The cliché is that the line makes the running back, and one would think that to be particularly true when it comes to a team like the Miami Dolphins that possesses a young, emerging stable of blockers.
But, looking at the wide differences in yards per carry averages among their backs, it's clear that Dolphins fans should stake their 2008 hopes on Ronnie Brown's knee healing both fully and quickly.
Brown was the silver dollar lying in the mud pile for the painfully substandard Dolphins, gaining 602 yards in only seven games. The claim that he was the best player on the roster could be seen as less of an opinion and more a factual matter when one considers he picked up a superb 5.1 yards per carry.
Brown also obtained 86 yards rushing per game, good for seventh in the league; that statistic is particularly remarkable when one factors in Miami's oft-dysfunctional passing game.
By contrast, the Dolphins as a team averaged 4.0 yards per rush overall, an amount that's just about eternally the league's average. Brown's relatively high standard means that his fellow runners were collectively below middling.
Jesse Chatman was right at that typical level of productivity, gaining 515 yards from 128 attempts, while Samkon Gado had a modest 3.0 yards per carry in the five games in which he saw action after being added to the roster in the midst of the season; to be fair, Gado is sometimes used in short-yardage situations and did get three touchdowns in his limited activity. Lorenzo Booker also totaled a fairly good 4.5 yards a rush on his 28 carries, coincidentally the exact number of passes the emerging role player caught.
Patrick Cobbs only carried 15 times and then only got 3.1 yards each time, while Cleo Lemon picked up about 3.3 yards whenever he tried to personally help this team's rushing performance. None of the players who took Brown's place replaced him, meaning that his success had more to do with his own talent and efforts and less to do with the fact he happened to be carrying the ball when his line was cleaving through the defense.
At the same time, the player who had the biggest effect on the running game after the starter fell was a quarterback. Brown was hurt Oct. 21 against New England while making a tackle after an interception, an unfortunate incident that reflected his selflessness and focus on team. Still, whatever the reason, a change to a rookie quarterback once Brown was gone hindered the passing threat, a double blow to the rushing game.
Two games and a bye later, deposed coach Cam Cameron inserted John Beck into the lineup, further shackling an already limited aspect of the offense. The fact that Beck threw 107 passes over three full games and two partial contests indicates that this team was tending to run when he was in the game, not outrageously so but somewhat.
Beck did attempt 39 passes in their blowout loss to the Jets; they only ran 18 times in that game, understandable as they tried to overcome a deficit that just kept growing. On the other hand, 25 of their 47 plays against Philadelphia were runs, while they rushed 23 times compared to only 24 pass attempts in the Pittsburgh cyclone.
It's reasonable to acknowledge that the effort to install the alleged quarterback of the future dumped more pressure on running backs who, up until Week 7, had been reserves. That said, Brown is clearly more than his environment's product, and the success of his recovery is of paramount concern. It's especially true when those taking his place essentially proved that Ronnie Brown is not exactly a commonplace back benefiting from the system.