The word "parity" has become synonymous with NFL football these days. Every team in the NFL looks to what makes other teams successful and attempts to copy that approach.
One needs to look no further than the number of teams that use two or more running backs in their ground attack, or the number of teams that use some form of the West Coast Offense, made famous by Bill Walsh and his 49ers. Every team in the NFL molded some facet of its game after another team. How many teams ran a 3-4 defense before Pittsburgh beat the Seahawks with it in Super Bowl XL?
Mike Shanahan is one of the great offensive minds in the history of football, especially when it comes to the running game. Under Shanahan, the Broncos have had a running back accumulate more than 1,000 yards in every season but two—a period dating back to 1995.
Even more amazing is the fact that the last time the Broncos' starting running back was the same as the previous year was in 2002-2003, when Clinton Portis ran wild before being traded to Washington for Champ Bailey.
It's hard to argue that the success of Denver’s running game is based on great scouting and player development; after all, when was the last time you heard about former 1,000-yard Broncos running backs Reuben Droughns, Mike Anderson, or Tatum Bell? So how does Shanahan consistently produce thousand yard rushers?
The answer lies in the offensive line.
The Broncos use a zone blocking scheme, and all of their offensive linemen fit into their roles. Denver relies on light, fast offensive linemen to set up blocks. Using their quickness and agility, they create gaps and holes running backs can easily dart through. The offensive linemen, being smaller, can get farther into the second level to put up blocks on linebackers and safeties, allowing the running back to move deep into the defensive backfield before having any contact with defensive players.
Today, three of five of the Broncos' offensive linemen weigh more than 300 pounds, and as a result they have struggled in the running game. And despite having a great young quarterback in Jay Cutler, they have sluggishly moved to 4-4.
So what does this have to do with the Bills' running game (or lack thereof)? Simple: The Bills use a zone blocking scheme, much like the Broncos. However, they do not have the slim (by offensive lineman standards), quick linemen that Denver boasted while at the height of their running offense success.
Instead, the Bills have built the largest offensive line in the league. Because of this, instead of using quickness and agility to create holes, they get hit and form a wall. Even with talented backs Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson, it has proved next to impossible to find holes in an offensive line that has an average height of 6'6" and a combined weight of 1,661 pounds (an average of 332.2 pounds per lineman).
After all, when you look at the Bills' running game, the backs aren’t getting tackled in the backfield. Instead, they're running for no gain or just a few yards; not enough to make them a serious threat to any defense.
The only time the Bills do have success running the ball is when they run to the outside, away from the offensive line. Even then, though, the offensive linemen aren’t quick enough to get out and put up blocks against the linebackers, a task which is then left up to the receivers, tight ends, and fullback.
When Cato June went into free agency after playing for Indianapolis for the previous four years, the experts and analysts all talked about how important it was for June—and possible suitors—to make sure he would fit into the system of the defense. He chose to go with Tampa Bay—a perfect fit. After all, they ran the same defense in Indianapolis under former Bucs coach Tony Dungy.
June has excelled in Tampa’s defense, which has infused youth (June, Barret Ruud, and Gaines Adams) with veteran experience in players like Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, and the underrated Chris Hovan to form one of the best defenses in football today and a prime example of why players must fit your scheme to be successful.
The Bills' offensive line simply doesn’t fit its blocking scheme. So what’s the solution? Building a new offensive line could take many years, and time, as every Bills fan worried about the team's future after Ralph Wilson knows, is not a luxury they have. It would also cost millions of dollars in free agency and through draft picks. Considering the amount of money already paid to bring in studs Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker, the team probably isn’t too keen on rebuilding the line and essentially making all the money a waste.
The easiest solution would be to change the blocking scheme; however, such a change would mean practically a whole new playbook. Not only would the offensive linemen have to learn a new technique and scheme, but the running backs would have to relearn the offense so they know where holes will be and how to attack them.
However, such an undertaking eight weeks into the season probably isn’t advisable, so for this year fans have to hope that the Bills can find some way to run the ball to the outside more, and that Trent Edwards can learn to carry the offense like he did through the first four weeks of the season when the Bills were undefeated. Hopefully for every fan, the scheme will change for next season.
When a new blocking scheme and a rejuvenated rushing attack can combine with the Bills' already potent passing attack and solid defense, the Bills will truly have a shot at the Lombardi Trophy. Until then, I’ll be one of 74,000 fans in Ralph Wilson Stadium for every home game and I'll be watching every road game on TV hoping, praying, and BILLieving that this is our year.