If NFL franchises aren’t investing in running backs like they used to, it isn’t necessarily an indictment of an individual’s talent; for instance, many scouts felt that Trent Richardson’s was one of the–if not the–best prospect in April’s draft. It’s more of a reaction to what’s happening on the field.
NFL teams, Cosell said, have determined that the passing game, especially for those with an elite quarterback, produces the most big-yardage plays and more opportunities to pull of those plays.
Though the running game may give a team the illusion of control, it significantly decreases its margin of error.
“It’s sort of a sustaining way to play, so you shorten the game,” Cosell said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, theoretically, but I’m just a big believer that when you shorten the game, you’re also shortening the game for yourself.”
In Reggie Bush, the Dolphins have a prototypical back for today’s shift towards offenses that rely on space and speed. He was used strategically last season, though primarily as a traditional ball carrier. That should change, however, in Mike Sherman’s offense, where he could be used as a weapon in the passing game.
“That’s the kind of player he is. That’s what he was for the Saints, he was used as a movable chess piece,” Cosell said. “I can remember so many plays where he didn’t get the ball but because of the routes he ran, he caused the defense to react to him, and that opened up passing lanes for Drew Brees and other receivers.”
With the access he gets at NFL Films, Cosell breaks down as much game film as anyone outside of a team facility. There’s one play from last season, during the season-opening game between New Orleans and Green Bay, that Cosell said really sticks out.
The Saints were able to manipulate a matchup in the middle of the Packers’ nickel defense, freeing up Darren Sproles to be able to work in space.
“They played man-to-man and they ended up with a linebacker Desmond Bishop on Jimmy Graham, and a linebacker AJ Hawk on Sproles,” Cosell said. “It’s tough to play defense that way. You’re in a mismatch situation before the ball’s even snapped.”
It’s interesting to see how easily perceptions change when winning is attached. In the not-so-distant past, you couldn’t win unless you had competent running game and a good defense. That’s what you were told, at least. Focusing too much on passing–think the run and shoot, specifically–was sacrilege. But, slowly, a pass-first mentality has become the norm.
The NFL is a copycat league, until, of course, it’s not. Eventually, with so many teams playing a specific way, someone will push the game in a different direction, even if it means. So can we expect teams to eventually revert back to a reliance on a punishing running game?
Though he wouldn’t entirely rule it out, Cosell said it isn’t it a likelihood.
“I’m not sure you’re going to see teams go back to Earl Campbell football,” Cosell said. “The only way you’re going to see that is unless they don’t feel comfortable with their quarterback.”
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