, 3.91, is on the low end of the scale, too.
From the time the rules were modified in 1978 to open up offenses (freeing receivers' lanes and allowing offensive linemen to grab and push off, thus making the forward pass a very attractive means of traveling) through last season, backs rushed for 100 yards in a game an average of 21.5 times in the first four weeks of the season (not including '82, the strike season). This year there were 12 100-yard efforts after four weeks.
Of the top dozen rushers after four games last year, 10 have a lower average gain per carry in 1990. In 1989 the Atlanta Falcons were the worst rushing team in the NFL, with 1,155 yards, or an average of 72.2 per game. So far this year, six clubs have averages lower than that, including such former ground worthies as the Cleveland Browns, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers.
On Sept. 23, in a 27-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Los Angeles Rams—the John Robinson-coached Rams, who used to maul opponents with their ground attack—rushed for 35 yards, their lowest regular-season, single-game total since 1971. On the same day, the 49ers, whose nifty end runs formed the launching pad for their high-powered offense of the '80s, netted 26 yards on 18 sweeps against the Falcons. San Francisco had zero or minus yardage on 11 of those sweeps. At the end of the game, a 19-13 victory for the Niners, the Candlestick Park fans were chanting, "No more sweeps."
In training camp, Houston Oiler tailback Allen Pinkett, noting the wide-open rushing possibilities in his team's new run-and-shoot offense, surveyed the array of backfield talent on hand and said, "We could have two 1,000-yard runners in this offense." The Oilers are averaging 60.3 rushing yards a game, 27th in the NFL.
"It's so hard to consistently run the ball," says Houston coach Jack Pardee. "To line up and tell the other team you're going to run—well, to me that's the height of egotism. Who are you to think you're that much better than your opponent?"
That's part of the trouble, the mentality that says, "Let's do things the easy way. Let's take what they give us." The great teams of recent NFL eras weren't take-what-they-give-us teams. The Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, the Steelers of the late '70s, the Oakland/L.A. Raiders of the late '70s and early '80s, the last several 49er teams—they made people take what they dished out. Here's what we run, try to stop us. Today's defenses are giving offenses something difficult to run against, an eight-man front, and the offenses don't have the desire or, as we'll see, the skill to take it on. That, say the majority of offensive coaches, is why teams can't run the way they used to.
A normal front, or first line of defense, consists of seven men: three down linemen and four linebackers, or vice versa. The eighth man comes in the form of a safety, contoured along lines formerly undreamed of at this position, which once was reserved for smaller players. Now you see strong safeties like David Fulcher (6'3", 234 pounds) of the Bengals and Brian Washington (6'1", 220) of the New York Jets, plus the new phenomenon, the giant free safety—6'3", 213-pound Steve Atwater of the Denver Broncos; 6'2", 226-pound Louis Oliver of the Miami Dolphins; and 6'1", 221-pound Bennie Blades of the Detroit Lions.