Why Running the Ball No Longer Matters in the NFL

Zach KruseSenior Analyst IFebruary 6, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 05:  Fullback Ahmad Bradshaw #44 of the New York Giants scores on a six-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots during Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 5, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The clock at Lucas Oil Stadium was ticking under a minute, with the New York Giants tantalizingly close to securing their second Super Bowl win in four years.

The score read 17-15 Patriots, but a chip-shot field goal after running down most of the clock would more than likely stamp the Giants' name on the 46th Lombardi Trophy.

Eli Manning handed off on first down, got one yard. On second down, Patriots coach Bill Belichick instructed his defense to allow Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw to score. So, on the very next play, the Patriots created a crease that the Giants bus could have drove through, and Bradshaw couldn't resist the temptation. Against Manning's orders, Bradshaw ran full-speed for the goal line, dead set on putting his name in the history books as the guy whose last minute touchdown won the Giants a Super Bowl.

Then reality struck. Stopping short could mean valuable seconds tick off the championship clock, Bradshaw realized. It was too late, however, as Bradshaw slammed on the breaks but couldn't stop himself from crossing the goal line, all of it happening in slow motion like a screeching car attempting to keep itself before slamming into the idiot who ran the red light.

And yet, in the end, Bradshaw's run was the game-winning moment for New York.

But the whole sequence was such a perfect moment to recap what the NFL has become in recent years. A running back, smelling a Super Bowl win at the goal line, attempts to stop himself from scoring a go-ahead touchdown in favor of draining clock so that a 5,000-yard passer with a disposition for dramatics couldn't win the game on the very next drive, never mind the fact the Giants defense had held said quarterback to just 17 points over 59 minutes.

It's become a pass-centered league this NFL, and you can't blame Bradshaw for wanting his piece of the Super Bowl glory. Because the simple fact remains that the Giants could have easily won this Super Bowl without Bradshaw on the roster.

In 2011, the running game is dead—struck down by the sword of knighted quarterbacks and rule changes that pamper those idolized faces of the game.

The recent history of the NFL's most important game is all the evidence we need about the death of the running game.

The last three NFL champions—the Saints, Packers and Giants—and their respective runner-ups—the Colts, Steelers and Patriots—mostly lacked a dominant running game. The '09 Saints were the closest we get to having an old-time running game, but even their 2,000-plus rushing yards were fueled by a quarterback with an uncanny mastery of the position.

The Giants and Packers ranked 32nd in the NFL in rushing yards during each's regular season, although the two did perform better in the postseason.

Still, the Giants' six-game run to win the Super Bowl wasn't sparked by Bradshaw getting hot in the postseason. It wasn't because Brandon Jacobs starting rattling off 100-yard games. The Giants remarkable run was brought on because Manning got hot at the right time and stayed red-hot.

Same goes for the Packers last season. Rodgers went crazy during the Packers' six-game run despite getting just one 100-yard rushing performance during that stretch. 

The game has evolved, and the running game has subsequently died in the survival of the fittest.

Over the last two seasons, just four of the top-five rushing teams have made the playoffs. Zero made it as far as the conference championship.

Maurice Jones-Drew, the NFL's rushing champion, helped the Jacksonville Jaguars win a grand total of five games in 2011. Arian Foster, the top rusher from the year before, was a part of just six wins.

In contrast, the top rater passer in those years—Tom Brady in 2010 and Aaron Rodgers in '11—won a combined 29 games. In opposite years, each made the Super Bowl too. 

Football traditionalists hate the death of the running game. But it's a pretty obvious truth that we can see in champions and near champions of the last three years. 

You can win games and get into the postseason with a dominant running game. But if you don't have a top-level quarterback and passing offense, you automatically rule out winning the top prize. Those handicapped teams compete for postseason appearances, not championships.

And that, in the end, is why the running game matters very little in the NFL today.