Atlanta's assault on history

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 22, 2006



By Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor Mike Carlson

To your basic troll, the sight of running backs pounding the ball into the line brings the sighs of pleasure that used to be reserved for that first cold beer before breakfast, or for the picture of Miss Rheingold on the back of a football program.
 
So the return of single-wing football to the NFL ought to be an occasion for orgasm. Unfortunately, the Cold, Hard Football Facts suggest a little coitus interruptus before we leave our Genesee Cream Ale all over the field.

After two games, the Atlanta Falcons have rushed for 548 yards, which puts them on pace to smash the single-season team rushing record of 3,165 yards. At their current pace, the Falcons would rack up 4,384 yards.

Although it has been well established by the Cold, Hard Football Facts that a team cannot win a championship with a run-first quarterback, the Falcons have made little effort to turn Michael Vick into a prototypical NFL passer or to reign in his desire to run.
 
In fact, so far this season, they have done just the opposite. They have set Vick free to run and have re-emphasized his rushing skills by using the shotgun formation as a run-first set (10 times in 13 plays in last week's 14-3 win over the Bucs). 
 
There is a term for that type of offense among football historians, and that term is "single wing." Alex Gibbs's chop-block techniques may remind old timers of the days of the wing-T, if not the single wing. But remember, the Falcons have gained those yards against the defenses of Tampa Bay and Carolina, neither of which has proven particularly effective in this short season.

So while we wait for Atlanta's throwback (or no-throw back) offense to implode, it might be worth considering the team that holds the current NFL rushing record and looking at how the Falcons stacks up historically.
 
The NFL's top running team
The team with the all-time rushing record is not one you'd immediately suspect. It is not, for example, one of the legendary tough-guy teams that we often associate with a punishing ground game, like the 1960s Packers or 1970s Dolphins.
 
No, the NFL's top rushing team was the 1978 Patriots.
 
Their total of 3,165 yards makes them one of just two teams in NFL history to top 3,000 rushing yards in a single season. However, the No. 2 team on the list actually averaged more yards per game. The 1973 Bills, behind O.J. Simpson's spectacular 2,003-yard campaign, rushed for a remarkable 3,088 yards in a 14-game season (220.6 YPG). The 1978 Patriots averaged 197.8 YPG in a 16-game season.

New England's 1978 season is remembered primarily for two things other than the all-time rushing record. One, receiver Darryl Stingley was paralyzed in preseason by a vicious hit from Oakland's Jack "They Call Me Assassin" Tatum. And two, coach Chuck Fairbanks, who led New England to an 11-4 record, was "suspended" for the final game because he had already negotiated to take over the head coaching job at the University of Colorado.

Fairbanks had gone to New England in 1973 from the University of Oklahoma, where his teams were built around the run, traditionally a more successful tactic in college ball. He'd escaped Soonerland under a cloud, too, just ahead of a scandal involving the eligibility of his scholar-athletes ... which is one of Oklahoma's great gridiron traditions, like the Sooner Schooner and electing football heroes to Congress. 
 
Fairbanks kept the ball on the ground in New England, too, and he spread the load. 
 
In fact, the most productive ground game in NFL history didn't boast a single 1,000-yard rusher. But the 1978 Patriots did have four runners exceed 500 yards, including quarterback Steve Grogan. Here's how New England's top six ballcarriers performed:
 
Ballcarrier
Attempts
Yards
Avg.
TDs
Sam "Bam" Cunningham
199
768
3.9
8
Horace Ivory
141
693
4.9
11
Andy Johnson
147
675
4.6
3
Steve Grogan
81
539
6.7
5
Don Calhoun
76
391
5.1
1
James McAllister
19
77
4.1
2

New England rushed the ball 671 times overall, which led the league – but not by much – during a season in which the ground game remained very much in vogue. 
 
Fran Tarkenton's Vikings led the league with 592 passing attempts, but even they ran the ball 505 times. By comparison, Arizona led the NFL last year with 670 pass attempts to just 360 rush attempts.
 
The Chiefs were right behind the Patriots in 1978, with 663 rushing attempts. In fact, the 1978 Chiefs stand No. 3 on the all-time single-season rushing list (2,986).
 
To put those attempt totals into context, Pittsburgh led the league last year with 549 rushing attempts – 122 fewer than the 1978 Patriots.

New England averaged 4.7 yards per carry that year – by far the league's best and a tribute to an offensive line led by Leon Gray and John Hannah, the latter of whom was declared the best offensive lineman of all time by Sports Illustrated in 1981 and who joined the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991.
 
Interestingly, Cunningham is the only ballcarrier from that team remembered well today – yet the nominal fullback who got the most of the carries had the lowest per-carry average on that team.
 
Dawn of a new NFL era
The year 1978 was a watershed season in NFL history.
 
It was the first year of the 16-game season and the first year of the Live Ball Era, as the league introduced the five-yard "chuck zone" for contact with a wide receiver and first allowed extended open hands for blocking. Both changes led to the wide-open, pass-happy offenses we know today.
Another aspect of offense was changing in 1978, too.
 
NFL teams didn't adopt the wishbone the way colleges did in the 1970s. But both the I formation and the solo tailback were becoming commonplace. The split backfield, meanwhile, a vestige of the old T formation, was fading away. So, too, were the days when teams were likely to split the carries among several ballcarriers. (The Cold, Hard Football Facts addressed this topic last week.)

In 1978, Earl Campbell carried the ball 302 times – about half of Houston's attempts – for 1,450 yards. Miami's Delvin Williams turned in a 272-carry, 1,258-yard season for a team that ran the ball 548 times. 
 
With the advent of free agency, the strategy of concentrating most of your carries with your best runner would become even more prevalent. In the days of both-ways football, it made sense to share the offense, and in the days when you kept a player forever, it made sense not to wear him out too quickly.

Fairbanks, of course, had run the wishbone at Oklahoma, most successfully with Steve Owens and then Greg Pruitt, who averaged 9 yards per carry in the Sooners' 1971 season. It was definitely a share-the-load style of offense.
 
Ivory, New England's No. 2 ballcarrier in 1978, came from Oklahoma too, where he'd played for Fairbanks' former offensive coordinator, Barry Switzer. In New England, Ivory (6-0, 197), Johnson (6-0, 204), and Calhoun (6-0, 206) were virtually interchangeable size-wise behind "the Bam" (6-3, 225). Today, of course, Cunningham would either be a tailback, and scouts would be calling him a tweener, or he'd be built up to 235 or so.

The 1978 Patriots went on to lose their playoff opener to Campbell and the Oilers, 31-14, continuing a tradition of postseason futility that defined the organization's first 41 seasons. 
 
The hubbub of Fairbanks departing and Ron Erhardt assuming the coaching duties didn't help, obviously, but Houston had also beaten New England in the regular season. More importantly, Grogan had injured his knee in the season finale loss to Miami, and he was ineffective against the Oilers before being replaced by Tom Owen.

The irony is that Fairbanks would flop at Colorado (three seasons, 7-26) and then bail out on them for the USFL's New Jersey Generals, where he ran Herschel Walker 412 times for 1,812 yards in his one 6-12 season. (Maurice Carthon, now Cleveland's offensive coordinator, added 90 carries for 334 more yards.) 
 
The spirit of Chuck Fairbanks
All of this brings us back to the 2006 Falcons and their assault on the NFL record books.

Can Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood bring the NFL back to the pre-1978 era – if not the pre-1946 single-wing era? And is Jim Mora channeling the spirit of Chuck Fairbanks? 
 
It's still early in the season, but the Cold, Hard Football Facts seem to indicate that the answer is yes on both counts.
  • Dunn is on pace for 2,128 yards, which would be an NFL record.
  • Vick is on pace to rush for 1,400 yards, which would shatter the QB rushing record.
  • Norwood is on pace to rush for 888 yards, which is usually more than the leading rusher on 10 or so teams each season.
  • The entire team averages 6.1 yards per carry, which would shatter the NFL record of 5.7 set by the 1963 Browns, who were paced by Jim Brown's amazing performance, arguably the greatest single season ever by a running back
Again, it's early in the season and projecting final numbers after two games is destined to be inaccurate one way or the other.
 
Still, the numbers look quite impressive at this point. But they don't indicate that Vick and the Falcons will end up with an NFL title. The 1978 Patriots, as we discussed, went 11-5 and lost badly in the divisional playoffs. The 1973 Bills, who set the per-game rushing record, went 9-5 but missed the playoffs. The 1963 Browns posted a nifty 10-4 record, and ended up playing in an experimental, short-lived postseason consolation game that pitted the No. 2 teams in each conference.
 
Many people have argued that Vick is most effective in the shotgun, which lets him see the field better, but the bitter reality remains that:
  • He's not a great passer no matter where he stands to take the snap.
  • The Falcons appear intent on using Vick as a single-wing-style tailback/quarterback hybrid.
  • The last great single-wing tailback/quarterback to hit the NFL was 1962 Heisman Trophy winner Terry Baker – and look what happened to him... 
The Oregon State phenom (he's the only athlete to win the Heisman and play in the NCAA Final Four) was taken first overall by the L.A. Rams in the 1963 draft. But his passing skills were limited and he spent most of his pro career trying to prove himself running and catching the football. The league at the time was rapidly growing more specialized, and Baker was unable to master any single position. He saw limited playing time, and his career ended after just three seasons.
 
Vick has certainly proven he's a superior NFL athletic talent. But the NFL has since proven that if you can't throw consistently, you aren't going to win a championship – no matter how well you run the ball. 

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