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In pass-happy NFL, it still helps to be able to run

Published:Saturday | January 5, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III smiles as he wears a NFC East Division Champions hat after an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys last Monday in Landover, Md. The Redskins won 28-18, securing a play-off berth. - AP

ASHBURN, Virginia (AP):

As a wideout, Santana Moss wants Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III to throw the ball as much as possible, of course, preferably in his direction.

As a player hoping to advance in the NFL play-offs, Moss wants the Redskins to do what they've done as well as anyone this season: Run, run, run.

"That's big to me. Everywhere I've played and been successful, we ran the ball to pass the ball. Nowadays, a lot of teams fling the ball everywhere, and you want to be a part of that as a receiver," Moss said. "But when you really want to win games, you have to have both parts of your offence working, the air and the ground. It's great to see we have that here."

They do thanks in part to the man known as RG3, who set a rookie quarterback record by running for 815 yards, and to another rookie, Alfred Morris, who finished second in the league with 1,613 yards rushing. Washington averaged an NFL-high 169.3 yards on the ground, and their opponents in the first round of the NFC play-offs tomorrow are the Seattle Seahawks, who ranked No. 3 at 161.2, led by Marshawn Lynch.

Running important

Clearly, as much as the NFL is a passing league, it still helps to be able to run the ball.

"It doesn't have to be great, but you have to have an effective running game to be able to be successful," said two-time Super Bowl champion John Elway, now the Denver Broncos executive VP of football operations. "The reason I say that is because, if you get leads, you've got to be able to eat clock with it and you've got to be able to keep people honest, especially pass-rushing teams."

Elway was the quarterback and Terrell Davis was a 2,000-yard running back when the Broncos won the 1999 Super Bowl, the last time the league's leading rusher earned an NFL championship (their coach then was Mike Shanahan, currently with the Redskins). It's only happened three other times since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, according to STATS LLC, and always by the same guy: Emmitt Smith, with the Dallas Cowboys in 1993, 1994 and 1996.

A season's leader in yards passing, by the way, never has won a Super Bowl in that span, STATS said.

The top-three rushers during this regular season are in the play-offs: Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, Morris and Lynch. Other notable running backs in action this weekend include Arian Foster of the Houston Texans and Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens. The top-three quarterbacks in yards passing, meanwhile, are done: Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions and Tony Romo of the Cowboys. Two of the top three in yards receiving also have plenty of time on their hands now: Calvin Johnson of the Lions and Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears.

Come play-off time, it turns out, good running performances are a better indicator of success than good passing performances.

In play-off games in the Super Bowl era, teams with a 100-yard rusher are a combined 157-37 (a winning percentage of .809), while teams with a 300-yard passer are 57-66 (only .463), according to STATS.

Chicken-and-egg scenario

Admittedly, that presents something of a chicken-and-egg scenario: Did teams get a lead and win because they ran the ball well? Or did they gain a lot of yards running because they already were ahead and were trying to run out the clock?

Either way, the Vikings, Seahawks and Redskins are unabashedly putting emphasis on the ground game. Seattle led the NFL by running on 55 per cent of its offence's plays, Washington was next at 52.2, and Minnesota fifth at 48.6.

"I definitely want to keep the running backs highlighted. It's started to turn into more of a spread-, quarterback-friendly NFL," Peterson said, "but just keep letting them know that there are going to be running backs that can do this."

Shanahan and the man he'll try to outcoach tomorrow, Seattle's Pete Carroll, both agree that running the ball is prevalent in the league.

And both are aware that their bruising running backs - Carroll called Morris "a hammer," Redskins defensive tackle Barry Cofield said Lynch "runs like he's angry at everybody" - provide a big boost to first-year quarterbacks Griffin and Russell Wilson.