Originally created 01/01/02

Running is the secret to NFL success



Dennis Green was providing a running commentary of sorts. The Vikings coach was taking a look at the playoff picture, noting what sometimes gets ignored in the flash and dash of 21st century NFL passing attacks:

Don't forget the run.

"Every week, virtually ... the top five or six rushers every week win," Green said. "When it comes to the top five or six passers, it's probably three out of six win, maybe only two. That's been consistent. I think that's the nature of the league this year."

How about every year. As the playoff picture comes into clearer focus, take a look at some of the so-called surprise teams this season - teams having strong seasons after not making the playoffs in 2000.

Teams such as Chicago, which is leading the NFC Central. Or Green Bay, which clinched its first playoff berth since 1998 on Sunday against Cleveland. Or San Francisco, tied with Chicago for the second-best record in the league at 11-3.

See a common thread here? Each is running the ball more effectively than last season. Talk all you want about MVP quarterbacks; they get much of the ink. But listen to a former MVP quarterback talk about what has made the Packers so good this season:

"(It is) the running game being very stable and more consistent," Packers quarterback Brett Favre said weeks ago. "If (Packers offensive coordinator) Tom Rossley was down here talking to you right now, he'd tell you it's much easier to call a game when you can pick and choose the times you want to throw and what passes you want to throw. ... We haven't been in that situation."

That's one case in point. Last season, the Packers finished 23rd in the league in rushing and missed the playoffs. This season, with Ahman Green leading the NFC with 1,255 rushing yards, the Packers are vying for an NFC title.

And there are so many more. Think Rams and you think Kurt Warner and his aerial circus. But when the Rams took the league by storm in 1999, Warner was the feel-good story of the league, but the Rams' running game, ranked in the top 10, was the thing that kept defenses honest. When that running game slumped to 17th last season, the Rams' fortunes sagged a bit as well. This season, the Rams, with the No. 8 rushing game in the league, are the NFC's top playoff seed.

Or take San Francisco. Last season, quarterback Jeff Garcia emerged as the team leader, running the fourth-best passing attack in the league. But, ineffective running the ball, the 49ers finished 6-10. This season, the 49ers are enjoying Garrison Hearst's return from an ankle injury many thought would end his career. The 49ers are No. 2 in rushing this season.

"I really believe in my first year (1998), if Garrison didn't get hurt, we would have won the Super Bowl," 49ers safety Lance Schulters said. "That's the same feeling I have now, and we have a better defense now than we had then."

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers might be the class of the NFL, thanks in large part to Jerome Bettis. Chicago is experiencing a revival, in large part to its outstanding defense. But a renewed commitment to the run after offensive coordinator Gary Crowton left to become coach at Brigham Young and the emergence of James Allen has been a factor as well.

"If you look at Chicago, that is a very good football team," Green said. "It's a team that has won on the road and at home. It's a team that has won in a lot of different conditions. It's a team that has been able to run the football."

Or look at it the other way. Last season, Oakland finished 12-4 and played host to the AFC title game, thanks in part to the league's top-ranked rushing attack. This season, the Raiders still are a big playoff factor, leading the AFC West at 10-4. But in recent weeks, they have looked vulnerable, in part because of the running game, which is ranked 21st.

The Vikings' sixth-ranked rushing attack helped open up big passing plays last season. This season, that rushing attack has slumped to 26th.

The moral: Go ahead and get caught up in gaudy passing statistics; the MVP race already is considered a three-way race between quarterbacks Favre, Warner and Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart. But in the playoffs, if you can't run, you have a trouble hiding it.