By almost any measure, the NFL has turned into a passing league, with greater emphasis on the quarterback than ever and the numbers reflecting that reality.
There are more passing yards than ever. More passing touchdowns than ever. And more passes than ever.
But as we begin the NFL season, there will be a bit of a throwback feel to the Giants-Cowboys and Jets-Bills matchups and perhaps a reminder of when the running game captured the imagination of football fans.
While there has been plenty of talk about the devaluation of running backs in today’s NFL, you wouldn’t know it by looking at Week 1 of New York football.
Surely there will be plenty of focus on the Eli Manning-Dak Prescott matchup in Dallas and Sam Darnold vs. Josh Allen — a battle of two Class of 2018 passers. But this opening weekend also will revolve around four Hall of Fame-caliber running backs.
It’s Saquon Barkley against Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas and Le’Veon Bell vs. Frank Gore at MetLife Stadium.
So don’t be surprised if you see some old-school, grind-it-out, smash-mouth football.
“It’s still a big part of the game,” Jets first-year coach Adam Gase said of the importance of the running attack. “When you watch the end of almost every game, when you’ve got to close it out, that’s how you’ve got to go win it. When you have an offensive line and a running back that are in sync and they’re in a good rhythm, it’s hard not to give those guys the ball and let those guys open up lanes for them.”
Signing Bell may not have been Gase’s first preference — it was former general manager Mike Maccagnan who pushed hard to sign the former Steelers star — but the Jets’ coach would be silly not to feature Bell in the offense.
Before he held out the entire 2018 season in a contract dispute with Pittsburgh, he was perhaps the most dynamic running back in the NFL.
His unique style — take the handoff, hesitate a moment while quickly surveying the blocking, then burst through an opening — takes him up the field in seemingly effortless fashion. At his peak, there was no one better. Bell has 7,996 career yards from scrimmage in only 62 games. With four yards on Sunday, he’ll reach 8,000 faster than anyone else in NFL history. That’s faster than Eric Dickerson (64 games) and Edgerrin James and LaDainian Tomlinson (65 games). Dickerson and Tomlinson are in the Hall of Fame. James should be in Canton.
Bell knows it may take some time to recapture the form that made him one of the league’s most electrifying offensive players. After all, he hasn’t played a game since January 2018, and was held out of all four preseason games to make sure he was healthy going into the season.
He cannot wait to play again.
“A lot of people are excited to see me play,” Bell said. “Just quadruple that, that’s how I feel. I’m excited to play and I can’t wait.”
Jets fans can’t wait, either. They haven’t cheered for a running back this good since the days of Curtis Martin, whose slashing style and hard-nosed running made him a Hall of Famer in the Bill Parcells-Herman Edwards days.
The Bills have another potential Canton-bound running back in Gore, who has put together a terrific resume with 14,748 rushing yards and 77 touchdowns in 14 seasons with the 49ers, Colts and Dolphins. The Bills have been so impressed with Gore, 36, that they released veteran tailback LeSean McCoy, who signed with the Chiefs.
“I’ve been blessed to have been playing the game for 15 years,” he said. “I try my best to do the right thing, to be fresh and ready to go on Sundays.”
Gore no longer is the workhorse runner he once was, but he’s still good enough to be playing at an age when almost every other running back is done.
The Barkley-Elliott showdown is on, thanks to some frantic last-minute negotiations that resulted in a new contract on Tuesday. Elliott became the first running back in NFL history to sign a deal worth more than $100 million.
“I believe in my [agents]. I believed in the Joneses,” Elliott said after signing his deal. “I believed they wanted me here and I believed we could meet in the common ground.”
Barkley eventually might join Elliott in the $100 million club, but the Giants’ second-year back, coming off a Rookie of the Year performance in 2018, understands he needs to excel in the long term to earn that kind of contract.
Elliott led the NFL in rushing last year for the second time in three years. Barkley led the league with 2,028 all-purpose yards.
“I have to, God willing, get to that point and stay healthy and continue to try to do special things for this team,” he said. “It’s a great deal. He’s getting a lot of money. He’s getting paid, which I think he deserves because he’s a tremendous player.”
There’s a ton of money invested in Elliott, Barkley and Bell, who signed a four-year, $52.5 million deal in the offseason. Gore is working on a one-year, $2 million deal but has earned more than $62 million in his career.
That’s four running backs who have made it big in a league that doesn’t always appreciate the value of a viable ground game. They’re about to have a major impact on what’s about to happen — Sunday and beyond.