(The Sports Xchange) – After five decades of legislating offense in general and the passing game in particular, the 2016 National Football League season begins this week looking in the rear-view mirror.
Perhaps it is more by coincidence than design, but many of the league’s highlight teams will begin the season relying on defense and a good running game instead, or in spite of, the quarterback.
Suddenly, instead of Tony Romo in Dallas, Teddy Bridgewater in Minnesota or Peyton Manning in Denver, the keys to success are in the hands of a strong defense and running backs Ezekiel Elliott, Adrian Peterson and C.J. Anderson.
It seems appropriate that this mini-evolution, mostly of necessity and probably temporary, is exemplified by the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, who kick off the season with a rematch of their Super Bowl 50 game against the Carolina Panthers Thursday night at 8:30 ET on NBC-TV.
And it seems even more appropriate that the quarterback who started for the Broncos in that game, the great Peyton Manning, retired to leave team president John Elway, a pretty good quarterback himself back in the day, to grapple with how to manage a team without a true franchise quarterback.
Interestingly, Elway chose not to empty the bank to keep turn-key backup Brock Osweiler, who packed his bags to sign a $72 million deal in Houston. Elway opted to try veteran Mark Sanchez, but he was cut and is now with the Dallas Cowboys.
Instead, the Broncos will count on a defense led by quarterback-crushing Von Miller and Anderson, the running back who was among the best in the league at the end of last season.
The Broncos open the season with quarterback Trevor Siemian, who made an impressive ascent from being rated the No. 22 quarterback in the 2015 Draft by NFLDraftScout.com. He earned a Super Bowl ring last season, but when he takes his first snap this year it will be his first in an actual play as a pro. (He took one snap in a kneel-down situation last season.) Granted, he may be a place-holder for promising rookie Paxton Lynch, but he did outlast Sanchez.
Now, Sanchez is sitting behind a rookie in Dallas, where Romo is out with his annual injury and Dak Prescott, a fourth-round rookie, starts at quarterback. But the key to the offense will be a great front line and the outstanding rookie running back Elliott, the No. 4 pick in the draft.
In Minnesota, Bridgewater is out for at least 2016 and, although the Vikings traded a first- (2017) and conditional fourth-round draft pick in 2018 to Philadelphia for veteran Sam Bradford, it isn’t a certainty he will displace Shaun Hill as the starting quarterback in the season opener Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.
Regardless, the main offensive weapon will be the age-defying superback Peterson, who barged for another 1,485 yards rushing last year.
And in Los Angeles, Jared Goff, the No. 1 pick in the draft who is already dubbed the face of the franchise, is third string and will probably be in street clothes when the Rams open in Santa Clara against the San Francisco 49ers Monday night.
Veteran Case Keenum will start at quarterback for the Rams, but the offense will rely on second-year running back Todd Gurley, who may battle Peterson and Elliott for the rushing title this year.
In a league where defenses reacted to the pass-happy offensive evolution with changes in personnel and strategy, it will require a different mindset to take on these run-oriented attacks.
Strategically, they will need to stick with seven or more defenders in the box and hope the defensive backs can hold their own on play-action. That is a big difference for defenses that used base 3-4 or 4-3 alignments more than 50 percent of the time as recently as 2008, but were relying on nickel and dime packages 72 percent of the time last year while focusing on the pass.
And that is just the X’s and O’s aspect.
The proliferation of wide-open, pass-devoted offenses — along with enhanced safety rules to protect receivers — turned game day into what was once seen only during seven-on-seven passing drills in practice. The game is now one of pitch and catch.
But when teams focus on running, it gets physical. And considering the limitations imposed by the NFL Players Association on real, live hitting in practice, it will be interesting to see how prepared defenses are to cope with being pounded.
“It will be a whole different experience to face the constant physicality that a run-based team brings,” said Hall-of-Fame coach John Madden, a devotee of Vince Lombardi’s in-your-face running game. “If today’s defenses had to face some of the running games of the ’60s and ’70s, they would see football in a whole different light. Football almost isn’t the same game … hell, it isn’t the same game.”
Madden laughed as he recalled the last time he saw a team devoted to the run.
“My grandson’s pee-wee football team,” he said. “They run, run, run. The defense is a 10-1,” meaning only one defender played off the line in case of a pass.
Of course if an NFL defense tried that, it wouldn’t take a franchise-type quarterback to begin throwing the ball.
To be sure, there will be plenty of passing again in the NFL’s 2016 season. The league still has Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Tom Brady in New England (when allowed to play by the league), Philip Rivers in San Diego, Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and Drew Brees, who just broke the bank with a contract extension in New Orleans.
But watching Dallas, Minnesota, Denver and the Rams this year may be reminiscent of a long-gone era of football, especially early in the season.
It might be appropriate if those teams wore throwback uniforms for the entire year.
– Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and 26th year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.