In case you haven't noticed, the NFL has become a passing league. The evidence lies in the numbers. Last season, 10 quarterbacks threw for 4,000 or more yards -- including three (Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford) who eclipsed the 5,000-yard plateau -- and 28 of the 32 teams called more passing plays than running plays.
But no team can win forever just by chucking the ball. You still have to have a running game.
"Running the ball is just as important as anything," said Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who led the league in rushing (1,606 yards) last year. "People can say it's a passing league, but look at the stats of the teams who go on runs late in the year and are winning. You can't be one-dimensional in this league. You have to have a run, a play-action pass and a dropback pass. It's what they call 3D."
Jones-Drew, the Vikings' Adrian Peterson and the Falcons' Michael Turner spoke to SI.com recently in a running backs roundtable that covered a variety of topics:
Other than you, who is the best running back in the NFL?
Jones-Drew: "That's a tough question, because everybody does things differently and is asked to do different things. I really feel like Matt Forte, what he did last year before he got hurt ... I think he really proved to be one of the top all-purpose backs in the game.
Peterson: Maurice is a guy I like because of his attitude, his tough approach and his build. His body build alone puts opponents at a disadvantage. He's a guy who is short, stocky, cut strong with good speed.
Turner: I would say MJD based on his numbers being up there year in and year out. And they say his supporting cast is not very good. All the focus is really on him, and teams still have trouble stopping him.
What do you think about the "running back by committee" trend?
Jones-Drew: It ruins the rhythm of the game for the running back, especially if you're trying to be a balanced offense. You want to have somebody who can get into that rhythm. You can spell him now and then with a second back who's capable of helping. In order for that [No. 1] guy to keep his rhythm and keep going, you have to keep him in.
Peterson: Whatever it takes to win. If you have two or three guys who are able to split up the time and get it done, and your offense continues to be successful, why not? When I think about my first couple of years, Chester Taylor was a guy who was in there when I was on the sideline. I was confident he was going to get the job done with his style of play. (Would you like to be part of a committee?) Uh, no.
Turner: I've never been a part of that system. Some teams find it more effective to use more guys. If that's a way to preserve guys and make sure running backs have longer careers, it's cool.
Which tackler do you fear most or most hate playing against?
Jones-Drew: I've never met one guy that I've been scared of. Patrick Willis is one of the top tacklers in the game. Darryl Smith is another great tackler. Brian Cushing definitely is another good tackler. Anybody can tackle you from the linebacker position to the line of scrimmage. That's easy. But when you can get a guy who can tackle you in the open field, those guys are special. Those are the guys ... you don't fear them, but you're aware of them.
Peterson: I don't fear anyone, but I love playing against Patrick Willis. He's just like me, but he's a defensive player. I saw his talent when he first came out, before he even got drafted. I knew he was going to be an animal. You're not going to find too many guys at the linebacker position that run 4.3 [in the 40], are strong and have instincts like him. He can lay the wood on you, too.
Turner: I don't fear anybody, but if I had to choose a tackler to put up there I'd say Patrick Willis. He's a great form tackler. He uses his legs and his hips to run through the tackle, and he wraps up well. You don't see a lot of guys do that.
Would you rather take a dangerous hit to the head or the knee?
Jones-Drew: My head, because I can recover from that. A knee injury might take some time. ... Let me say this about concussions. I know it's a big thing going around right now, and there are some things that can prevent them. I truly think it's not the first one that hurts you; it's the ones that come after while the first one is still going on. There are some guys who don't wear mouthpieces. I think they're crazy. Obviously, the helmet you wear is going to protect you as well. But I really think the mouthpiece is one of the bigger things. Your teeth click together and that's how your brain rattles. If you're not wearing a mouthpiece, things can get a little out of control.
Peterson: (Laughs) I'd rather deliver the blow. ... That's a hard question. As a running back, you don't want to injure your legs -- obviously, I'm coming off an ACL [injury] -- but you don't want to have brain damage, either. I pass on that one.
Turner: Head. It seems like you can come back from a head injury, but a knee injury can be disastrous and career ending more so than a head [injury] right now. If I had multiple concussions, I would pick the knee. But I've never had either, so I'd say the knee first.
Would you allow your son to play football?
Jones-Drew: I have two sons. If they want to, yeah, most definitely. I'm 27 years old and I've been playing football for 20 years, and I'm fine. You have to live. You can't be scared of everything. You wouldn't even walk across the street because you'd be scared you'd get hit by a car. You can get hurt doing anything. I'm going to raise my kids the way I was raised. If you want to do something, it can be whatever you want. But you're going to finish it. To the very end. I think that's something people don't do with their kids any more -- finishing what they start. That's why you see kids dropping out of school. You see the crime rate going up. Most of those kids don't have that toughness to finish something when things get tough, when adversity hits. They don't go through it; they just kind of let it beat them.
Peterson: Oh, yeah. I wouldn't force it upon him, but I would allow him to play the game. Go out there and get that team camaraderie. I think it's a good sport. Growing up in a small town, I was able to stay out of trouble, keep my nose clean, and look at me now. Yeah, I would definitely allow him to play.
Turner: Of course. It's a dangerous sport, there's no question about that, but this is what I love doing. If that's his dream, I'm not going to deny him his dream.
Which running back did you grow up idolizing or trying to emulate?
Jones-Drew: I used to watch Barry Sanders a lot, obviously because of his size and what he did. I was actually coached [at UCLA] by Eric Bieniemy, and he kind of forced his style on me a little bit. So I'd say both of those guys.
Peterson: Barry Sanders. He was the best to ever do it: avoid tackles and do just amazing stuff. Growing up, that's what you wanted to do. I also grew up watching Emmitt Smith. Of the two, even though I was a Cowboys fan, I've got to go with Barry Sanders. Just imagine if Barry Sanders had the Cowboys' offensive line.
Turner: I had a mixture of guys. I used to watch old clips of Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton. I grew up watching Barry Sanders. Bo Jackson, even though he had a short career. Guys like that, you look up to and I try to pattern my game after. Not one in particular, because every running back is different. It's like an artist; not every picture is the same.
What is your pre-game ritual?
Jones-Drew: You want to hear something crazy? I can't sleep before a game. I go to bed around 11:30 or 12 and wake up at 6, and I watch Law & Order until about 8. Those are great shows -- the suspense -- and they kind of keep my mind off the game a little bit. I usually eat breakfast at 8:15, then leave straight for the stadium and get there around 8:45 or 9. That's when I'll get treatment. Then I'll go out and jog, warm up slightly because we do a pretty extensive (pregame) warmup in Jacksonville, and it's pretty hot. After that, it's time to strap on the pads and get out there. I'll go over the playbook and the game plan a couple of times, and just listen to music.
Peterson: I kind of go with the flow. But I always [kneel] in front of my locker and pray before I step on the field. That's one thing I make sure I do.
Turner: I do everything in the same order prep wise -- the way I dress, when I stretch, when I drink my fluids, everything. Even down to which sock I put on first.
What is your most prized possession?
Jones-Drew: I have a '69 Camaro, white with a black vinyl top. No one else can touch her, but [my three kids] can.
Peterson: I have a picture of my brother, who was one year older than me and passed when he was eight years old. That was a big moment for me in my life. My mindset changed in how I viewed the world. It's not small enough to carry around with me -- I wish it were -- so I keep it at my house in a safe place.
Turner: I don't have any championship rings. I'd have to say my Rolex watch. It was a gift from myself. I wear it on special occasions.
Outside of football, what little-known talent do you have?
Jones-Drew: I'm a video game extraordinaire. You can ask Arian Foster about that. We played a little "Call of Duty" tournament, and I tore it up.
Peterson: I'm so reserved and quiet, I really don't say much, but once I get comfortable around someone, or someone has known me for a long time ... I can be a goofball at times.
Turner: I tend to make people laugh. I don't have a routine or any jokes. I'm not a standup comedian, but more of a class clown.
If you didn't play football, what would you do?
Jones-Drew: I wanted to become an astronaut. That's why I went to UCLA, because of their engineering program. I tried it, but football and engineering didn't work out. They didn't seem to be compatible.
Peterson: Growing up, I always wanted to own my own business. Like get into real estate, or be a small-business owner -- an entrepreneur -- and then go from there. I want to be able to create something or make money off of something I invent.
Turner: I'd be an athletic director at the high school level. Growing up, one of the most influential people for me was my high school athletic director, Michael Durrah, who also was my football coach. He taught me about college and how to make it to the next level.