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Football Fragments: Assorted Assessments of the NFL’s 3rd Weekend

Published 5:58pm Tuesday, September 28, 2010

This week’s Fragments aren’t so much fragments as chunks, so if you want to print this one out and take into the men’s (or women’s) room, I would understand.

-I rarely utilize nautical colloquialisms for anything other than impressing the ladies, but I like the cut of Sam Bradford’s jib. He carries himself like a leader. After Steven Jackson got hurt on Sunday, you could see him rally the troops to beat a much better Redskins team. He started whipping lasers to Mark Clayton and Danny Amendola and he would get fired up when they made the catch for him. Also, Bradford does little things that lead to big plays. His touchdown pass to Daniel Fells was a result of a one such crafty maneuver. Bradford rolled right after a play broke down, and tucked the ball like he was set to try and run it in against 3 Redskins. But the tuck drew the safety just enough away from Fells and Bradford tossed a perfect lob to the back of the end zone. The Rams may not have a ton of talent, but Bradford looks like he could be a really good quarterback. Watch for St. Louis to upset Seattle this weekend in St. Louis.

-I had a feeling that the ‘What’s wrong with Matt Ryan?’ media sentiment in after week one was a little premature. Ryan had a bad year last year because he only has 1 good wide receiver and the running game was lacking without Michael Turner. Now with Turner back and wide out Harry Douglas back from injury, Ryan looks good again. But I still can’t believe the Falcons didn’t go get another wide receiver in the offseason. Have they seen Michael Jenkins? He’s atrocious. Imagine that Falcons team with Anquan Boldin lined up opposite Roddy White.

-Why is Carson Palmer so terrible? He was awesome four years ago, but its like he switched arms and brains with Cade McNown. I know the Bengals won, but Palmer seems to only throw inaccurate ducks and would have 9 interceptions already this season if defenders hadn’t dropped them. It’s worth mentioning that these dropped picks weren’t tipped, Aeneas Williams could barely get to them type of INT’s. They were really easy to intercept and by sheer luck the defender dropped them.

-Even though the Bears are undefeated, I’m still kind of waiting for Jay Cutler to fall apart. O-Coordinator Mike Martz hasn’t protected him well, and will likely continue to leave Cutler vulnerable with empty backfields and tight ends split out wide. Cutler is going to get skittish, or as I like to call it, Marc Bulgery, and start panicking under pressure.

-During Peyton Hillis’ running rampage against the Ravens on Sunday, a very smart friend of mine posited this question: why are big backs (like Hillis) so uncommon?

I think part of the answer to this question has to do with Titans running back Chris Johnson. The trend in the NFL in the last few years has (obviously) become to have several running backs in a rotation, and (less obviously) favor running back’s like the speedy but smaller Johnson, who is the most recent league leading rusher. In a league obsessed with emulation, the thinking has become that if a team has a home run threat in the Johnson mold, then the team will win more games. The big running back has gone to the wayside in favor of this sort of thinking. Take a look at this last year’s draft, where speed guys like C.J. Spiller, Jahvid Best and Dexter McCluster went ahead of the most talented big running backs, Toby Gerhart and Anthony Dickson.

But as Green Bay’s John Kuhn, Hillis, and Le’Ron McClain have shown this season, this thinking may be flawed. Backs like Kuhn don’t run in the 40 yard dash in 4.3 seconds, but they can get positive yardage. This allows quarterback Aaron Rodgers to spread the field and mix up play calls on passing downs. The fast, elite running back has become completely overrated. Sure it’s exciting to have a long run broken off, but the running game doesn’t need to be a “home run threat.” It simply needs to be effective. An effective running game is more important than an elite running back. Look in the past ten seasons: not since 1999 has the Super Bowl winner had the best running back in the league, but they all had effective running games. The Patriots in their 3 seasons had an excellent committee, as did the Steelers in their two victories. You could argue that Baltimore had an elite guy in 2000 in Jamal Lewis, but he was a rookie and probably not elite, like and Eddie George or a Marshall Faulk.

The running back by committee trend makes sense. The dismissal of big runners doesn’t. From an injury standpoint, bigger, slower running backs, especially when their carries are parceled out amongst a committee, are less likely to get hurt in the short term (although they do burn out more quickly, i.e. Brandon Jacobs). Chris Johnson is a bit of anomaly; he isn’t often hurt in spite of his small stature. But backs like Brian Westbrook and Frank Gore who are talented but diminutive and often hurt seem like they are more often the case. Furthermore, the elite guy is often relied upon too much and often wears down, where in a committee of runners this is less of a problem. Take for example an elite running back like Steven Jackson, whose team relies on him too much, and has subsequently missed time in each of the last 3 seasons. A team with multiple running backs, with an effective, chain moving bruiser is probably the ideal rushing attack. Kansas City and Atlanta lead the league in team rushing yards this year, and both do it by committee. Atlanta even does it with two big, effective backs that no one would consider overly speedy. Even this year’s leading rusher (through only 3 games) is Houston’s Arian Foster, a bruiser who still gets relieved by Steve Slaton and Derrick Ward.

Overall, it is much more important to have an elite quarterback, which is a commonly echoed sentiment in general. But teams like Buffalo, who ignored quarterbacks (among other needs like offensive tackle), continue to be enticed by the big play running back, when they could really have drafted or signed a quarterback and went with an already proven running game in Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch. The point is that when a team is hard up for a speed demon, or wowed by a running back’s 40 time, they should be considering this: who would you rather pay large sums of money to, Chris Johnson, or guys like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and the Super Bowl rings on their hands?