Derrick Henry was a bit amused by the premise of a question talking about the importance of passing in the modern NFL.
“Is it a passing league?" he said jokingly. "I’m playing. But we (have) guys in the league that are running the ball well, that are efficient and been playing at a high level for an amount of years. So just credit to our RBs in the game. Just keep killing it.”
Henry and his running back friends have been doing just that through the first half of the season with a big assist from a young generation of running quarterbacks such as Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields.
While the big paydays and much of the attention goes to quarterbacks, receivers and other players who impact the passing game either by blocking or defending, there has been a bit of a renaissance when it comes to running the football.
With defenses keeping two safeties deep and playing with fewer defenders near the line of scrimmage to guard against the big play, and offenses more willing to take advantage of that, running the ball is having its biggest success in decades.
Through the first nine weeks of the season, teams are combining for 241.4 yards rushing per game for the highest mark at this point of the season since 1987 when the league used replacements players for three games.
The previous time it happened with real NFL players the entire time was in 1985 when Walter Payton, Marcus Allen and Eric Dickerson were among the game's biggest stars.
“It feels like there is a little bit of a change around the league where teams really are making a big emphasis and focus to run the football,” Seattle defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt said.
There are five teams averaging at least 150 yards a game on the ground — one more than did it in the past three seasons combined.
The Giants have used their success on the ground to be one of the league's biggest surprises with six wins already on the strength of a healthy season from Saquon Barkley and using quarterback Daniel Jones in the running game.
“People know we want to run the football,” coach Arthur Smith said. "That’s what fires you up, and it won’t be that way every week. We’re going to have a challenge. We know how competitive it is. But when you can run the ball, when they know you’re going to run it, that speaks volumes about your guys.”
Even teams that have dynamic options in the passing game have been using the run to great success to take advantage of how defenses play these days.
“You’ve got to be able to function and execute against whatever they do,” coach Josh McDaniels said. “If they’re going to try to protect the deep part of the field and not give up a bunch of big plays, I think that comes back down to execution and discipline for us. I mean, if you have to drive it 10 to 12 plays to score, then you’re going to need to be able to be disciplined enough to do that.”
Perhaps no team has had as much success on the ground as the Bears, who have gotten a big spark on offense when they seemed to ditch the passing game and focus the offense around Fields and his ability to run.
Chicago is averaging 195.4 yards per game on the ground, putting the Bears on pace for 3,322 yards — 26 more than the single-season record set in a 16-game season by Baltimore in 2019.
But the Bears are averaging 243 yards rushing the past four games — becoming the second in NFL history to rush for at least 235 yards in four straight games. That feat was last accomplished by the 1949 Eagles when the sport barely resembled the modern version that took over when rules made passing easier in 1978.
“I think we are just really maximizing our strengths and minimizes our weaknesses right now,” coach Matt Eberflus said.
Fields set an NFL regular-season record when he ran for 178 yards last week against Miami, including an electrifying 61-yard touchdown.
That was part of a record-setting week for quarterbacks, whose combined 801 yards rushing last week were the most ever in a week for the position. The 5,132 yards rushing by QBs are the most ever through nine weeks led by Jackson (635) and Fields (602).
“He’s as fast as any skill position runner," Miami coach Mike McDaniel said after facing Fields. “Like he is really, really fast and he can cut and break tackles. There are a lot of running quarterbacks. This one in particular I think is very elite and adept at that.”
While watching Fields run through his defense exasperated McDaniel, who even begged him to stop to no avail, the success on the ground has brought joy to other coaches.
Perhaps none more than Seattle's Pete Carroll, who endured criticism in recent years for not letting Russell Wilson pass more, but now has the top team in the NFC West thanks in part to rookie running back Kenneth Walker III and an offensive approach that suits Carroll's style.
“It’s always been important, it’s just been that other things drew the attention of the following and the media,” he said. “It was never of less significance because that’s how the game works.”
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa Walker and AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.
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Josh Dubow, The Associated Press