I am generally a firm believer in the old adage that football games are won and lost in the trenches. A team should be built from the inside out, starting with offensive and defensive linemen. It is no secret, however, that some teams and even divisions maintain a certain style throughout long periods of their existence
Teams such as the Chicago Bears, the Baltimore Ravens, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have thrived in the past and present off of teams carried by defense and a strong running game. Similarly, the AFC West appears to have built a specific tradition of living and dying with strong offensive backfields.
Let's take a look.
Back in the eighties, the Oakland Raiders had some scary running backs. Marcus Allen (one of the best running backs of all time) backed up by Bo Jackson (one of the best athletes of all time) is quite possibly one of the strongest running back tandems in the history of football. This was the Raiders' bread and butter.
Around the same time, John Elway was lighting things up in Denver. Once head coach Mike Shanahan arrived on the scene the Broncos were destined for greatness. It's been said that the coach could turn any player into a 1,000 yard back. Elway, surrounded by Mike Shanahan's infamous revolving door of running backs, thrived under Shanahan and led the Broncos to Super Bowl victory.
The Chargers have seemed to mirror the Chiefs on offense for the better part of the past decade. LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees (both all-time greats) landed in San Diego in 2001, the same year Priest Holmes and Trent Green arrived in Kansas City. Michael Turner and Larry Johnson came along soon thereafter to back up LaDainian and Priest, they're more uniquely named first-string counterparts. This gave each team a good pocket-passing quarterback and a downright scary two-headed monster splitting carries at tailback. No wonder San Diego and Kansas City were the clear teams to beat in the AFC West during this period.
The Chiefs have a relatively distinguished history of their own as far as offensive backfields go, specifically the one consisting of former Raider great Marcus Allen and former 49er legend Joe Montana; however, I want to talk about the here and now.
The 2009 Raiders will be fielding an intimidating stable of running backs. Darren McFadden, Michael Bush, and Justin Fargas running behind grizzled fullback Lorenzo Neal is an eye-popping backfield, even with an apparent lack of a reliable starter at QB (unless JaMarcus Russell proves that he's worth his draft position and/or Jeff Garcia can avoid breaking a hip).
The Broncos drafted the highly talented and promising Knowshon Moreno with their first pick of the draft, adding him to a group that already boasted Peyton Hillis, J.J. Arrington, Correll Buckhalter, LaMont Jordan, and a couple others. Had the Broncos not traded away Pro Bowl QB Jay Cutler for Kyle Orton, this offensive backfield would look ridiculously loaded. In fact, it still kind of does.
The Chargers still have LaDainian Tomlinson, only now he's playing ahead of 5'6 speedster Darren Sproles. Philip Rivers is one of the league's highest-rated quarterbacks.
The Chiefs may have the weakest backfield in the division. Then again, they may have one of the best. Larry Johnson is still very capable of producing the monster numbers he put up in 2005 and 2006. Jamaal Charles is currently boasting a 5.3 yard-per-carry average, but it remains to be seen whether the shifty youngster can maintain that kind of production with a bigger load. Kolby Smith has shown flashes, but the jury is still out on the Louisville product due to injuries keeping him sidelined. Matt Cassel is the key here. If Cassel can prove that he's a legitimate number one QB, not just a product-of-the-system one-year-wonder, the Chiefs could have an offensive backfield envied by the rest of the West.
The story isn't all told on the offensive side of the football, though. For example, when the Chiefs were coached by Dick Vermeil, they had a nearly unstoppable offense but were often dragged down by a pitiful defense; however, while "pass" was a four-letter-word during the Vermeil era, the Chiefs were still great at stopping the run. The ability of AFC West teams to neutralize eachother's above average backfields on defense may be a direct result of necessity. Nevertheless, disrupting opponent's backfields by getting to the quarterback and stopping running plays behind the line is also key to AFC West success. This is evidenced by the division-dominant Chargers' defense, anchored by LB Shawne Merriman.
As the 2008 season saw the Chiefs start three different quarterbacks, run a pass-centric spread offense, and minimize the production of Pro Bowler Larry Johnson due to deactivation and suspension, the resulting 2-14 record and last place standing was no surprise. The Chiefs had many holes in their football team in 2008, and no one should pretend for a minute that a strong offensive backfield alone will win the AFC West; rather, a strong offensive backfield and the ability to stop said backfield on defense is the AFC West's style and strong point. I feel confident that any team in this division will struggle without these particular strengths.
Now don't get me started on AFC West tight ends.
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