In last week's season finale at Green Bay, the Lions-Packers scoreathon that produced the most points (86) in a contest all year, the teams combined for only 39 rushing attempts in 147 total snaps, and the game essentially turned into a track meet, with both quarterbacks passing for 500-plus yards.
So it's only natural that, in a record-setting season in which offenses around the NFL were so severely skewed toward the pass, the presumption is that the playoffs will follow suit. And it's certainly a pretty fair assessment, given the manner in which the regular season played out. After all, five of the league's top 10 passers, and three of the top four, are participants in this weekend's wild card games.
But before anyone contacts the local FAA authorities for air-space clearance over the stadiums that will host the wild card-round matchups, there are a few dissenters to the notion that the pass will comfortably trump the run. Not all that surprisingly, most of them, of course, are running backs, who contend their efforts will hold some sway in the outcome of the Saturday and Sunday wild card games.
"I think a lot of people have the perception that we're only about the pass," New Orleans tailback Pierre Thomas told The Sports Xchange. "But we're a lot more balanced than people think, and I can't see that changing in the playoffs. Running games will have their say, believe me. They always do. You can't just be all that one-dimensional at any point, but especially in the playoffs."
Granted, running attacks around the NFL were forced to take a back seat during a 2011 season in which a record three quarterbacks threw for more than 5,000 yards and 10 passers registered 4,000 yards or more. But the running game, claim many backs and coaches, won't just be along for the ride in the playoffs.
Three of the league's statistical top six rushing attacks are in the wild card round. That includes the top two running clubs, Denver (No. 1) and Houston (No. 2); the Saints are the NFL's sixth-ranked ground team. Even though half of the weekend's four wild card matchups will be indoors -- assuming the roof is closed at Reliant Stadium for the Bengals-Texans game -- there remain some true believers in the time honored adage that you've got to be able to run to win in January. The kind of weather that once rendered playoff games running-game scrums won't be a factor. The running game, however, will be, some players insisted.
"It's our calling card," Denver tailback Willis McGahee said. "I can't imagine that we're just going to flip a switch in the playoffs and throw 50 passes. That just isn't us, you know?"
Said Atlanta tailback Michael Turner, who did not play in the 2009 regular-season contest in which the Falcons took the New York Giants to overtime before bowing 34-31, but who will be in the lineup when Atlanta travels to East Rutherford for its Sunday afternoon wild card game: "You can't just ignore the runners in these games. It would be a mistake."
It would, as well, run counter to the recent history of the wild card round. Running attacks have traditionally been a big part of the playoffs, and have been especially conspicuous in the wild card round.
In the 20 previous wild card matchups, dating back to 2006, the team that held an edge in the running game won 17 times. In an 18th game, Cincinnati and the New York Jets each rushed for 171 yards in 2009; the Jets won the game. The stats are anything but a fluke, Saints coach Sean Payton, who preaches a physical running game more than most observers might think, agreed last week.
"There's going to come a time (in the playoff games) when you're going to have to be able to run the football," Payton said. "People do it."
Payton knows, painfully so, that's the case. His team was upset at Seattle last year in the wild card round, when the Seahawks ran for 150 yards, nearly twice as many yards as New Orleans netted on the ground (77). In fact, in the four wild card games from 2010, the winning team out-rushed the losers by an average of 60.0 yards per game. None of the four winning clubs ran for fewer than 138 yards. Just one losing team had more than 100 rushing yards.
In the past two seasons, the eight losing wild card teams averaged a puny 92.38 yards rushing, and three had fewer than 80 yards on the ground.
The winning teams in the past 20 wild card contests averaged 144.15 rushing yards per game. In 15 of those games, the winners had 100 yards or more, and they went over the 150-yard mark on 11 occasions. There were five games in which the winning club ran for more than 170 yards. On the flip side, the 20 losing wild card entries averaged only 84.95 rushing yards per outing. They cracked 100 yards just four times; only three times in the 20 games did a team run for 150 yards or more and lose the game.
"I know everyone says, like, 'Oh, the passing game is where it's at.' But I still think you set the tone and send a message with the run," said Baltimore tailback Ray Rice, whose 83-yard burst on the opening play of the Ravens' 33-14 manhandling of the Patriots at New England in 2009 paced his club to a 234-yard rushing effort. "You want to be able to impose your mindset in the playoffs, if you can, and you can still do that with the run."
Even the Giants, who ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards per game (89.2) and average yards per rush (3.5) during the regular season, are adamant they have to run the ball this weekend, and in the playoffs in general, to be successful. This from a team that had only four rushes of 20 yards or more, and was one of only two clubs in the league without a 4-yard run, during the year.
Brandon Jacobs tallied just 571 rushing yards in 2011, his worst output since 2006, before he became a starter. Tailback tag-team partner Ahmad Bradshaw ran for only 659 yards, and hasn't had so few since 2008, the last time he logged fewer than 100 attempts in a season. But the Giants still feel the running attack will be critical as they begin postseason play against the Falcons.
"Sure, it's the playoffs, and everyone is (re-energized) by that," Bradshaw said. "But it's still January, (defenders) arms are tired, people don't want to come up and hit as much if they don't have to. I'm not saying we're going to reverse the passing trend from the season.
"But you still have to run, too, in the playoffs." Around the league
Generally speaking I
Following the shocking dismissal this week of vice chairman Bill Polian and general manager Chris Polian by Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay, there are plenty of questions about who will run the Colts' football operation moving forward. The one person to whom it is believed Irsay has not reached out to yet is the man he considers his "dream candidate," in the words of one trusted Indianapolis staffer: former coach Tony Dungy.
Let's be straight about this: Irsay does not consider Dungy a viable candidate, and when Dungy says he will not coach again, the Indianapolis owner believes that means he will also not consider front office jobs, either. But Irsay, the source said, has "bounced (Dungy's) name off the walls" of the club's facility, and "thought (a)loud" about the possibilities."
Is anything going to come of the unofficial infatuation? Almost certainly not.
Is it worthwhile to even mention Dungy? Well, it does offer some insight into the wide-ranging, and occasionally out-of-the-box thinking of Irsay right now.
Dungy, still beloved in Indianapolis, would provide some instant credibility and respect to a team that crumbled without Peyton Manning in 2011, and which faces some difficult decisions about the quarterback position and the futures of several long-time veterans at other spots as well. He would probably also retain coach Jim Caldwell, whose continued tenure is tied to the man whom Irsay selects to replace the Polian tandem.
Just as Dungy can be all but written off, one can also dismiss the notion that Irsay, who served as the team's general manager for 13 seasons (1984-96), will pull a Jerry Jones, and assume the GM spot himself. That's as unlikely to occur as Dungy coming back to run the show.
Generally speaking II
Green Bay director of football operations Reggie McKenzie will become the Oakland general manager in the reorganization of the Raiders' front office since the death of owner Al Davis, and it's both fair and correct to note that former longtime league executive Ron Wolf played a key role in the recommendation and the hire. But McKenzie had a lot of people in his corner, and as was noted in the Tip Sheet in the past, one of them was retired league executive Ken Herock who, like Wolf, has ties to both the Raiders and the Packers.
Over the past two months, we've hinted in this space that an unnamed former front office person was closely advising Davis' son and heir, Mark Davis, about the football operation in Oakland. And now, with the McKenzie hiring about to become official, and the cat out of the bag, so to speak, we can report that Herock was that person.
In the interest of full disclosure, we'll acknowledge that Herock is a close friend, and that we were taken into his confidence over the past few months. But The Sports Xchange is now free to report that, not only did Herock counsel the younger Davis from afar, he actually made two trips, for three weeks total, to observe the club's operation on-site.
In fact, Herock was to have made a third visit this week, possibly to participate in the general manager interviews, but some business conflicts made that impossible. Wolf and Herock, longtime friends, comprised a pretty formidable scouting tandem when they worked together. Now they have essentially teamed up to help shape the Raiders' future.
Seeds are sown It has become a playoff-time tradition, the suggestion that the NFL should perhaps re-seed the six playoff teams per conference, and rank the clubs by their final records, without regard to division supremacy. The public outcry hasn't been nearly as loud this year, but Atlanta team president Rich McKay, chairman of the league's powerful competition committee, expects the idea to come up again in the spring.
"I don't sense any kind of groundswell," McKay told The Sports Xchange this week. "But it's still early. We haven't sent out our surveys yet to teams (seeking input regarding potential rules changes or area of emphasis); that's still about two weeks off. But I'm sure someone will bring it up again."
McKay guessed that the "re-seed" idea has come up three times in the past five years, and actually made it "to the floor," for a vote by owners at the annual league meeting, two years ago.
Said McKay: "I'm not sure it will be brought forward for a vote, but my guess is that we'll discuss it again (as a committee). It seems to bubble up from time to time."
The rationale of the re-seed proponents is a fairly well-grounded one. Since the 2002 realignment that essentially created the current format, the visiting wild-card team has had a better record, or a regular-season mark as good as that of the home club, at least twice in eight of the 10 years. Three times in the 10 seasons (including this year), there were three wild card qualifiers with better records than the division champions they met in the opening round. This year, both Atlanta (10-6) and Pittsburgh (12-4) have better records than the clubs they will face this weekend, the New York Giants (9-7) and Denver Broncos (8-8), respectively.
Were the playoffs to be re-seeded purely according to records, Atlanta would be the No. 4 seed in the NFC, and would host Detroit in the wild card round. The Steelers would be the AFC's third-seeded team and would actually host the Broncos, instead of playing at Denver. The dicey issue, McKay acknowledged, is the widely-held belief that there should still be a premium, i.e., a home game, for winning a division title.
"That's still (the mindset), and I can see both sides of the argument," McKay said. "People want the division titles to count for something, to still be relevant, and they might lose some of that if the format changed. ... So I don't see it changing."
The one element that might, McKay noted, alter some thinking: an 18-game schedule. "When it (the potential re-seeding) was connected to that," he said, "it was more in play."
Mild cards For the sixth time in the 10 seasons since realignment, at least three of the wild card teams this weekend will enter the playoffs with double-digit victories, and Pittsburgh will be the fifth wild card franchise with at least 12 wins since 2002. The 41 combined victories for the wild card quartet are slightly above the average for the previous nine years under the current format, 40.3 wins, and there have been only three seasons in which the wild card teams had a better aggregate.
With all that said, the wild cards from 2011 are certainly a flawed bunch. The clubs were a miserable 7-19 (.269) combined against opponents who finished the regular season with winning records. And the Steelers accounted for four of those victories; conversely, the Lions had none. Against opponents who finished .500 or worse, the wild card franchises were a gaudy 34-4 (.895).
The wild card teams' road records are also pertinent, since all of them obviously play away from home this weekend. On the road, the four wild card teams were a combined 19-13 overall, and were just 7-12 on the road versus opponents who finished the season at .500 or better.
It ads up
At an average price of $3.5 million per 30-second spot -- with some of the slots topping out at $4 million -- NBC recently announced that it has sold its entire advertising inventory for Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5. What is perhaps even more interesting than the terrific efforts by the NBC sales/marketing teams is that some of the advertisers have acknowledged their willingness to sell off ad spots if there are buyers who want to spend even more.
It's certainly an element of the Super Bowl ad game not previously discussed: the possibility that some companies, and the network, could essentially auction off advertising rights.
If there are any doubters remaining out there who don't believe the NFL, and some of the ancillary entities connected officially or unofficially to the league, don't own the golden goose, well, think again. The fact the league recently re-upped with the networks for nine more years, and the revelation about the advertising spots and the potential for raising the ante, should be more than enough convincing.
Jones-ing for a quarterback
The decision this week by Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones to remain in school, rather than make himself available for the NFL draft, figures to have some ripple effects. Jones is the second underclass passer to announce he will stay in school, joining Matt Barkley of Southern Cal, and while those decisions don't quite gut the position, they make it more likely that clubs will scramble a bit for quarterback prospects, and perhaps reach a bit.
The beneficiaries certainly are senior prospects such as Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M and Arizona's Nick Foles, and, to a lesser extent, Boise State's Kellen Moore, Russell Wilson of Wisconsin, and Case Keenum of Houston.
"It's still early and there's a ton of work to be done, but a lot of guys probably moved up a half-round or more," one scout, who is hot on Tannehill's potential, told the Sports Xchange this week. "The past couple weeks, you probably just took two guys out of the first round, and that's going to have some trickle-down, for sure."
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin has come under plenty of scrutiny this season for allegedly playing fast and loose with the NFL guidelines for dealing with concussions. In at least three cases, two involving strong safety Troy Polamalu and once with wide receiver Hines Ward, the Steelers described the conditions from which the players were suffering as "concussion-like symptoms," rather than acknowledge they had sustained concussions. In none of the three cases did the players return to the game in which they were injured, even though both argued they could.
So it's somewhat ironic that the same people critical of Tomlin and his handling of head injuries haven't had much -- or anything, really -- to say this week about the coach's decision to hold free safety Ryan Clark out of the wild card game at Denver.
In 2007, Clark was forced to have his spleen and gall bladder removed, lost 30 pounds and was direly ill, because of complications that arose from playing at a high altitude and carrying the sickle cell trait. The 10-year veteran was held out of games in Denver in 2009 (regular season) and 2010 (preseason) by Tomlin, who made the decision not to play Clark, 32, early in the week.
Notable is that the team's neurosurgeon specialist, Dr. Joseph Maroon, was one of the developers of the ImPact test widely used to gauge the severity of head injuries.
Perception and reality
Despite the Giants' dead-last ranking in rushing yards and yards per carry, some New York players feel that the statistics are a bit misleading. They point to the fact that the team's running game has been significantly better in the past month now that the New York offensive line has had some time to perform together -the once-stabile unit utilized six different starting combinations during an injury-filled campaign and used nine different starters -- and note that the Giants still had the sixth-most rushing scores (17) in the NFL.
Almost as misleading, some Giants' coaches argued to The Sports Xchange, is the feeling that New York is weak versus the pass. The Giants do rank 28th against the pass, and are No. 27 in total defense, but several coaches contend the unit is better than those numbers.
"With the injuries (in the secondary), teams have thrown on us," one defensive coach acknowledged. "But people don't want to play against our (pass) rush."
Indeed, the Giants, led by second-year veteran Jason Pierre-Paul (16 1/2 sacks), notched 48 sacks during the season, fourth most in the league. Coordinator Perry Fewell has taken a page from the book of one of his past predecessors, Steve Spagnuolo, and loves to "sink" ends inside against guards on passing downs. The Giants don't utilize a four-end pass rush as much as they used to under Spagnuolo, but they still create speed and quickness mismatches when they move Pierre-Paul and Tuck over guards in third-down situations.
One coach claimed that roughly half of Pierre-Paul's sacks in 2011 came when he was lined up over a guard.
"We can 'out-quick' most guards with what we do, and that presents a problem (for opponents)," he said.
--McKay pointed out that the move toward having all of the season 17 games in the league be matchups between franchises in the same division, actually came out of a discussion of re-seeding. "It wasn't quite a compromise," he said. "But the idea was put forward by the commissioner's office a couple years ago in the talks about re-seeding." The all-division games initiative was lauded in this space a week ago as a masterstroke by Roger Goodell.
--Rookie quarterbacks combined for 23 regular-season victories in 2011, the most since the merger. As widely reported, two rookies, Andy Dalton of Cincinnati and Houston's T.J. Yates, will meet in the wild card matchup between the two teams on Saturday.
--The candidacy of Tennessee defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, who interviewed for the head coaching vacancy at Tampa Bay on Thursday, is being championed in part by John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, a man who staunchly supports the inclusion of minority candidates in the head coach "pipeline." Gray may not land the Bucs' job -- the team also interviewed former Green Bay and Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman and has a fairly extensive menu of candidates -- but people close to Gray feel he will be a head coach someday and urged him to interview. Said Gray: "It's like everything else. The more times you do it, the better you get at it. It's definitely a skill, and one you want to keep practicing."
--While the aforementioned Landry Jones has eschewed the 2012 draft and opted to stay at Oklahoma for another year, there figure to be many underclass players declare for the lottery before the Jan. 15 deadline. One of the more curious draft entries was that of Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill this week. Hill averaged a lofty 29.3 yards per reception this season, an admirable number. But in Georgia Tech's option offense, which is lopsided toward the run, he had only 28 catches. Hill has nice size (6-feet-3, 206 pounds), but isn't considered as physical or fast as another former Yellow Jackets' star receiver, Denver 2010 first-rounder Demaryius Thomas. And according to the report he received from the NFL's underclass advisory committee, Hill currently doesn't rate as a prospect who will be drafted in the first three rounds. Hill said he is "very confident" he will perform well at the combine, that "(his) stock will really rise," and that he will not reverse his decision.
--There are some executives in Pittsburgh who aren't exactly sad that deposed Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris likely is headed to either Minnesota or Washington as an assistant. The conventional wisdom when Morris was cut loose by the Bucs was that he would surface on Tomlin's staff with the Steelers.
--No doubt that Rex Ryan, who recently was voted the coach for whom players would most like to play, has legions of supporters in the New York Jets' locker room. But the recent criticisms of Ryan won't help him with ownership (despite the words of endorsement by Woody Johnson) and around the league, and there could be more to come, some veteran players suggest. A lot of players were upset this season that Ryan awarded petulant wide receiver Santonio Holmes the "C" for captain, and Holmes' attitude in the season finale loss at Miami could bubble up some emotions that have been simmering for a while.
--It will be interesting to see if Buffalo, which last week promoted linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt to coordinator, will return to a 4-3 front under its new defensive boss. Wannstedt has long been regarded as a strong defensive coach, but has always favored the 4-3 front.
The last word:
"If you watched Mark Sanchez the last month of the season, he was like a Chihuahua standing on Madison Avenue and 36th Street, entering the Midtown Tunnel, eyes bigger than you-know-what, and just so shaky." --Boomer Esiason, per Boston radio station WEEI, on the New York Jets quarterback's final month.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.