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A Running Debate
September 07, 1981
John Underwood, our resident champion of college football, says the pros' low-yield running game represents the worst waste of talent in sport. Bullfeathers, says NFL advocate Paul Zimmerman, firing verbal blasts at Underwood's hallowed ground game.
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September 07, 1981

A Running Debate

John Underwood, our resident champion of college football, says the pros' low-yield running game represents the worst waste of talent in sport. Bullfeathers, says NFL advocate Paul Zimmerman, firing verbal blasts at Underwood's hallowed ground game.

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The most conspicuous waste of talent in sport can be seen, live (but barely) and in blushing color, every Sunday afternoon and Monday night on the playing fields of the National Football League. The waste occurs in what is called "running the football." That is—or was, or should be—the most exciting single thing commercial football has to offer a paying customer. Many college teams run the football quite well. Some do it spectacularly, with breathtaking flair and yardage. The pros do it poorly. Some do it with such numbing ineffectiveness that if the impact on fans were measured on an EKG, it wouldn't make a ripple. On the whole, the pros move the football on the ground as if it were a piano, and why they haven't been called on it before now is a mystery only a long-suffering $15-a-seat season-ticket holder could answer.

Evidence of this inertia—noticeable for years, chronic lately—is as near as your sports page the day after. Any day after. Most coaches (college coaches, certainly) agree that on a "good day" of rushing, a team should produce a minimum of 200 yards. Top colleges such as Nebraska, Oklahoma and Alabama consider 200 short rations because, year in and out, they average almost twice that.

But for argument's sake, call 200 a positive contribution and measure it against the rushing totals of the 28 NFL teams in games of Oct. 19-20 last season. How many would you guess gained the minimum 200 yards? Half that number? A dozen? Haifa dozen? Brace yourself. The answer is one. One team out of 28 rushed for more than 200 yards. The Houston Oilers got 245, with Earl Campbell accounting for 203 of those. Campbell single-handedly outrushed 27 NFL teams that day. In fact, 13 NFL teams didn't rush for as many yards in 1980 as Campbell did.

Like a frog under a streetlamp, the pros' passivity in this most important phase of offensive play is a subject that looks worse the closer you get. Only four of the remaining 27 pro teams on the weekend in question rushed for even 150 yards. Thirteen didn't even gain 100 yards. Dallas got 46, New Orleans 36, Minnesota 55, Buffalo 68, etc. For the week, the 28 NFL teams averaged a laughable 113.3 yards rushing. In college games that weekend, Nebraska rushed for 405, Ohio State 382, Mississippi State 339 and Georgia's Herschel Walker got 283 of his team's 331, single-handedly outgaining every NFL team.

The Sunday-Monday games before and after Black October 19-20 were only slightly less embarrassing. Four NFL teams on each of these dates rushed for 200 yards. On Oct. 26-27, 10 were under 100. On Oct. 12-13, eight were under 100.

It could be argued, of course, that Walker's impressive yardage was run up on a team (Vanderbilt) whose defense gave a marvelous impression of an open door all year long. But the colleges' best backs don't always need patsies for opponents to get ahead in life. Walker gained 238 yards against Florida and 219 against South Carolina. The latter's George Rogers got 168 yards that day and 142 against Michigan. Notre Dame's Jim Stone rushed for 224 against Miami, USC's Marcus Allen 216 against Washington, and Nebraska's Jarvis Redwine 189 against Penn State. The so-called "victims" all finished the season with winning records and all went to bowl games.

In any statistical comparison with the college game, pro offenses invariably suffer, so it's probably redundant to point out that on Walker's and Rogers' big days, college running attacks were making heads and turnstiles spin all over the country. On Oct. 4 Iowa State rushed for 449 yards, Notre Dame 405, Arkansas 475, Minnesota 466. On Oct. 11 Ohio State got 418, South Carolina 425, etc. On Oct. 18 Mississippi State rushed for 339, Oklahoma 469, Missouri 348, etc. On Oct. 25 FSU got 365, Michigan 376, Temple 357, Nebraska 403, etc. On Nov. 1 Oklahoma got 495, Houston 507, etc. On Nov. 8 Miami got 454, etc. In all, major college teams rushed for 400 yards or better 37 times last fall. No NFL team even came close to 400. Only two, Detroit and St. Louis, got as many as 300.

One could argue correctly that a good number of these figures were totted up at the expense of inferior opposition, and that not every college team runs the ball that well. But enough do to make the blank cartridges fired regularly by the NFL that much more ludicrous. Not one NFL team averaged 200 yards a game rushing the football last year. Actually, none came close. The Rams led the NFL with an average of 174 yards a game, a figure that would have put them somewhere below 70th place on the college list. Houston was next at 164.7, then Detroit at 162.4. South Carolina's Rogers (at 161.9) and USC's Allen (156.3) by themselves outrushed the rest of the NFL. Seven pro teams went the entire season without a single 200-yard game: Baltimore, Buffalo, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, the Giants. As for the argument that only the weakest teams give up big rushing totals to college giants, on Nov. 22 Nebraska rushed for 314 yards and Oklahoma 249—against each other.

The overwhelming majority of pro teams—23 out of 28—produced fewer than 150 yards a game. Fifteen—more than half—averaged fewer than 125. One pro team—New Orleans—was a rushing disaster. It averaged under 100 yards.

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