In 2020, Titans All-Pro Derrick Henry became the eighth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000-yards in a season. And while Henry showed that dominant running games are not extinct, only eight other players managed to break the 1,000-yard rushing mark during the regular season. That number is tied for the sixth-fewest amount of 1,000-yard rushers in a 16-game season.
This year's lack of 1,000-yard rushers comes a year after 16 players reached that mark in 2019. But given what transpired in 2020, it's clear that the '19 season was an outlier and not an indication that the running game was making a comeback. The 2020 season marked the tenth time where there were nine or fewer 1,000-yard rushers. Four of the last six seasons have failed to produce double-digit 1,000-yard rushers. This is a far cry from where the NFL was at the start of the century, when 23 players reached that milestone.
Jackie Slater, a Hall of Fame offensive linemen, thoroughly enjoyed watching Henry and the Titans' improbable run to the 2019 AFC Championship Game. The Titans' formula for success -- a versatile, punishing ground attack that was complemented by an opportunistic defense -- is a throwback to a different era in pro football, an era where a dominant rushing attack was the preferred means of offensive transportation.
Slater, who is on the board of directors for the Pro Football Retired Players Association, was recently asked about the current state of the running game. While he believes that the running game is still an important part of pro football, Slater, who blocked for seven 1,000-yard running backs during his 20 NFL seasons, broke down the reasons why he believes the running game is not as prevalent in today's NFL as it once was.
The current build of today's running backs
Most modern-day running backs are asked to be more versatile while making plays in both the passing and running games. While versatile backs are still more than capable of impacting a game, they are less capable of taking over a game out of the backfield, something that most franchise backs were asked to do during Slater's time in the NFL.
"It's rare that you find a guy like Todd Gurley, who weighs 230 pounds who is equally effective as a runner and a receiver," Slater said. "You look at Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook. Most of these guys are little guys that can hurt you out of the backfield, but they're not the type of guys that you can give it to 30 times a game. Walter Payton, my college teammate, he was a guy you could give it to 30 times a game."
In 1984, Slater helped Eric Dickerson rush for an NFL single-season record 2,105 yards. Slater believes that Dickerson, if he was playing in the same system that was formerly employed in Los Angeles, would be as successful today as he was during his heyday.
"He was the best pure running back that I played with in the 20 years that I played in the NFL," Slater said of Dickerson, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999. "During John Robinson's tenure, if you were a good running back, you were going be successful because his mandate was to run the ball. His mandate was to use variety. His mandate was to be physical at the line of scrimmage. And that's the formula to being successful in the running game to start with. And when you stack running backs like Eric Dickerson or Greg Bell or Jerome Bettis on top of that, then you get records. It's as simple as that."
A change in offensive philosophy
One of the things that Slater enjoyed about the Titans' 2019 playoff run was the complexity of Tennessee's running schemes. He says that most teams employ running games that are far more basic than the one the Titans employed during their playoff run.
"If you look at some teams, what you'll see is a sweep to the right, a sweep to the left, tight, inside runs to the right and tight, inside runs to the left," Slater said. "That's it. You don't see counters. You don't see bends. You don't see powers. You don't see a collection of a lot of different types of runs."
Slater believes that, in most situations, coaches are focusing more on adding layers to their passing attack as opposed to their running game. Slater says the outliers here include the Titans, the 49ers, the Seahawks, the Cowboys, and the Patriots under offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who retired last season after 34 seasons in New England.
"[Scarnecchia's] guys were going hit you in the lips," Slater said, "and they were going to hit you in the lips in a variety of ways. And you weren't going to sit there and say, 'Ok, I know he's doing this, I know he's doing that.' You were going to have to be a thinking man's football player. So it wasn't just Tom Brady throwing the ball and, obviously, it's good to have a guy like Tom that can play. But when you run the ball and you make defenders hesitate, it makes a big difference."
Speaking of Brady, Slater said most offensive linemen are now solely being valued for their ability to protect passers that primarily throw from the pocket. That has led to the NFL going with taller, heavier linemen whose size can be a liability when being asked to do certain things in the running game. One of the examples Slater used was former Ravens offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.
"[Ogden] could put his hand in the ground and come off the ball and knock you off the ball, but nobody ever asked Jonathan to pull to the other side of the line of scrimmage that much," Slater said. "So I think one of the things that has contributed, in addition to the excitement that the vertical game brings to the game of football, if you think about it, that quarterback's sitting in that pocket, he's not been paid over the years to be like Lamar Jackson. He's just paid to make decisions from that pocket, so that pocket is least likely to get collapsed if you have a 340-pound guy that's sitting there that you got to go through to get to that quarterback.
"By the same token, that 340-pound guy, he can run block straight in front of him and be a good in-line blocker, but when he has to run a counter, when he has to run a sweep, when he's out spearheading an attack, that's when it becomes a liability to be that size."
One of the things Slater praised as it relates to recent Patriots and 49ers teams was their ability to use the running game to control the time of possession. While many things in the NFL have changed over the years, what hasn't changed is the considerable advantage teams have when they are able to control the ball for the majority of the game.
"Your defense, the more it has to play, the less effective it really becomes," Slater said. "That's why guys like Aaron Donald are so special. The numbers indicate that teams are playing more third down defenses, more nickel packages on first and second down than they did two years ago. I think it went from over 50% to almost 80%. People are coming out in passing formations on first and second down.
"The linebackers are 210, 215, 230 pounds and can fly," Slater continued. "But if you go hit them in the lips consistently, they're not going to going to hold up, if you serve it up right. And I think the people up in San Francisco [are doing it right]. And it will be interesting to see what the Patriots do [now that] coach Scarnecchia is gone. There's a few teams around -- the people in Dallas, the people in Seattle -- they understand this. And you look at the coaches that are working with these guys, you look at their experience, you know why."
Versatile offensive linemen and sophisticated rushing attacks have become 'a lost art'
Slater believes that, because of the pressure to quickly succeed in today's NFL, most teams no longer spend the necessary time developing offensive linemen. He also believes the league's condensed offseason has limited the effectiveness of linemen and, therefore, the sophistication of today's rushing attacks.
"In my opinion, a good offensive lineman must be able to do two things really well," Slater said. "He must be able to pass block and take the supreme pass blocker out of the equation in a one-on-one situation, and then he must be able to communicate with his teammates, adjacent offensive linemen, in run blocking schemes, so that they can be effective when they insert the ball behind them in the running game. That requires a lot of communication in the running game. It requires skill being taught to you. It requires a lot of confidence and a mentality to do it. I think it's a missing art in the National Football League. I understand there are reasons why."
Slater thinks NFL offenses should take more advantage of playing against defenders who are mostly valued for their ability to rush the quarterback. If NFL teams committed more to the running game, pass rushers like Von Miller and T.J. Watt may be forced to think more about stopping the run as opposed to solely focusing on the opposing quarterback.
"With me and most of the guys that I played with, we respected good pass rushers," Slater said. "But those good pass rushers, they had to earn the right to rush the passer. And how did they earn the right? They had to get their nose bloodied. They had to bloody our nose. They had to make decisions at the line of scrimmage that didn't allow a good back to insert right off of our blocks and go 15, 20 yards."
Slater, who, along with fellow lineman Dennis Harrah and Doug France, helped Los Angeles appear in its first Super Bowl at the end of the 1979 season, said that his Rams team found its ideal offensive symmetry after Los Angeles hired Ernie Zampese, who had spent the previous eight seasons as the offensive coordinator of the Chargers' record-setting offense, in 1987. Along with the team's tried and true rushing attack, Zampese's West Coast influence put the Rams' offense over the top. Even without Dickerson (who was traded to the Colts in 1987 over a contract dispute), Los Angeles was still able to advance to the NFC title game in 1989.
"We were very highly skilled," Slater said. "We weren't limited to one or two blocking schemes. We ran everything. We ran powers. We ran dives. We ran bellies, which is inside zone to the tight end, inside zone away from the counter end. Counter to the tight end. Counters away from the tight end. Powers where you go to the tight end, double team on that front side and then you insert the backside guard pulling over there. Then we did tackle traps. It was unbelievable."
Zampese would later become offensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, as his well-balanced offensive philosophy helped Dallas win three Super Bowls in a four-year span. Under Zampese, Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time career rushing leader, became the first player to win the Super Bowl after leading the league in rushing during the regular season.
A dominant rushing attack still has a place in today's NFL
Slater believes, based on the recent success of the Titans, 49ers, Seahawks, Cowboys, Ravens and Patriots, the traditional rushing attack still has a place in modern-day football. And while Patrick Mahomes took home the MVP trophy in 2019, the Chiefs needed a strong performance by running back Damien Williams to bring home the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy in 50 years.
"I think the teams that are going to really rear their heads relative to playoffs, relative to opportunities to go to the Super Bowl, relative to winning and consistency playing well on both sides of the ball -- and I'm talking about the defense and the offense as well -- are going to be the teams that have a very good balance and an understanding of how to meticulously move the ball down the field with the running game," Slater said. "If you're going to strategically run the ball, you're not going to serve up a 255-pound, 260-pound defensive end going against a 330-pound tackle if you're strategically running the ball past this guy. You'll beat the pass rush right out of him.
"I think the teams that go about their business of instituting solid play at the line of scrimmage on the offensive line and are moving the ball in the running game, those are the teams that you have to recon with towards the end of the year."