Running With Differing Strategies

What's the best way to run the ball? With one workhorse running back, like the Packers had with Ryan Grant in 2007 through 2009? Or with a by-committee approach, like the Packers used this season? The four teams still standing show there's no "right" answer.

It won't quite be a clash of running-game philosophies in the two conference title battles this weekend.

But it is interesting to note that the contests feature matchups between teams that rely on a feature-type tailback to do most of the heavy lifting in the running game versus franchises that generally employ a tailback-by-committee design to churn out yards on the ground.

In Frank Gore, San Francisco possesses a tailback who has accounted for more than two-thirds of the 49ers' attempts and rushing yards by running backs (not counting rushes by quarterbacks and players from other positions). The New York Giants will counter with the potent 1-2 punch of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, neither of whom cracked the 700-yard mark in 2011, but who are better than advertised and whose diverse styles present a compelling contrast.

In the AFC game, New England has three backs who ran for more than 350 yards during the regular season, with only BenJarvus Green-Ellis managing more than 500 yards, while the Baltimore Ravens try to control tempo with Ray Rice, whose 291 attempts ranked as the second most in the NFL (as did his 367 "touches'), and who rang up nearly 75 percent of the team's running yards by backs.

"It's all in what you and your team are comfortable with," Rice, who ran for 1,364 yards and a dozen touchdowns during the season, and who ironically complained at one juncture of the campaign about not getting the ball enough, told The Sports Xchange last week. "I really don't mind getting 20 or 25 carries, if that's what it takes for us to win, although Ricky (Williams) has done a great job taking his share of the load. Getting the ball that many times is no big deal to me. But I can see the other side of it, too. You know, whatever works for the team."

At least in the playoffs, the numbers indicate that both approaches have some merit, despite the widely held perception that the NFL has become a time-sharing league at the tailback position. Of the dozen teams that qualified for the postseason, half had 1,000-yard rushers in 2011, and six of the clubs did not. Of what were arguably the three most explosive offenses in the NFL — in Green Bay, the Patriots, and New Orleans — none had a player among them who rushed for more than 667 yards. Only half of the NFL's top 10 rushing offenses from during the season made the playoffs; then again, so did just six of the top 10 offenses, period. In essence, the feature back/committee mix among the four franchises playing on Sunday validates the notion that both paradigms can be successful.

"I still feel like you need two backs," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, who signed Williams this season to replace the departed Willis McGahee as an understudy for Rice, said last week. "It's hard to go with just one."

Still, two of the Final Four teams (both notably coached by Harbaugh brothers) feature tailbacks who posted more than 66 percent of their teams' carries and more than 68 percent of the rushing yardage. The two other conference finalists lack a back with half the attempts or yards. So it's really a mixed-bag message in a league that has evolved into one that is skewed so predominantly toward the pass.

That disparity is pretty graphically reflected in the Final Four.

"I don't know that there's necessarily a right or wrong way," Bradshaw told The Sports Xchange two weeks ago. "It's kind of in the eye of the beholder. I like the way we do it. But, hey, if you can make the other way work ..."

Clubs, clearly, have made both work.

Of the 20 teams in the last 10 Super Bowl games, nine had 1,000-yard rushers or tailbacks who carried the ball at least two-thirds of the time. Just five of the past 10 Super Bowl champions featured a 1,000-yard rusher during the season. There were only two of the last 10 Super Bowls in which both clubs had 1,000-yard rushers. New England has appeared in four Super Bowls since 2001, but lacked a 1,000-yard rusher in two of them.

In fact, in coach Bill Belichick's 12 seasons with the Patriots, the team has had 1,000-yard rushers just three times.

Said Green-Ellis, who logged 49.3 percent of the Patriots' carries in 2011, but played in an offense that didn't have a rush of more than 33 yards: "We're more of a 'spread it around' kind of offense. Everybody has a role. Everyone seems to fit in and knows he has to contribute. That's just the way we do it."

Indeed, New England, which hasn't been to a Super Bowl since losing to the Giants in 2007, is pretty much a smorgasbord of role-playing tailbacks. As noted above, three players -- Green-Ellis, rookie Stevan Ridley, and Danny Woodhead -- all rushed for 350 yards or more. In the 17 games the Patriots have played, including last week's divisional-round victory over Denver, New England has had five different players lead the club in rushing yards. The top rusher last week was actually tight end Aaron Hernandez, who offered the Pats' latest offensive twist by lining up in the backfield much of the night.

In the Pats' niche-tailback design, the team manages to blend in longtime third-down specialist Kevin Faulk as well.

New England had only one individual 100-yard rushing performance, when Green-Ellis went for 136 yards against the New York Jets, on Oct. 9. By comparison, Rice himself had six outings of 100 yards or more. But here are the Pats, who rated only No. 20 in rushing offense during the season, facing the 10th-ranked Ravens for the right to play in Super Bowl XLVI in two weeks. This more stark comparison can be made in the NFC game: The Giants statistically were last in the league in rushing offense and had the NFL's worst yards-per-carry average. But they will match up with a San Francisco running attack that was rated No. 8 in 2011.

As noted here in recent weeks, the Giants are probably better than their numbers. They are the only offense in the Final Four with two backs who each ran for more than 500 yards, the lone franchise playing in the conference title games on which two players logged at least 150 carries. Ironically, New England is the only one of the Final Four teams that didn't have two backs with 100-plus attempts.

If the Pats make do with a cadre of role-players, the roles of Rice and Gore are to serve as human battering rams. "We try to pound away at people," Rice said.

Even with Bradshaw still somewhat gimpy because of a lingering foot injury, the Giants can also pound at defenses, particularly when they get a lead. It has become Eli Manning's team, and the vertical passing game he has unleashed is paramount, but New York still brands itself a physical offense.

In recent years, the running back position has been somewhat devalued in the draft, in part because so many offenses now utilize two players to share the load. And such an approach probably will continue in this year's lottery. But as Sunday's conference championship games reflect, success in the running game -- even in a league that seems to measure the ground attack in various ways -- can be achieved anymore in a variety of manners.

"Like people say, there are a lot of ways to skin the cat," Jacobs told The Sports Xchange. "The key is to be one of the last cats standing."

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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.

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