As one decade gave way to the next, NFL football was more popular than ever. The game was being dominated by colorful star QB's who were taking the passing game to new heights. It's a passing league, chanted the experts. Pro defenses were too big, fast and smart for the running game to be more than a complement to the aerial circus. But along came a controversial figure from the college ranks, deeply religious, determined to prove that his ground attack could work on an NFL level. In his first season at the helm, he guided a formerly last-place team through a marvelous string of victories, galvanizing the public in the process.
“When I first came into (the NFL), everybody was saying that you just couldn’t sustain a running game against the pros, that their defenses were too large and too mobile,” wrote Lombardi in Run to Daylight. “They forgot that everything in football, as in physics, is relative and the offense could be every bit as big and just as mobile.”
The rest is well-known football history. Lombardi's background was in coaching college football, specifically, the Army Academy. His run-heavy, "college" playbook was met with skepticism in the NFL ranks, where passers like Johnny Unitas and Y.A. Tittle reigned supreme. But soon, Lombardi's Packers were winning titles with a ground-and-pound offense that didn't always light up the scoreboard.
Instead, his offense minimized mistakes, helped its defense by winning the field position and turnover battles, and whacked you relentlessly until your defense broke down. "Lombardi never really thought about winning," wrote Hunter S. Thompson, "his trip was not losing." The formula was so successful, so dominant, that a generation of NFL coaches would copy it. The NFL would become a power-running league for the next 15 years until Don Coryell, and later Bill Walsh, revitalized the passing game.
Tebow's success with the 2011 Broncos bears a strange resemblance to Lombardi's first season with the Packers in 1959. Each team began the year as hapless underdogs. Both turnarounds were led by famously religious figures (Lombardi nearly became a Catholic priest after prep school).
Both teams seemed to benefit from late-game breaks—the Packers downed a coffin-corner Max McGee punt that led to a go-ahead safety in Lombardi's first win.
The Pack went 1-10-1 in 1958 while running an in-vogue offense under Scooter McLean ("Green Bay overwhelmed one opponent, underwhelmed ten, and whelmed one," wrote Red Smith) and went 7-5 in Lombardi's first season of Academy dive plays and power sweeps. The Broncos went 1-4 (and 4-12 the previous season) with Kyle Orton and 8-5 after switching to Tebow and a run-heavy, "college" playbook. Denver lost four of their last five, similar to the '59 Packers' mid-season losing streak, a lack of overall talent eventually catching up.
Talking heads and journalists from ESPN to the Huffington Post have said that the Broncos' 2011 turnaround was lucky, or had no logical explanation but was instead some kind of quasi-religious miracle, playing on Tebow's well-publicized Baptist faith.
Nothing could be further from the truth. If Lombardi were alive today, he would point out that Denver won for absurdly simple and fundamental reasons. The Broncos protected the ball, gaining positive yards and taking possessions away from the opposing team, throwing their beleaguered defense a life raft. Tebow engineered the No. 1 ranked running game in the league with his read-option play; it worked in college, why shouldn't it work in the pros? Of course they won in the fourth quarter and overtime, what do you think happens when you wear a defense out?
Such is the sad state of sports journalism in our age that commentators en masse would throw up their hands and blame mystical voodoo vibes rather than question a popular dogma.
The NFL is not a passing league. It never has been. The NFL is a football league, and the sport remains fundamentally the same regardless of how big, fast and talented its athletes become.
Yes, NFL rules encourage passing, but the strategic nature of football still makes rushing yards more valuable than passing yards. How many times does a team throw for 300 yards and lose? Quite often. Can you think of the last time an NFL team ran for 300 yards and lost? Even a 400-yard passing day can still add up to a loss; just ask Cam Newton. Now imagine an NFL team rushing for 400 yards and losing. Offensive linemen still flourish when blocking downhill, not when asked to pass-block on their heels for four quarters. Ball control is still important. Turnovers still come easier on passing downs. Defenses are still vulnerable to the big downfield strike when their safeties cheat to defend the run; just ask the Steelers.
Many say that if Tebow starts in New York this season, the Jets are doomed. Apparently it would be just impossible to win games by gaining 200+ yards on the ground, not turning the ball over, hitting occasional bombs and playing top-10 defense. Funny, I thought we were watching football.
Jim Harbaugh's 49ers are another case study. Harbaugh didn't draft Colin Kaepernick so that Kaepernick could run the "Wildcat" -- a gadget play with a pocket QB lined up at wide receiver -- but because he recognizes that the new, pistol/spread option running schemes at the college level can, and will, work in the NFL. Yes, NFL defenses are bigger, faster and smarter, and Harbaugh will counter them with his bigger, faster and smarter NFL offense. From the looks of Kaepernick's first appearance this preseason, Coach might be on to something.
Harbaugh's two predecessors, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, asked Alex Smith to lead with his arm, and floundered in turnover ratio, thereby giving themselves the chance to look for new jobs and relocate their families. In 2011, Harbaugh calmly pounded teams up the middle while the public worshiped at the altar of Sean Peyton and Drew Brees. Before the bounty scandal could embarrass the Saints, the 49ers humbled them in the playoffs with sound, fundamental, run-heavy football for San Francisco's 14th old fashioned, outdated, passing league win of the season.
Perhaps in 50 years, the NFL running game will be in vogue once again. It's a running league now, experts will say, reasoning that no pocket QB can stand up to the beating from 400 pound, bionically engineered pass rushers who can run 100 yards in 4 seconds. And along will come a seven-foot tall Methodist with a nuclear-cyborg arm who will resurrect the passing game and prove the experts wrong.
But I know one thing. Every so often, that plutonium arm will be handing the damn thing off.