Even the guys who tote the ball recognize that the NFL is a passer’s league. No argument here.
As this week shows, however, running backs still have a prime role in the outcome of games. When the weather turns cool, then cold, then frigid, and the winds begin to whip on the tundras, they will become even more critical.
So it was enlightening to see runners young and old making a difference — or keeping their teams in games. From veterans Frank Gore, Jonathan Stewart and especially LeSean McCoy, to kids such as rookie sensation Ezekiel Elliott, Spencer Ware, Matt Jones and Jay Ajayi, it was impressive, win or lose.
McCoy and Gore have all-star credentials and are showing they remain dangerous and dependable. McCoy ran 19 times for 140 yards and scored three touchdowns as the Bills, who want to pound opponents on the ground, thumped the 49ers 45-16 with their best rushing performance in 24 years. Gore, at 33, became the first Colt in 3 1/2 years to rush for more than 100 yards, getting 106 in a 26-23 loss at Houston.
“He’s just very dynamic,” Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, a pretty good runner himself, said of McCoy. “I’ve said this before. Whether it’s in the running game or the passing game, he’s a playmaker. He wants the ball, and when he gets the ball he knows what to do with it, and he can create plays. Some of those plays he made out there from the backfield position, there are only one or two guys — maybe just him — who can do that in the National Football League.”
It’s not just him Tyrod, though few runners have as good a pedigree or nickname, “Shady,” as McCoy.
You can be sure Bills coach Rex Ryan will keep feeding McCoy the ball, too.
“I think, talking to LeSean, he was really disappointed how he played last year,“ Ryan said. “And all of us as we know, and I’ve told him several times, like all of us here in Buffalo, we think, ‘Hey man, you’ve played great.’
“And he’s like, ‘No, I can play better.’ And I guess he was right, but we would have been happy with how he played last year.“
Ware, Jones and Ajayi weren’t big factors last year. Ware had 72 carries for Kansas City, though he scored six times; Jones rushed 144 times for 490 yards as a backup to Alfred Morris in Washington. Ajayi barely saw the field in Miami with 49 carries.
On Sunday, they were prime-timers as Ware went for 131 yards and a touchdown on 34 runs, Jones had 135 on 16 and scored once, while Ajayi had a breakout game in a stunning upset of Pittsburgh with 204 yards on 25 carries and two scores — including a clinching 62-yard scamper.
“From last week, coach (Adam) Gase told me that he would feature me more in the run game and he would try to get me a good amount of touches,” said Ajayi, whose previous high was 13 carries.
The Dolphins had to do something with their offense stagnant and their season spiraling away. Ajayi was the answer, and he certainly will get more opportunities because the Dolphins’ air game is so inconsistent.
Ware’s numbers are even more impressive because he’s one of three RBs the Chiefs can use moving forward. Their star, Jamaal Charles, finally is back from a long rehab after knee surgery, and Charcandrick West showed last year with Charles sidelined that he can be the main man behind Alex Smith.
“Having them both out there, that’s a win-win, I think,“ coach Andy Reid said of Ware and Charles. “They’re completely different players, and they both did a nice job.“
Jones also was part of a committee of runners. Washington already has a solid corps of receivers, particularly when tight end Jordan Reed is healthy — he missed the win over Philadelphia with a concussion. In Jones, Robert Kelley and Chris Thompson, they could find plenty of offensive balance.
That trio combined for 231 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles.
“I think just us three guys coming together and believing in ourselves and going out there and doing things we know we can do,“ Kelley said. “That’s why they got us here.“
Even more promising for the rushing game’s influence in the NFL moving forward in 2016 is that such stars as Le’Veon Bell, DeMarco Murray, Todd Gurley and Doug Martin weren’t factors in Week 6. Look for them to be heading into November and December.