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Running in neutral

Posted by Chase Stuart on September 19, 2006

After two weeks, the Jets have yet to establish any sort of running game. New York running backs have 52 rushes for only 120 yards, a meager 2.30 yards per carry average. The competition hasn't been particularly tough, either. The Patriots allowed 99 yards on 23 carries to Buffalo RBs, while the Titans let LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner rush for 209 yards on 32 rushes.

The stats reveal the story: the Jets can't run the ball with any sort of consistency. In a key situation in the third quarter, New York ran had a 3rd and 1 at midfield, and ran twice for -1 yards. Derrick Blaylock's running style was much better suited for Kansas City's zone blocking offense, and he's been ineffective whenever he's not running in space. Kevan Barlow hasn't been much better, and is taken down by the first defender on nearly all his carries. The Jets offensive line, while looking good in pass protection, does not have the power or the experience to be an effective rushing offense.

That's my subjective opinion, of course, after watching both games. Things look bleak for the Jets, but probably no bleaker than they did for say, the 1996 Bengals. After two weeks, the Queen City's runners had just 55 yards on 34 carries, an ugly 1.62 YPC average. Cincinnati ended the season ranked 19th in rushing yards by RBs, and 19th in YPC, despite that terrible beginning. So what's so special about the '96 Bengals? That team averaged the fewest YPC by running backs after two weeks. The following table shows the ten worst teams from 1995-2005:

Team Year Car Yd YPC
cin 1996 34 55 1.62
atl 1997 50 84 1.68
crd 1999 54 110 2.04
ram 1996 44 91 2.07
det 1997 27 56 2.07
kan 2000 54 117 2.17
mia 2004 37 81 2.19
buf 2000 55 123 2.24
gnb 1998 49 113 2.31
tam 1996 49 115 2.35

So how did those teams end the season? Here's each team's season ending ranks in running back rushes, rushing yards and yards per carry.

Team Year Car Rk YD Rk YPC Rk
cin 1996 16 19 19
atl 1997 21 21 22
crd 1999 28 30 30
ram 1996 23 26 20
det 1997 13 1 1
kan 2000 21 23 19
mia 2004 31 32 31
buf 2000 13 19 27
gnb 1998 16 26 27
tam 1996 8 21 30
Average 19 22 23

Obviously, the 1997 Lions stand out, as Detroit ranked 1st in rushing yards despite ranking 13th in carries, and having a horrible start to the season. Barry Sanders had 25 carries for 53 yards after two weeks; Sanders rushed for over 100 rushing yards in each of the remaining fourteen games that season. The last week of the season -- against the Jets -- Sanders topped the 2,000 yard mark for the season.

Here's a quick rundown of the other nine teams.

1996 Cincinnati Bengals: Top overall draft pick Ki-Jana Carter was the main RB through two weeks, but was ineffective. Garrison Heart ended the season with 225-847-3.8, and Eric Bieniemy added in 269 yards on 56 carries.

1997 Atlanta Falcons: A year before the Dirty Bird took the country by storm, Jamal Anderson rushed for 1002 yards on 290 carries (3.5 YPC). Anderson struggles through two weeks continued for the first half of the season (124-323-2.60), but he turned things on in the second half of the season, rushing for 679 yards on 166 carries (4.09 YPC). The next season, Anderson would rush for 2,122 yards and 16 TDs in 19 regular and post-season games.

1999 Arizona Cardinals: Former Jet Adrian Murrell had 112 yards on 44 carries through two games, after rushing for 1,000 the three previous seasons. Murrell hit the wall that season, and the Cardinals had no rushing game. Three other Arizona RBs had ten carries for negative two yards, and it didn't get much better over the next four months. The highlight: Michael Pittman rushed for 133 yards on 23 carries in week ten.

1996 St. Louis Rams: After trading Jerome Bettis to Pittsburgh, the Rams handed the reins (and the ball) to first round pick Lawrence Phillips. Phillips' first two games were probably excused because of his inexperience, but things wouldn't get much better as the season progressed. Phillips did rush for 100 yards in two games, both against the Falcons. Phillips is not to be confused with DeShaun Foster. The Rams started off the season 4-10, but that didn't stop St. Louis from blowing out Atlanta 59-16; Harold Green also went over 100 yards in that game, and the Rams runners had 35 carries for 268 yards.

2000 Kansas City Chiefs: A year earlier, Chiefs QBs handed off to Chiefs RBs 497 times, the second most in the last eleven years (2004 Steelers). All-Pro Fullback Tony Richardson led the team with 147-697-4.7, after rushing 27 times for 86 yards the first two weeks. In weeks 15 and 16, Richardson carried 40 times for 245 times, but he wasn't utilized much in the middle of the season. Kansas City wasted 124 carries on Donnell Bennett, Mike Cloud and Frank Moreau, which netted only 287 yards.

2004 Miami Dolphins: This one's fresh in our memories, as Ricky Williams retired in August and left the Dolphins high and dry at the running back position. Miami has rebounded nicely after drafting Ronnie Brown, but the ugly start to 2004 was a sign of things to come. Lamar Gordon rushed for 54 yards on 31 carries after two weeks, and was placed on IR shortly after. Sammy Morris and Travis Minor were respectable for the next 14 games, but that didn't stop Miami from ranking last in rushing yards and second to last in yards per rush.

2000 Buffalo Bills: The 2000 Bills started off 2-0 despite their top RB rushing for 42 yards and 31 yards in those games. Buffalo would use several backs with minimal success, which looks to be the same formula for the 2005 Jets. Shawn Bryson, Sammy Morris (yes, of the famed 2004 Dolphins), and Antowain Smith would form one of the least intimidating running back-by-committee groups ever. Buffalo went 8-8 despite not having a 100-yard rushing performance until week 17. The Bills were actually 7-4 through 11 games, despite Shawn Bryson's 72 rushing yards being the season-to-date season high.

1998 Green Bay Packers: In 1997, Dorsey Levens ranked in the top five in yards from scrimmage and total TDs. Levens didn't play well in the first two games, and was injured in week two. Darrick Holmes rushed for 274 yards in games against the Eagles and Giants late in the season, and Levens would return and perform admirably down the stretch. Travis Jervey and Raymont "Ultraback" Harris were ineffective in the middle of the season, and Green Bay's rushing attack was well below average. But Brett Favre's MVP season assured that the Pack would return to the playoffs, where they'd lose to Terrell Owens and the 49ers thanks to "The Catch II."

1996 Tampa Bay Buccanneers: Errict Rhett had back-to-back 1,000 yard campaigns to start his career, but his hold out before the 1996 season left Tampa Bay without a runner. The Bucs would draft Warrick Dunn in 1997 and Rhett's career fizzled out shortly afterwards. For a year though, Tampa Bay had a pitiful ground attack. Reggie Brooks led the way with 20 yards in week 1, and Mike Alstott topped all Bucs with 19 rushing yards in week 2. Tampa Bay would end up running quite a bit, mostly because Trent Dilfer wasn't any good. But the Bucs started 0-5, and gave 288 carries to Brooks and Rhett. Those two runners had just 907 yards, for a 3.15 YPC average.

So what does this mean for the 2006 Jets?

The Jets don't have Barry Sanders or Brett Favre, so the post-season seems like a long-shot for New York right now. Most of those terrible running teams didn't recover, and gave 100 carries to multiple ineffective running backs. That seems like the most likely path for the Jets too, as Blaylock and Barlow should continue to split time. Sometimes, the statistics will reveal something you wouldn't figure out just by watching the games. For anyone that's seen the Jets play this year, this isn't one of those times.