Best RB Packages
Hail Green Bay! Packers backs are NFL's best
by Adrian Hasenmayer - FOXSports.com
For you football clichι lovers out there, I bet you have heard this beauty more times than J-Lo's gotten hitched:
"If you want to win football games, you must be able to run the ball."
The lack of creative expression aside, an effective running game accomplishes an array of critical team-building goals for any offense.
Confidence on offense: Any time an offensive line can string 4-5 straight running plays and get some licks on opposing D-linemen, you can feel that momentum building.
Save that defense: When the running game's clicking, a huge not-so-fringe benefit is the D getting a blow while also keeping other potent offenses helpless on the sidelines picking their teeth.
Clock killing: Most importantly, great running games are like great closers in baseball. Coming back all the time is not a recipe for success in any sport. The ability to finish a game with ease gives the offense a load of confidence, while the defense can relax knowing game preservation isn't solely on their shoulders.
So which teams own the best RB groups for 2004? For the purposes of our rankings, the goal for every team is to find two, hopefully three, backs with plenty of game experience. A great starting RB alone is most important, but a lack of solid backups can mean a big drop. Big game production definitely helps, since it's all about winning. Also, this list is for the 2004 season. Future potential means next to nothing.
And one more thing, fullbacks are not included.
Ranking the RB Packages
The NFL's top group sports one of football's best two runners in Ahman Green. But he'll get even more rest than last season not due to fading skills, but Davenport (420 yards, 5.5 yards/carry in 2003) allows the Pack to rest Green without sacrificing production. The 6-1, 245 pound backup enjoyed 2-3 normal series each game in '03 and his workload is expected to increase even more this year to keep Green fresh for the playoffs. Just in case, third-stringer Tony Fisher also plays well in Green Bay's straight ahead, inside running attack.
Dick Vermeil's collection of RB talent could easily become the league's best if they can get second-year man Larry Johnson on the field more to spell the NFL's best all-around back, Priest Holmes. Easier said than done, as Holmes more than proved his worth last season by ripping off his third straight year of 2,000+ yards from scrimmage. Speaking of 2,000 yards, their backup is the only man in Penn State history with a 2,000-yard season. Johnson showed a few glimpses of his talent in '03, and Blaylock has spelled Holmes effectively when called on.
There's no secret for opposing defensive coordinators: Panthers head coach John Fox often reaffirms publicly that the Cats will run the football on first downs, second downs and just about every down. The reason is they have bruising runner Stephen Davis (1,444 yards in '03), who proved his point to former Skins coach Steve Spurrier last year. This fall, watch for more forecasts for Lightning mixed in with Davis' Thunder because the Cats will use cat-quick DeShaun Foster more to spell Davis. In Davis and Foster, the Panthers have two bonafide studs at RB ... and they even have "He Hate Me" for added flavor.
He may not be the same explosive, MVP back. But Marshall Faulk at 31 is still better than most every other ball-carrier, as witnessed by his return from injury in '03 (five 100-yards games in final eight games). Rams' top cop Mike Martz has plenty of backup, starting with third-year man Lamar Gordon and first-round pick Stephen Jackson arguably the best RB in the this year's draft. Arlen Harris even has a three touchdown game on his resume in Faulk fill-in time last season.
If the blazing Bennett is healthy all year, the Vikings should be playing in January even if a Pop Warner team mans the defense (which some critics have suggested they have). His 1,296 yards in 2002 was not a mirage and his speed is world class. He still may not be the best RB on the team, as Onterrio Smith has flashed plenty of potential with his 5.4 yards per carry as a rookie in '03. And how valuable is all-purpose man Moe Williams (2003 digits: 745 rush yards, 644 receiving yards, 8 total TDs)? Good luck to Mike Tice in figuring out how to get everyone enough touches.
Forget about Taylor's previous "brittle" label. The guy has not missed a game for two years running, ran for over 1,500 yards in 2003 and he's only 28. The Jags should be able to bank on him for another couple seasons as Freddie enjoys his prime. But Jacksonville scores very high with their top two backups Toefield and Jones. Despite Taylor's career-high 345 carries last year, Jacksonville still found a way to get Toefield some touches and he performed the steady understudy role (4.0 average). The real find could be Florida State rookie Greg Jones, who at 248 pounds could steal some goal line touches this year.
It's normally tough for Seattle to get some pub, but fans everywhere know Alexander is one of the NFL's best backs. He racked up his third 1,000-yard campaign last year in his most consistent season yet scoring TDs in all but four games. What some may not know is the Hawks also have one of football's more exciting backups in Morris. The former Oregon Duck came close to taking over as a rookie in 2002 before Alexander improved his production. Morris' 5.6 yards per carry means Mike Holmgren is secure if Alexander gets an injury a case of fumble-itis.
Coming off New England's second Super Bowl win in three years, Pats fans were amped up even higher by the off-season deal for the former Bengal malcontent Dillon. The good news: he can produce, as judged by his six 1,000-yard seasons all for losing teams. The bad news: he can pout when times get tough and turns 30 in October. But combined with scatback Kevin Faulk, Dillon gives Bill Belichick his best Chow-dah backfield. Short yardage guy Mike Cloud chipped in with 5 TDs last year and provides more depth.
Things are looking up in Cincy, and a big reason is the Bengals' new No. 1 back Rudi Johnson a starting running back the fans can actually embrace. RU-DI, RUDI just missed a 1,000-yard season in '03 despite only five starts and played so well the team decided to ship out Corey Dillon. In case Rudi flops, Marvin Lewis hopes the team drafted "Rudi, Version 2.0" in 2003 Heisman Trophy candidate Chris Perry. Also in the Cincy stable are Kenny Watson (two 100-yard games with Redskins in 2002) and veteran Skip Hicks (led NFL Europe with 12 TDs this spring).
Baltimore fans may be holding their collective breath pending results of Jamal Lewis' drug arrest, but count him in the mix for our purposes. Lewis keys the Ravens' top ten ranking behind his surprising 2,000-yard season last year in winning the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year award. Nowadays, Brian Billick seems better prepared without Lewis with second-season back Chester Taylor. Out of small school Toledo, Taylor impressed in limited action in '03. 232-pound Musa Smith also chipped in two TDs last season in goal line duty.
Trading CB Champ Bailey may have been a steep price, but RB Clinton Portis could FINALLY help get owner Daniel Snyder back to the playoffs. Portis ran for almost 1,600 yards in just 13 games in '03, so if healthy the Skins get a premiere talent. I may be nuts, but I also like the Skins' supplemental pieces in Betts and Morton both of whom were affected severely by Snyder's ex Steve Spurrier and his subpar schemes. With the legendary Joe Gibbs and his power-running back in town, the Skins' backfield should more closely resemble the glory days from the "Gibbs I" era.
There are serious questions behind Tomlinson, but would you rather have one superstar and sorry depth or 3-4 average players and a question mark as your starter? Not many would turn away L.T., who ran for over 1,600 yards while also catching 100 passes in 2003. Tomlinson accounted for 46.2% of the SD offense, an incredible figure for a RB. Yet if he ever gets hurt he's never missed a game in three years the Chargers would be in trouble. Backup Jessie Chatman has 14 carries and a 2.6 average in two seasons, and only Johnson and Chapman have experience, though very marginal. Tomlinson's reliability thus far improves the Chargers' ranking.
Philly's three-headed monster at RB is minus one helmet in Duce Staley, but there's plenty still left. If healthy Westbrook is one of the more exciting players with the football. He scored 11 TDs rushing and receiving in only 154 touches, plus added two punt return TDs as well. Andy Reid wants to feed him more with Staley gone, but not burn him out. That's where Correll Buckhalter comes in, and he's no slouch (523 rush yards, 8 rush TDs in '03) but also carries a troubling injury history. Philly even likes 2nd-year workhorse Reno Mahe, who will spell Westbrook and Buckhalter from time to time.
How do you trade away Clinton Portis and still rank this high? Mike Shanahan must truly believe he has the Midas Touch when it comes to picking RBs. Don't doubt him, the results speak volumes. To make up for Portis, the Broncos signed a veteran with a strong background (Hearst), groomed an incumbent possibly primed to start (Griffin) and plucked an acclaimed youngster in the draft (Bell). While Denver may borrow the Philly platoon approach at first, watch for the rookie Tatum Bell to see if he can become the next great Broncos back.
Deuce McAllister's situation in New Orleasn resembles that of LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego. He's the heart of the offense (1,641 rushing yards in 2003), though he has a few more offensive weapons around him. But the Saints are in dire straits if he goes down to injury. At least they have a veteran backup in Lamar Smith, who owns a 1,000-yard season on his resumι. Jenkins is merely a return man, but the Saints also have experienced former Buc Aaron Stecker.
Miami is another one-horse backfield with quite a horse in Ricky Williams, though he rushed for "only" 1,372 yards in his career-high 392 carries. His 3.5 average had more to do with the Dolphins' inept QB play last year than it did with Williams. This is another team whose season could be thrown out the window if it loses it's starting RB. No disrespect to backup Travis Minor, who owns a solid 4.5 yards per carry, but he's no Ricky.
Now all of you Bills fan, let me fire a preemptive strike before you pound the forum about how you have two No. 1 RBs. Yes, Travis Henry has put up back-to-back 1,300-yard seasons. I know, I know ... Willis McGahee should be healthy and ready to contribute after missing his rookie season rehabbing his Fiesta Bowl knee injury from January 2003. Still, McGahee's knee is a big mystery until he proves himself on the field at NFL speed. Henry is a good back, at just 5-foot-9 I question how long he can be counted on as a No. 1 back. O.K., let 'er rip, Bills fans.
Granted, the Steelers don't look like they're planning for the future too well at RB. But they should have enough mileage left on Staley and Bettis to compensate this season. Duce was preserved well enough in Philly's three-man rotation, and he's looking forward to getting some more carries as Bill Cowher has preached a return to his ball-control roots on offense. The Bus is 32 and his 1,000-yard seasons are behind him, but he could combine with Staley for a solid 1-2 combination.
Hand it to The Edge, he battled hard to return to his previous 1,000-yard status after a 2001 knee injury. With 1,259 yards in 2003, James proved the doubters wrong for the most part. After all, he's not the same player he once was. Frankly, he probably never will be on that Indy turf. And while Indy has two adequate backups who have been with the Colts and know the system in Rhodes and Mungro, they are constantly hurt.
Little John Flowers
Curtis Martin has been a wonderful NFL player, with 1,000+ yards in each of his nine seasons including 1,308 last season when everyone suspected he might fade away. With all due respect to the veteran, this could be the year he fades away. Lamont Jordan appears to be the back of the future, if the team can convince him to drop his trade demands. Extra points go to the Jets for having a guy named Little John on the team.
Some wonder why the Bears would spend off-season dough on RB Jones when they already had a 1,000-yard starter in Thomas. Maybe that should tell us enough about how the Bears view Thomas for the long-term. Jones could be a huge gift for the Bears coming off his strong finish to the 2003 season, but he could also be the mirage he's always been since he was drafted by the Cardinals in 2000. Thomas tends to get banged up, another reason the Bears were smart to grab Mr. Jones. Forsey is merely adequate as a backup, and the hyped Peterson never pushed Thomas in 2003 when he had a chance to unseat him.
Like many of you, I can't wait to see rookie RB Kevin Jones hit the field to see if he's the missing link in Motown's young offense. But he still has not yet had one carry in the bigs, and while rookie RBs fare much better in Year One than rookie WRs or QBs, jury deliberations continue. If Jones is not that piece, the Lions don't have much except some names you might recognize. Pinner has been pining for a shot at the big-time, and Gary has some success in his background in Denver, but counting on a rookie can still be dangerous (see Thomas Jones in Arizona, circa 2000).
If we counted Michael Vick in this group, they'd jump to the top ten but that would be cheating. Though Falcons fans may wish Vick carried the ball on every play, he likely wouldn't last past the first half on Week One. Instead of a franchise RB to support the young Vick, Atlanta uses an inside guy (Duckett) and an outside guy (Dunn) to run the ground game. Unfortunately, neither adds up to enough of a RB threat to truly help Vick as much as he could use the assistance.
The Browns appeared set at this time last year with 2002 first-round pick William Green coming off a strong finish to the end of the '02 season. But his arrest and suspension last year threw the position into Code Red. Last year's promising rookie Suggs wasn't yet ready for prime time, and while Jackson was effective at times the Browns lack of a running presence crushed the offense. A sorry offensive line was part culprit, but unless Green somehow returns and stays in the lineup, this spot goes to the dogs (not the Dawgs).
QB David Carr thanked his lucky stars in 2003 for the surprising emergence of rookie Domanick Davis, who surpasses the 1,000-yard barrier in getting 10 starts. Davis will be the starter, though still unproven over a full season. Hollings, a supplemental draft pick in 2003 who some thought would steal the starting gig last year, failed in his shot because he couldn't hold onto the football. Wells is another youngster with potential, but the Texans' group with apologies to Davis is swirling in potential that needs to prove itself.
Well, if quantity alone was my thing, the Raiders would grab the top spot. But beyond the huddled masses, Oakland's RB package should not be opened. Wheatley is merely a part-time player at this stage of his career. Former USC Trojan Fargas is a gamer with some speed, but not enough meat to last the season as a 20-25 carry player. Hambrick got run out of Dallas by Bill Parcells, who just might have a future is this NFL thing. And Zereoue earned, then quickly lost his starting job in Pittsburgh in '03. Al Davis is looking for a few good men, not a bunch of average Joes.
The patience of new Giants head honcho Tom Coughlin will be tested in 2004, especially if Tiki Barber is the only offense on the Giants. New York's Tiki God could do only so much in 2003, and he did quite a bit with 1,677 totals yards from scrimmage. But fumble and fatigue problems, plus only three TDs in '03, make Barber a questionable choice to repeat as the heart and soul of the offense. The problem is that Barber may be the only good back on Coughlin's team. Any team with Ron Dayne still on the roster has trouble.
Jon Gruden does have some experience to work with, but he certainly can't be overjoyed with this group. Garner's engine still runs, but doesn't have much juice left. Pittman lost his job at the end of 2003, plus his domestic violence issues and suspension have clouded his dependability. The Bucs went out and grabbed former AFC North backups Bennett (former Bengal) and White (former Brown) just in case. Let the RB by committee begin!
In the spirit of not dumping on anyone completely, Kevan Barlow could turn out to be one of football's best RBs. Thanks to a Garrison Hearst injury in 2003, Barlow got his long-awaited chance as the exclusive carrier in San Francisco and he responded with 1,024 yards. The problem is he has yet to prove he can handle the job fulltime over the long haul, and if injuries bring him down the Niners' three other backs have 32 NFL carries between them all by Jamal Robertson. Where are you, Ricky Watters?
Cowboy fan would never question a football authority such as Bill Parcells, would he? Simply cutting '03 starting RB Troy Hambrick leaving only a rookie second-round pick as your starter is a no-brainer, right? If the move was made by anyone other than Parcells, the move would be dubbed a "No Brain" move. Jerry Jones hopes the Tuna caught a draft steal in Notre Dame's Julius Jones. Other than the rook, Cason, Lee and Bickerstaff do not strike fear into the hearts of the opposition.
It is somewhat strange to rank a group that includes the NFL's all-time leading rusher at No. 31 in running backs, but it's much weirder that new Cards coach Dennis Green installed the "very past his prime" Emmitt Smith as his starter before training camp. Is Bill Bidwell coaching the team, or is Green possessed by the desert spirits? The scary thing is Emmitt may be more effective than Marcel Shipp, a trendy fantasy back in 2003. But a close look at Shipp's 2003 season (averaged only 47.8 rush yards per game over final eight games) shows that the Cards are desperate for consistent running game, even if it's consistently ordinary.
Eddie George has been such an admirable warrior in the league for his eight seasons that it's sad to watch him struggle for yards like he has the past few years. Consider his yards per carry averages the last three seasons, 2001 through 2003 respectively: 3.0, 3.4, 3.3. He was never a speed back, but the Titans' offense could use much more production. If George either does not return to Tennessee or falls below his 3.0 rushing GPA, Jeff Fisher hopes Chris Brown is the next George. At 6-foot-3 and 219, he's got the build, but does he have the game? The Titans could use some options here.