Super Bowl 2012: Running game is an afterthought as Giants, Patriots prepare for Super Bowl

February 1, 2012

—The history of the Super Bowl includes memorable performances by superb running backs, lasting images of Marcus Allen and John Riggins breaking loose for long runs and Franco Harris, Larry Csonka and Emmitt Smith churning out yards.

But as the New York Giants and New England Patriots prepare to play here Sunday, the running backs are an afterthought. The two quarterbacks, the Patriots’ Tom Brady and the Giants’ Eli Manning, have done the heavy lifting on offense for their teams all season. The prospects for a running back carving a spot in Super Bowl lore this weekend seem slim.

“Isn’t it crazy?” former Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George said here this week. “The value of the running back has diminished greatly. That’s just the way of the league now. Everything is based off of the quarterback.”

No player on either Super Bowl team had even 700 rushing yards during the regular season. Neither team had a runner ranked among the league’s top 26 rushers. In the most pass-happy season in NFL history, the Giants and Patriots relied on their quarterbacks as heavily as just about any team.

“Rushing offense — that 350-carry, dominant back — is not a prerequisite for winning in this league,” said Brian Billick, who won a Super Bowl as coach of the Baltimore Ravens. “You like it. You’d love to have it. . . . But it’s not a prerequisite as long as you have . . . a dominant passing game, if you have a dominant quarterback, if you have an explosive team and don’t give up big plays,” Billick said.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis led the Patriots in rushing during the regular season with 667 yards. That put him 27th in the league. Ahmad Bradshaw, the Giants’ leading rusher with 659 yards, was 29th. The Patriots, as a team, ranked 20th in the league in rushing and the Giants were last, quite a departure for a franchise that traditionally has taken pride in a rugged ground game.

Nevertheless, “I feel like we can run the ball on anybody, which we haven’t been doing that well this season,” Giants running back Brandon Jacobs said. “I think if we can come out and get that going, that definitely will better our chances.”

The Giants did crank up their running game in the first round of the NFC playoffs, amassing 172 rushing yards in their triumph over the Atlanta Falcons. But that has been the exception rather than the rule this season. Jacobs added 571 rushing yards during the regular season, but he and Bradshaw each averaged less than four yards per carry.

“Back when I played, you had to have a franchise back,” said Marshall Faulk, a Hall of Fame running back for the Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams. “That guy got hurt, you said, ‘We’re in trouble.’ . . . But now with everybody throwing the ball like they’re throwing it, you almost grow a little leery of a team like San Francisco that actually runs the ball more than they throw it. You look at it like, ‘What’s that? Who plays like that?’ ”

Rookie running back Stevan Ridley had 441 rushing yards during the regular season for the Patriots. But he has only four carries during the playoffs. That’s half as many playoff carries as the Patriots have given to tight end Aaron Hernandez, who occasionally lines up in the backfield.

“Nowadays, I think the hybrid tight end has taken the place of the running back position,” George said. “Aaron Hernandez, not only is he a fantastic tight end, but he’s running the ball at times, and doing a great job of it. I think as you look forward, having that one guy that you depend on obviously has gone away.

“Adrian Peterson, he’s a top guy, and Chris Johnson. But you look throughout the league, and it’s based on running backs by committee. You look at last year’s team that won it all, the Green Bay Packers. It was running back by committee and really focused on Aaron Rodgers. So that’s the nature of the game now,” George said.

Green-Ellis said he is not bothered by the way the Patriots play or by the attention given to Brady and his top receivers, wideout Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski. Green-Ellis said he doesn’t feel that he and his contributions to the Patriots’ success are overlooked.

“I think we have some of the best players in the league at their positions, and I think we utilize them [with] whatever the best things they can do,” Green-Ellis said. “They help us win a lot of football games and hopefully they can continue to do those things.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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