Just as space was being cleared in the Smithsonian for a Productive NFL Running Backs exhibition, along came a week that reminded us that the creature is not extinct. Not yet, anyway.
On Sunday a season-high eight backs rushed for at least 100 yards. Chicago's Matt Forte led the charge with 205 yards, tied for the second-biggest ground game in Bears history, in a win over the Panthers. That came a week after Chicago was held to a franchise-low 13 yards on 12 carries in a loss to the Packers.
Granted, Sunday wasn't all about the run: 10 quarterbacks threw for at least 300 yards. But through the first three weeks there had been twice as many 300-yard passing games (34) as 100-yard rushing games (17). Since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002, there has never been a season in which quarterbacks led ballcarriers in those categories. Why the shift? Tighter illegal-contact rules for defenders and stricter enforcement of defenseless-receiver guidelines have shown teams that it's easier to travel by air.
However, a few teams are fully committed to the ground game, most notably Oakland, which under hard-nosed rookie coach Hue Jackson is averaging a league-high 178.8 yards per game and has the NFL's top rusher, Darren McFadden. "We take a ton of pride in running the ball," says left tackle Jared Veldheer. "When you can be a running team, you're a physical team. That's the epitome of football—one guy exerting his will on another."
The Raiders' linemen credit offensive line coach Bob Wylie with improving their technique. "[The coaches] spend time emphasizing certain targets instead of the entire man," says right tackle Khalif Barnes. "It might be a shoulder, it could be a left nipple, it could be a mustache hair. Really."
Wylie is an amateur magician who has appeared onstage with David Copperfield, but he doesn't believe in trickery in line play. It's about repetition ("I haven't changed a drill since training camp," he says), precision and technique. He demonstrated his point by showing a visitor that simply altering the position of his thumb while blocking makes it much more difficult for defenders to swat the arm away. "I made you stronger, and you didn't lift a weight," Wylie says. "So you teach them how the body works."
During Sunday's rash of 100-yard games, McFadden was held to 75 yards on just 14 carries by the Patriots. Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell threw for 344 yards, but Oakland still lost 31--19. That was par for the course: The 300-yard passers went 4--6, the 100-yard rushers 6--2. Running backs didn't exactly batter the image of the NFL as a passing league, but for one Sunday they showed that a ground game is still a viable weapon.