As is often the case, it’s really about the direction of the game, how and if the teams battling for the championship will potentially shift the NFL’s philosophical course.
The notion that running quarterbacks along the lines of San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick will take over the game is, of course, silly. There are simply too few quarterbacks with the combination of skills to make that anything more than a wrinkle. That, and running quarterbacks generally have a pretty short career span.
Running, on the other hand, is making a comeback, and that’s where the Colts and new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton enter the discussion.
The 49ers have averaged 236 rushing yard in the postseason, the most of any team. The Ravens have averaged 148.7, which ranks fifth. Both teams have
Increased the frequency and productivity of their rushing attacks in the postseason; Baltimore has attempted nearly seven more runs and produced 30 yards per game, while the 49ers have attempted five more runs and produced 80 more yards.
Kaepernick is a big part of this, but it doesn’t matter who’s running; what matters is the running itself.
None of the top three quarterbacks in passing yardage – Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and Tony Romo – even reached the playoffs.
All of the top three running backs in rushing yardage – Adrian Peterson, Alfred Morris and Marshawn Lynch – reached the postseason, as did eight of the 12 backs to reach 1,000 yards.
AS DEFENSES FOCUS ON THE PASS, THE RUN RETURNS
For years, defenses have been increasingly constructed to rush the passer and throw as many bodies as possible into coverage. Given that, offenses are beginning to take what is being given – namely, the run.
As prolific as Andrew Luck was at Stanford, Hamilton’s offense was actually more run-oriented. In Hamilton’s two seasons with Luck, Stanford attempted 251 more runs than passes.
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Here’s Hamilton’s description of the offensive philosophy he plans to bring to the Colts:
“It’ll be a variation of the West Coast — the West Coast principles, the short, efficient passing game, a high completion rate, but I enjoy watching our guys come off the ball, the guys up front and try and knock the opponent back. I’m a big believer in the power running game, running gap schemes and I think ultimately that opens up your passing game, play-action passes, get opportunities to face one high coverages and get free access outside on the perimeter and find ways to get Reggie Wayne the ball. I want to be flexible schematically and make sure that we find ways to get the ball into our dynamic playmakers’ hands.”
Power and balance are two words that have long been missing from the Colts’ offensive lexicon. The last season they ran more than passed was 1994 – when Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback and Marshall Faulk the running back.
Though former O.C. Bruce Arians has a pass-happy reputation, the Colts actually attempted more runs last season (440) than any season since 2007. But they also dropped back 669 times, 41 of which resulted in sacks.
“They were very successful as an offensive unit and as a football team overall. But we’re going to play a physical brand of football, we’re going to be efficient, we’re not going to waste plays, but we’re still going to take our calculated shots and it’s our goal to score a lot of points in every game that we play. It’ll be a good mixed bag of a lot of different things that I think Andrew and the rest of the guys will be able to do well.”
DO THE COLTS HAVE THE RIGHT PERSONNEL?
The question then becomes: do they have the right personnel, both in the offensive line and the backfield?
Vick Ballard certainly seems to fit the mold after rushing for 814 yards as a rookie, but he’ll need to improve as a receiver. Donald Brown has one year left on his contract but it would be surprising if he returns, given his salary nearly doubles (to $1.7 million).
Assuming Ballard is your between-the-tackles grinder, the Colts could use an explosive big-play threat as a third-down or long-yardage back. Free agency offers tempting names like Reggie Bush and Rashard Mendenhall, but even though Ryan Grigson has money to spend, he’s likely to prioritize elsewhere.
So as you settle in for Super Sunday, pay particular attention to the impact the respective running games have on the outcome. One of the quarterbacks very likely will win the game’s MVP award, but one of the running backs is at least as likely to play a determining role.