The New York Giants had finished the first practice of training camp this summer when coach Tom Coughlin, in a moment that might have seemed to come out of the mid-1970s, announced his hopes for the new season.
“We definitely have got to rush the ball better," he said. “The balance factor has always been something we’ve been able to count on. We’ve got to get back to that."
It was a rudimentary bit of coaching philosophy that raised one question: Why?
The Giants were the perfect champions for the 2011 season: the team with the lowest-ranked running game in the NFL won the Super Bowl after a season in which the run was subjugated more than ever. Three quarterbacks — Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees and Tom Brady — each passed for more than 5,000 yards last season. Before that, there had been only two 5,000-yard passing seasons in league history. Four of the top six individual single-season passing marks — including one by Eli Manning — were set in 2011.
Perhaps more telling, according to statistics kept by Pro-Football-Reference.com, teams averaged 229.7 yards passing a game last season, the most in league history and an 8-yard jump over the previous high, set in 2010. Teams averaged 34 passing attempts a game, the second most. In contrast, teams averaged 27.3 rushing attempts — tied for the second fewest since at least 1932, as far back as the website’s statistics go.
With five teams preparing to start rookie quarterbacks in Week 1 — an NFL season has never started with more than two rookie starting quarterbacks — the tilt toward the pass seems to be more acute than ever.
It is no secret why.
“It’s very difficult, it’s not impossible, but it’s highly, highly unlikely that you’re going to find someone win a world championship without the guy at that position," said John Elway, the Denver Broncos’ executive vice president for football operations.
Elway signaled his philosophy by wooing Peyton Manning to Denver and dumping Tim Tebow, who led a run-centered offense into the playoffs last season.
“Everything cycles in the NFL, and what that next cycle is, who knows," Elway said. “Unless there are rules changes, I don’t see people backing down. Because of the rules and the attitude, the running game is a little less important."
That is exacerbated by the booming popularity of the spread offense in college and high school, positioning the talent pool in the next generation to be pass-intensive, too. When the former quarterback Rich Gannon was in high school in the early 1980s, he was lucky if he threw the ball 25 times a game, he said. Now, when he watches a high school game, offenses are operating in spread formations, with the quarterback in the shotgun.
If a scout tries to unearth a fullback in college, he comes up empty because fullbacks are not used in college football anymore. Offensive linemen are steeped in pass protection from an early age, but some need remedial work in run blocking when they arrive in the NFL. That merely reinforces the shift that NFL teams have made.
Still, this offseason saw a flurry of big-money contracts for running backs. The Bears’ Matt Forte and the Houston Texans’ Arian Foster received new deals, following Adrian Peterson’s blockbuster contract from Minnesota last year. Forte and Foster are skilled receivers out of the backfield, too. But Maurice Jones-Drew wants a new contract in Jacksonville, and ownership there has so far refused. That is perhaps because last season, in which Jones-Drew ran for 1,606 yards and the Jaguars had the sixth-ranked defense in the league, the Jaguars won just five games, underscoring the importance of having a good quarterback.
As a result, the running game seems likely to become a small part of the offense for every team that does not have a player like Peterson, or that does not have a defense as good as the San Francisco 49ers did last season. The 49ers rushed more often than they threw last season, unusual for a championship-caliber team today. They were second in points allowed and first in rushing yardage. Their passing offense ranked 16th in yardage. But quarterback Alex Smith avoided mistakes, throwing only five interceptions.
For the 49ers, the run was the fulcrum of their offense. Most other Super Bowl contenders, though, use it as a complement, to use up the clock late in games when they have a lead, to convert on third-and-short, to avoid turnovers in bad weather and to score touchdowns in goal-line situations, when the action is so compressed that throwing is riskier. The most important function of the running game for most teams has become to set up play-action fakes.
But for the handful of teams that do not have a dominant quarterback — like the 49ers and the New York Jets — the run has become the stopgap option.
“If you don’t have Peyton Manning or somebody who is a reasonably good passer, it’s very difficult not to turn the ball over," said the Colts’ former president Bill Polian, who is now an ESPN analyst. “You come to the conclusion, if I have a choice between a mediocre passing game or a running game that pounds away, I’ll take the running game anytime. I don’t believe you can win that way in the playoffs. But you can win in the regular season that way, which is essentially what the Jets are doing."