Too much attention is being paid these days to the wear on Clinton Portis’ tires - and whether it might be wise for him take out some more collision coverage. Granted, he’s 9,202 yards down the road and turns 28 next month, but correct me if I’m wrong: Aren’t we living in the Era of the Forward Pass? Are running backs, even backs as productive as Portis, really that important in the grand scheme of things?
Joe Montana won his first Super Bowl with Ricky Patton and Earl Cooper in the backfield. Tom Brady won two rings with Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk as his main ball carriers. And Peyton Manning, let’s not forget, finally won the Lombardi Trophy the year after Edgerrin James left in free agency. I could cite plenty of examples like this.
Sure, it’s nice to have a Pro Bowl running back to ogle every Sunday, but do you truly need one to be successful in the NFL? Or can you get by with merely a good back - or even a serviceable one? Three years ago, you may recall, Portis missed almost half the season with a hand injury. Did the running game go hurtling off a cliff? Hardly. Chris Samuels and Co. kept opening holes, and Ladell Betts ran though them for 871 yards in the final eight games.
That doesn’t mean the Redskins aren’t a better team when Portis is in the lineup. After all, he blocks, he catches passes, he does everything you need a running back to do. But it wouldn’t be the end of the world if, over the next couple of years, his annual rushing yardage - 1,487 last season - gravitated closer to 1,000. That is, it wouldn’t be the end of the world as long as Jim Zorn’s West Coast offense continues to make strides under Jason Campbell.
Campbell’s development - and the progress of the passing game - is much more of a concern than Portis’ possible decline. Simply put, the Redskins can get by with a little less from Clinton, but they’re not going anywhere until their quarterback starts playing at or near the Pro Bowl level.
So why don’t we put away the slide rules and stop trying to calculate how much longer Portis is going to last. Clinton, ever the optimist/egotist, says he has five more “great” years left - and if he does, swell. But if he doesn’t, don’t worry, the Redskins will find a suitable replacement soon enough.
Why am I so sure? Because there’s never any shortage of functional running backs in the NFL, backs you can win with. Heck, in 2006 there were 23 1,000-yard rushers; last season there were 16 - including two on the same team, Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward of the Giants. (Ward has since moved on to Tampa Bay.)
The Falcons picked LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup, Michael Turner, out of the free agent bin a year ago, and he gained 1,699 yards. There were also three rookies who came into the league and finished in the top 10 in rushing - Houston’s Steve Slaton (sixth, 1,282 yards), Chicago’s Matt Forte (seventh, 1,238) and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson (eighth, 1,228). In Carolina, meanwhile, DeAngelo Williams suddenly became a 1,500-yard man after two years of part-time work. See what I mean?
It’s interesting to note, though, that the Giants didn’t get back to the Super Bowl with those two 1,000-yard runners. In fact, they lost their first playoff game. How did this happen? Simple, really. Their premier receiver, Plaxico Burress, decided to use his thigh for pistol practice, and without him the passing attack struggled mightily.
Which brings us back to my original argument: The rules have made it a passing game, and winning and losing has a lot more to do with quarterbacks and receivers - and offensive lines, too - than it does with running backs. All you need is a back who makes the defense respect the run; you don’t necessarily need a back who makes the defense overplay with the run.
I was just glancing at a list of the league’s top 30 career rushers. Only 13 have won an NFL title - and just two have won more than one (Franco Harris four and Emmitt Smith three). One of the 13, moreover, was Jerome Bettis, who was in his last season when he won the Super Bowl and was splitting time with Willie Parker.
Compare that with the list of recent Hall of Fame (or HOF-bound) quarterbacks who have won multiple titles: Bart Starr (five), Terry Bradshaw (four), Montana (four), Johnny Unitas (three), Troy Aikman (three), Brady (three), Roger Staubach (two), John Elway (two), Ben Roethlisberger (two), Len Dawson (one Super Bowl, one pre-Super Bowl AFL championship).
As I said, it’s a quarterback’s game.
For those worried about Life After Clinton, whenever the time comes, keep in mind that Leroy Kelly immediately followed Jim Brown in Cleveland, that Shaun Alexander was right behind Ricky Watters in Seattle and that the two-helmeted Jacobs/Ward monster provided instant relief for the loss of Tiki Barber in New York. There was also just a brief gap between Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith in Dallas, Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk in Indianapolis and Curtis Martin and Thomas Jones with the Jets.
Unfortunately, Consumer Reports hasn’t done any studies of running back longevity. So just enjoy Portis while you can, secure in the knowledge that after him, there isn’t likely to be any deluge.