As he studied film of the Seattle Seahawks’ offense this week, Washington Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield noticed something that passes for odd in the pass-heavy, quarterback-defined NFL he has come to know: They kept running the ball.
“It’s definitely changed,” Cofield said. “To see a team hand the ball off that much, it’s a good change for me.”
It actually reminded Cofield of the offense he has faced each day in practice since training camp. The Redskins, after all, have run the ball more than all but two teams. One of them, the team that has rushed more than any in the NFL this year, is the Seahawks.
And so Sunday’s playoff game at FedEx Field will provide a reminder that the NFL still has a place for offenses predicated on rushing the ball, that teams can lean on running backs and still keep up with the aerial shows that take place on most fields each Sunday.
The focus will undoubtedly be on star rookie quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, who have led the fourth- and ninth-highest scoring offenses in the NFL. But both teams base their offensive philosophy on a powerful, prolific running game, an endangered species in a league in which 5,000-yard passers have become commonplace.
The contest features the league’s second- and third-leading rushers in Alfred Morris, named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday, and Marshawn Lynch, who ran for 1,613 and 1,590 yards this season. On the sidelines will be Mike Shanahan and Pete Carroll, two coaches who have been around since the 1990s and have not abandoned the platitudes that dominated those times about running the ball and stopping the run.
“A lot of teams have been very successful the last five, six years not having a great running game, but usually good enough,” Shanahan said. “It’s always been my philosophy to have a balanced offense. When bad weather occurs, you’re able to have a little more balance.”
The success of the Redskins and Seahawks does not represent a league-wide smashmouth revival. Teams rushed 27.2 times per game this season, tied with 2010 for the lowest mark in NFL history. Rushing remains largely absent from some of the best offenses – the No. 3 seed Green Bay Packers have not produced a 100-yard rusher in 43 games.
But they prove a strong running game still has a place in a league where point totals skyrocket like the score on a pinball machine. While rules and strategies have made passing the dominant form of offense, when teams choose to run, they do it better now than ever. As defenses have changed in personnel (smaller, quicker linebackers) and scheme (more five- and six-back defenses on early downs) to combat pass-happy attacks, running has become easier, too. NFL teams gained 4.3 yards per carry this season, tied with 2011 for the highest average ever.
“It’s the game of football,” Carroll said. “If you have the proper commitment and you build around it, [running the ball] may be the best way you can count on being consistently successful.”
The NFC playoff field is a bastion for those thirsting for pulling guards rather than five-wide receiver formations. The Vikings made the playoffs in Week 17 as Adrian Peterson bulled his way to a 2,000-yard season. The 49ers, led by bruising running back Frank Gore and quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who ran the Pistol offense in college, will watch the first round with a bye.
“It does show the ground game is definitely still needed,” Morris said. “I know a lot of teams now pass the ball around, but you definitely need a running attack. A lot of teams don’t go as far because they don’t have a rushing attack. You can’t win games if you don’t get it done on the ground as well.”
Washington and Seattle may offer opposition to the refrain of the NFL as a passing league. But they also hammer home the idea that it is a league defined by quarterback play. If there is a coming wave of college-style, zone-read offenses in the NFL, it started with the Redskins and Griffin and was next co-opted by the Seahawks and Wilson. Griffin led NFL quarterbacks with 815 rushing yards, and Wilson was third with 489.
Carroll said the Redskins commit to more designed runs by their quarterback, but that the Seahawks rushed 536 times, more than any other NFL team, by design. Teams like the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots, he said, have become so reliant on passing because their quarterback allows them to “control the football throwing.”
Carroll believes it would be misguided to try to copy them, that only an elite quarterback ingrained in a franchise makes such an offense work. For him, it is better to establish a run-based offense any quarterback can complement.
“I didn’t want to build an offense around some special player that could come and go,” Carroll said. “I wanted to build around a philosophy, an approach and a mentality that we could consistently present.”
And they have. When Cofield watched those handoffs on film, he saw Lynch juke around, smash through and race by defenders.
“All that Beast Mode stuff, it’s all true,” Cofield said, referencing Lynch’s nickname. “Watch him on tape, and it looks like he’s angry at everybody out there and he doesn’t want to be tackled, ever.”
Cofield still looks forward to the challenge, in part because of what Sunday’s game represents. The NFL may be a passing league, but teams can still win by running.
“There are quite a few teams in the playoffs that have good run games,” Cofield said. “That’s a testament to the old-school game. That’s what Coach Shanahan preaches all the time – we want to run the ball, stop our opponent from running the ball.”