PHOTO: Auburn's Ronnie Brown (23) leaps over teammate Danny Lindsey (68) and Kentucky defender Kamaal Ahmad, left, during the second quarter of their game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2004. Brown scored on the 12-yard run. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
Backs Up Front
By Joe Levit, Patriots Insider
Passing in the NFL has been on the increase for years. Last season, Peyton Manning threw for an NFL record 49 touchdown passes, but still finished 160 passing yards behind Daunte Culpepper. This year the Detroit Lions selected a wide receiver in the first round of the NFL draft for the third straight year - an unprecedented event - and all three were top-ten overall selections. Still, the thing that wins championships is a balance between passing and running, or even an advantage on the running side of the ledger.
The Patriots have won three of the last four Super Bowls, but arguably their easiest trip through the playoffs was last year when they played the last game against Philadelphia, even though all of their Super Bowl wins have been by three points. Why? Not because the Eagles, Steelers and Colts were pushovers, but because the Patriots had finally procured the services of a top running back. Corey Dillon came in as someone who was hungry, and actually had the talent to be a feared playmaker.
The AFC East boasts some of the best backs in football today, and their teams ride them to success. Last year, Dillon helped the Patriots to a 14-2 record. Curtis Martin almost single-handedly generated the offense that got the Jets to within a made Doug Brien field goal of a shot at the Patriots for a Super Bowl berth. The Bills stampeded toward the playoffs behind Willis McGahee, winning six straight games before losing the seventh in week 17 to Pittsburgh, the only thing that kept them out. The Dolphins showed how serious it is to lose a top running back when Ricky Williams left right before training camp, so they drafted a rookie right away this year.
Let's take a closer look at all of these backs, and see how up to three of them could help power their teams into the playoffs in 2005.
Before joining the Patriots last season, Dillon was widely considered the running back version of Terrell Owens or Randy Moss - a talented malcontent who eroded locker-room morale. After a year with a different team, it seems more like he had just grown too tired of losing so often in Cincinnati.
Dillon set a New England record when he gained 1,635 yards rushing in his new uniform. That total was good for third in the league. He has always been a talented runner. Remember that in his first year he broke the single-game rushing mark by a rookie by gaining 246 yards against the Titans, besting Jim Brown's rookie mark. And, before Jamal Lewis had his big day against Cleveland in 2003, it was Dillon who broke Walter Payton's single game rushing record of 275 yards with a tally of 278 in a game against the Broncos.
His consistency week in and out helped propel the Patriots to another title in 2004. Nicknamed "clock-killin Dillon" by Tedy Bruschi, Dillon is the type of big, powerful and deceptively fast back who can bring the load all afternoon. He still has a chip on his shoulder, he's just carrying it around with a new attitude now.
Last season, at 31 years of age, when most backs are either out of the league or backing up a younger runner, Curtis Martin put together his best statistical season as a pro. His 1,697 yards led the entire league. His 12 touchdowns in 2004 ranked behind only the two 14-score seasons he had to start his career. Martin played well despite the fact that defenses were keying on him as the offensive star. Chad Pennington never truly got in sync with Santana Moss or Justin McCareins. With the load squarely on his pads, Martin produced a 4.6 yard-per-carry average, also his best.
The talk before the season was that Martin was going to practice a little harder earlier in training camp and the preseason games, to get himself ready for the full force of games sooner. It seemed to work to perfection. His backup in recent years, LaMont Jordan, did not get promoted like so many expected for so long. Each year Jets personnel spoke of siphoning some of Martin's carries to Jordan, but instead Martin always retained the majority of the touches, and eventually outlasted Jordan for the Jets. It's become very obvious that Martin is simply a very well-conditioned athlete, one who is going to work hard to get everything out of his body that is humanly possible.
McGahee was a surprise selection in the 2003 draft. The Bills took a chance on him with the 21rst pick overall, despite having a tough soldier in Travis Henry as a tailback. Even though the team knew McGahee would not play for more than a year after they chose him, they still made sure to tab this former touchdown machine.
Since that time, McGahee has proven that the Bills made a wise move in grabbing him. He bided his time on the bench while he was rehabilitating his knee in 2003, and then made his intention to be the starter known when he became fully healthy last year. He let his production speak for him though, instead of getting into arguments with team management or Henry himself.
McGahee finished fourteenth in rushing last year, and tied for fourth among league running backs for rushing touchdowns. Since he didn't really start compiling those statistics during the first four weeks of the season, it stands to reason that he is a dangerous player whose potential is still not fully tapped. With a young quarterback at the helm this year, expect a heavy dose of McGahee for a full season.
Ronnie Brown/Ricky Williams
The Dolphins as a team did not have much success last season, and a lot of that can be attributed to their sorry offense, which was short a top running back. Without Ricky Williams, Miami was forced to suffer the slings and arrows of a season with Sammy Morris and Travis Minor manning the backfield.
So this offseason the Dolphins did the right thing and drafted a difference-maker. They selected Auburn running back Ronnie Brown with the second pick in the draft. Rookie running backs can often make an impression, and Brown will be given every opportunity to make his mold known this season. In college he had to compete for carries with another great young back, Carnell Williams, but Brown's career mark of 7.0 yards per carry shows his readiness to handle the pro game. He could quickly become one of the league's better backs.
Recently Ricky Williams threw his helmet back into the mix by making it known that he is interested in returning to the NFL. Williams will have to serve a four-game suspension should he return, but he is only three seasons removed from leading the league in rushing in 2002 with 1,853 yards.
In short, one way or another the AFC East will feature four of the very best backs in all of football in 2005. It is likely that two, and perhaps even three of them will also lead their team into the playoffs, with a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.
Joe Levit, based in Boston, is a fantasy and pro football columnist for SI.com and thehuddle.com. Published in top magazines, including Grogan's Fantasy Analyst, The Handbook, Fantasy Football Draftbook, and Tuff Stuff's Fantasy Football Guide, Joe can also be found conducting fantasy analysis on the radio with fantasyasylum.com. A member of the PFWA and FSWA he be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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