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Smash-mouth football: feels like old times for Patriots ground game

Posted Oct 11, 2012

It feels like old times in New England for those of us weaned on the smash-mouth mother's milk of 1970s Patriots football.

The 2012 Patriots, through five weeks, are running the ball more often than any team in football and doing it with great success. The Patriots right now rank:
  • No. 1 on the Cold, Hard Football Facts Offensive Hog Index, the best offensive line in football
  • No. 1 in rushing attempts (191)
  • No. 1 in attempts per game (38.2)
  • No. 1 in rushing TDs (10)
  • No. 1 in first-down runs (33.5%)
  • No. 3 in rush yards (827) and rush yards per game (165.4)

The Patriots are on pace to score 32 rushing touchdowns this year, which would be a franchise record and fall just four scores shy of the all-time standard set by Vince Lombardi's magnificent 1962 Packers.

The commitment to the run has given the 2012 season a comforting old-school flavor.

The Cold, Hard Football Facts don't do “feelings.” But if we did, the smash-mouth football we're witnessing right now would just “feel” right here in a cool, cozy and colorful New England autumn.

Back in the late 1970s, the Patriots possessed the most devastating ground game in football, with guys like Sam “Bam” Cunningham and Steve Grogan, the great running QB of his era, pounding the ball behind center Bill Lenkaitis, Pro Bowl tackle Leon Gray and John “Hog” Hannah, the Hall of Fame guard many consider the greatest offensive lineman of all time.

The 1976 Patriot were a devastatingly good rushing team.

They ran the ball 591 times – 42 attempts per game – pounding out 2,948 yards, 24 touchdowns and a league-best 5.0 YPA.

Three of the four greatest rushing performances in Patriots history came in that 1976 season. Here are the team's four best single-game rushing efforts:
  • Nov. 28, 1976 – 332 yards in a 38-14 win over the Broncos
  • Oct. 18, 1976 – 330 yards in a 41-7 win over the Jets
  • Sept. 18, 1983 – 328 yards in a 23-13 win over the Jets
  • Oct. 3, 1976 – 296 yards in a 48-17 win over the Raiders

The win over the Raiders deserves particular attention. In fact, it may have been the most dominant performance in Patriots history.

Oakland went 16-1 that year, capped by a win over the Vikings in Super Bowl XI. Oakland was manhandled by the Patriots in its lone loss, making New England's controversial loss to the Raiders in the 1976 playoffs all the more painful for Patriots fans.

The 1978 Patriots were devastatingly effective, too. They ran the ball 671 times for 30 touchdowns and 3,165 yards – still the single-season NFL record for rushing yards and one not likely to be broken any time soon.

Those powerful Patriots rushing teams are notable for another reason that will resonate with the 2012 Patriots: it was a running back-by-committee approach to football.

Cunningham led the 1976 Patriots with 824 yards, but just 3 TDs. Grogan set a then record for QBs, with 12 rushing TDs to lead the team.

The 1978 Patriots – the most productive rushing team in NFL history – also failed to produce a single 1,000-yard back.

Cunningham again led the team, this time with 768 yards. That club was notable as the only team in NFL history with four different ball carriers to top 500 yards in the same season. The other major ball carriers on the committee were Horace Ivory (693), Andy Johnson (675) and Grogan (539).

All of which brings us back to the 2012 Patriots.

New England this year is not running the ball particularly well. The team averages 4.33 YPA on the ground – good enough for No. 9 league wide, but hardly a lights-out performance.

That effort pales in comparison to the 49ers, for example. They lead the NFL with an awesome average of 6.08 YPA every time they run the ball, a pace so good it gives them a chance to set the all-time record set by the 1963 Browns (5.74 YPA).

What's different for these Patriots is something that's been missing around here for quite some time: a commitment  to the run.

It seems in past years New England would abandon the run too quickly, counting on the Hall of Fame arm of Tom Brady to carry the team through any situation.

But that approach has its limits. Balance is what wins in the NFL. The great formula for success in the NFL is to pair a highly effective passing game with a commitment to the run – no matter how well or how poorly you actually do run the football.

The key yards will come through the air. But it's that commitment to the run that provides the necessary balance.

The Patriots have long had a highly effective passing game, and still do today behind Brady, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski. What's been missing in recent years is the commitment to provide balance.

Let's look at the run-pass balance in the Super Bowl-winning seasons of last decade:
  • 2001 Patriots – 473 runs, 482 passes (49.5% runs)
  • 2003 Patriots – 473 runs, 537 passes (46.8%)
  • 2004 Patriots – 524 runs, 485 passes (51.9%)
Those 2004 Patriots are notable for two reasons. It was the last New England Super Bowl champion. And it was the last New England team to run the ball more than it passed the ball.

More recent teams – teams that won games but not championships – have been heavily imbalanced in favor of the pass.
  • 2007 Patriots – 451 runs, 586 passes (43.5%)
  • 2008 Patriots – 513 runs, 534 passes (49.0%)
  • 2009 Patriots – 466 runs, 592 passes (44.0%)
  • 2010 Patriots – 454 runs, 507 passes (47.2%)
  • 2011 Patriots – 438 runs, 612 passes (41.7%)
The 2012 Patriots are on pace to be the first New England team since 2004 to run the ball more than they pass it. They currently run it on 50.8 percent of offensive plays.

That's good news for Patriots fans. They can hope that this much-needed balance on offense – that old-school-style smash-mouth football – will yield the same results in 2012 as it did the last time we saw it in 2004.