ASHBURN, Va. (AP) – As a wideout, Santana Moss wants Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III to throw the ball as much as possible, of course, preferably in his direction.
As a football player hoping to advance in the playoffs, Moss wants the Redskins to do what they’ve done as well as anyone in the NFL this season: run, run, run.
“That’s big to me. Everywhere I’ve played and been successful, we ran the ball to pass the ball. Nowadays, a lot of teams fling the ball everywhere, and you want to be a part of that as a receiver,” Moss said. “But when you really want to win games, you have to have both parts of your offense working, the air and the ground. It’s great to see we have that here.”
They do, indeed, thanks in part to the man known as RG3, who set a rookie QB record by running for 815 yards, and to another rookie, Alfred Morris, who finished second in the league with 1,613 yards rushing. Washington averaged an NFL-high 169.3 yards on the ground, and its opponent in the first round of the NFC playoffs Sunday is the Seattle Seahawks, who ranked No. 3 at 161.2, led by Marshawn Lynch.
Clearly, as much as the NFL is a passing league, it still helps to be able to run the ball.
“It doesn’t have to be great, but you have to have an effective running game to be able to be successful,” said two-time Super Bowl champion John Elway, now the Denver Broncos executive VP of football operations. “The reason I say that is because, if you get leads, you’ve got to be able to eat clock with it and you’ve got to be able to keep people honest, especially pass-rushing teams.”
Elway was the quarterback and Terrell Davis was a 2,000-yard running back when the Broncos won the 1999 Super Bowl, the last time the league’s leading rusher earned an NFL championship (their coach then was Mike Shanahan, currently with the Redskins). It’s only happened three other times since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, according to STATS LLC, and always by the same guy: Emmitt Smith, with the Dallas Cowboys in 1993, 1994 and 1996.
A season’s leader in yards passing, by the way, never has won a Super Bowl in that span, STATS said.
The top three rushers during this regular season are in the playoffs: Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, Morris and Lynch. Other notable running backs in action this weekend include Arian Foster of the Houston Texans and Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens. The top three quarterbacks in yards passing, meanwhile, are done: Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions and Tony Romo of the Cowboys. Two of the top three in yards receiving also have plenty of time on their hands now: Calvin Johnson of the Lions and Brandon Marshall of the Bears.
Come playoff time, it turns out, good running performances are a better indicator of success than good passing performances.
In playoff games in the Super Bowl era, teams with a 100-yard rusher are a combined 157-37 (a winning percentage of .809), while teams with a 300-yard passer are 57-66 (only .463), according to STATS.
Admittedly, that presents something of a chicken-and-egg scenario: Did teams get a lead and win because they ran the ball well? Or did they gain a lot of yards running because they already were ahead and were trying to run out the clock?
Either way, the Vikings, Seahawks and Redskins are unabashedly putting emphasis on the ground game. Seattle led the NFL by running on 55 percent of its offense’s plays, Washington was next at 52.2, and Minnesota fifth at 48.6.
“I definitely want to keep the running backs highlighted. It’s started to turn into more of a spread-, quarterback-friendly NFL,” Peterson said, “but just keep letting them know that there are going to be running backs that can do this.”
In addition to gaining yardage on its own, a good run game opens up room for play-action fakes to help the passing game.
“Especially in playoff football, it seems like the running game always plays a bigger part. The weather gets bad, it gets windy, and things like that. The ability to run the ball and stop the run is crucial,” Redskins defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. “And it’s what our team is built on.”
Cofield said that Shanahan’s first order of business as he opens planning meetings each Wednesday is to talk about how Washington’s defense fared against the run in its previous game and what needs to be done against the run in the next game.
With a struggling second-year quarterback in Christian Ponder, and a transcendent running back in Peterson (whose 2,097 yards were the second-most in NFL history), it makes sense for the Vikings to, as their coach Leslie Frazier put it, “make no bones about it” that they’re a run-first team.
“We’re always confident in our run game. We don’t shy away from it, and we know that’s the type of team we are,” Vikings fullback Jerome Felton said. “I think Coach Frazier built the team like that and we’re confident in it. So, yeah, we still think the run is prevalent in this league.”
Shanahan and the man he’ll try to outcoach Sunday, Seattle’s Pete Carroll, both agree with that sentiment.
And both are aware that their bruising running backs – Carroll called Morris “a hammer”; Cofield said Lynch “runs like he’s angry at everybody” – provide a big boost to first-year quarterbacks Griffin and Russell Wilson.
“If you have the proper commitment and you build around it, it’s maybe the best way you can count on being consistently successful,” Carroll said. “And you know that, as you’re bringing up a young quarterback, there’s nothing better than to run the football as they grow. … We always want to run the football – for attitude, and just for the style of play.”
AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell, AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski and AP National Writer Eddie Pells contributed to this report.