I grew up in an era when the 7-foot NBA center was dominant.
In a ten-year span from 1983-92, eight of the top overall picks in the NBA Draft were 6'10 or bigger. The NBA Champions in that period had Hall of Famer centers in Moses Malone, Robert Parish, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Even the Pistons (James Edwards) and Bulls (Bill Cartwright) had 7-footers who were double-digit scorers. In those days, you needed a very good to elite center to have a chance at a title.
I thought of those centers when the Colts made yesterday's blockbuster trade for RB Trent Richardson. We've been told that a great running back and run game in the NFL, just like a dominant big man in the 1980s, is critical to a team's chances of winning a championship. However, looking at some of the recent Super Bowl winners, that just doesn't seem to be the case anymore.
If you go back to the Colts' last Super Bowl win in 2006, six different champs have had seven different leading rushers. Here are their names/numbers:
2006: Joseph Addai (Colts) 1,081 yards, 4.8 YPC
2007: Brandon Jacobs (NY Giants) 1,009 yards, 5.0 YPC
2008: Willie Parker (Steelers) 791 yards, 3.8 YPC
2009: Pierre Thomas (Saints) 793 yards, 5.4 YPC
2010: Brandon Jackson (Packers) 703 yards, 3.7 YPC
2011: Ahmad Bradshaw (Giants) 1,015 yards, 4.6 YPC
2012: Ray Rice (Ravens) 1,143 yards, 4.4 YPC
All, except for Jackson, had solid seasons, but only one of those players (Ray Rice) even made the Pro Bowl (no All-Pros) in the year that their team won the title. While most of those backs were mediocre to average, many of the rush offenses they played for were even worse. Take a look at the fourteen teams that have played for a Super Bowl in that span and where the run stacks up against the pass:
|YEAR||TEAMS||PASS O RANK||RUSH O RANK|
Every Super Bowl champ outside of the '07 Giants has had a top-half passing offense, while only half of those teams had a running game that ranked in the top fiftieth percentile. In fact, the Cardinals (2008), Colts (2009), and Giants (2011) each reached the Super Bowl with the league's worst rushing offense. So, not only does recent history dictate that you don't need a top running back or rush offense to reach the Super Bowl, you can have a terrible one and still win. The consistent powers in today’s NFL: the Patriots, Steelers, Colts, Packers, Saints, Giants, and Ravens, have combined to win two-thirds (443-229) of their games (and each of the last six Super Bowls) in the past six seasons. Their average rush offense rank in those years? 16th (h/t @GarrisonCarr), while their average pass offense rank was 9th. Those teams, season after season, have gotten into the playoffs by throwing the football.
The elite running back has gone the way of the 7-foot NBA center. Are they nice to have? Sure. I know Minnesota isn't complaining. Are they necessary to win a championship? Absolutely not. In fact, most of the "elite" running backs in today's game were taken off the scrap heap. Arian Foster went undrafted. Alfred Morris (1,600+ yards in his rookie season) was selected 173rd in the 2012 Draft, behind a dozen other RBs. Jamaal Charles, Ray Rice, Stevan Ridley, Matt Forte, DeMarco Murray, Frank Gore, and LeSean McCoy weren't First Round picks.
The Colts dealt next year's #1 pick for Richardson - a pick that will likely end up in the teens or early 20s. Of the 32 starting running backs in the NFL, only about one-third were drafted in the First Round, and zero were selected on the first day of the 2013 Draft. Just a quarter of the league's starting running backs (McFadden, Lynch, Peterson, Richardson, Bush, Spiller, Mathews, Moreno) were taken before pick #23. The point is that very few teams have invested in the running back position like the Colts just did through yesterday's trade.
I want to stress that it's not Trent Richardson who I have a problem with. He has the potential to be a really productive NFL player. His rookie contract is very manageable, and puts him under team control through the 2015 season. I'm not anti-Richardson. I'm just against the idea of investing in a running back, and the Colts' flawed "power run" philsophy.
Chuck Pagano and Pep Hamilton want to run, even though the Colts don't really have the personnel to make it work. Their best lineman (Gosder Cherilus) is a premier pass blocker, and the interior of the line (McGlynn, Satele, Reitz/Thornton) is an absolute trainwreck. The Colts have all the components (Hilton, Wayne, Heyward-Bey, Fleener, Allen when he returns) of a vertical passing attack, yet seem to be resistant to the idea. Ryan Grigson, Pagano, and Hamilton are trying to make a meat loaf out of cinnamon, bread, and eggs. When the ingredients call for French toast... make French toast!
After a disappointing 1-1 start and an upcoming six-game slate that will include four of the NFL's best teams (San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Houston), I'm worried that the Colts are panicking when they shouldn't. Richardson makes the Colts better, but how much better? Does he suddenly mask the weaknesses of this offensive line? Does he turn the Colts into a serious contender? Can he live up to his lofty potential after a so-so debut season? Those are the questions I'm left pondering in the wake of this deal.
I don't want a big-name running back. I don't want the Colts to be a "power run" team. I want them to utilize Andrew Luck's talent and weapons. I want them to open things up like they did in Bruce Arians' offense - an offense that helped them win eleven games as the surprise team in the NFL in 2012.
In other words, I want French toast.