Smash-mouth, back to the basics, “Marty-ball,” (circa Schottenheimer success), are all nicknames for a commitment to the ground game. When a team has a high-priced first-round draft pick at running back this commitment is hard to escape.
However, in 2008, with quarterbacks getting hurt Kansas City’s ground game grew less prominent with the emergence of Tyler Thigpen and his success in the spread offense.
By the end of the year, the Chiefs had no thousand yard rushers and despite a partial season, Thigpen was in the top fifteen among quarterbacks for passing touchdowns.
Enter Todd Haley. The offensive coordinator for an explosive air attack in Arizona his 2008 resume boasted the No. 2 and No. 16 ranked NFL receivers in total yards and the No. 3 quarterback in passing yards,
The script seemed designed for Thigpen to step-up as a rising talent, but Haley has already voiced that a great offense begins by working with the pieces available.
This means all the pieces, so back to the ground game.
Given the NFL’s trend toward tandem backfields the Chiefs will be wise to feature Larry Johnson not in a lessened role, but a more creative one.
Johnson needs to split carries with speedster Jamaal Charles. One dilemma is that Johnson insists more carries equal built up momentum and that he needs every carry to get to maximum output. However, Johnson and Charles pose different and complementary threats.
Running backs often have short-lived success in the NFL because of the beating their bodies take over the course of a 16-game regular season. Exceptions include anomalies like Barry Sanders, who had 10 consecutive stellar seasons prior to retirement, but the “workhorse” running back is becoming an endangered species.
The Giants pull off the “thunder and lightning” duo with the bruiser Brandon Jacobs and the shifty Derrick Ward, who both finished the season with over a thousand yard on the ground.
Carolina paired DeAngelo Williams with then-rookie Jonathan Stewart. Both backs finished in the top 25 of all running backs for rushing yards, and Williams managed a startling 5.5 yards-per-carry.
Still, one can’t ignore Haley’s history as a wide receiver coach with multiple teams before his stint with the Cardinals. A passing attack will remain and with the departure of Tony Gonzalez to Atlanta the Chiefs will rely on their receivers pick up the slack.
Now for why Thigpen’s feel-good story was canned before ever reaching production. The talented athlete is tied to the spread offense. This lead to the pistol formation, which featured the quarterback in the shotgun with the running back lined up directly behind him as if in the I-formation.
While the pistol has the running back lined up nearly as far as a punter it is not without potential. Multiple receiver formations spread the defense and bring in extra corners. This opens up the potential for successful underneath screens and delayed hand-offs.
Still though, needing to run everything out of the shotgun is more restrictive than most coordinators desire.
Enter Matt Cassel, a burst-onto-the-scene phenom who ranks in the top ten of all quarterbacks in quarterback rating. Somewhat the product of a great supporting cast, some questions linger, but he has shown he can make the throws and provides greater versatility.
This does not mean a total deviation from the perks of the pistol though. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey has shown the ability to help an offense adapt and he will be challenged to conjure up plans that resemble Haley’s adoration of the passing game and utilize a two-time pro-bowler in the backfield.
Now let’s get new-age with the game. While I am fond of the selfless, traditional fullback, let’s take him out for a few plays and in his place put another true running back.
Spread the defense by going three-wide with a two-back pro-form backfield. Out of this formation there is potential for a standard pass play, the delayed hand-off to Johnson up the middle on a small defense, or the underneath screen to Charles if he is covered by linebackers that stay in to cover the threat of Johnson.
The Chiefs will likely move toward a balanced offense and run out of atypical formations. Fans will still see that second tight end from time-to-time, but it will be interesting to note what percentage of run plays in 2009 are run out of formations with more than two receivers.
The pistol is not extinct, but it will be as rare as the “workhorse” running back.
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