Last year's Sports Illustrated Kids NFL preview issue was all about quarterbacks. It's a pass-happy league, to be sure, and there's virtually no way for a team to be competitive without a strong player under center. As a result, every legitimate Super Bowl contender has a great passing game.
But what separates those contenders? What gives one explosive offense an edge over another?
More and more, the answer to that question is running backs.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson made news in the offseason when he signed a mammoth four-year contract worth $87.6 million. The reason Seattle paid that whopping sum is that Wilson has led the team to a 42--14 record in his three years there, ranking in the top 10 in passer rating each season and taking Seattle to the last two Super Bowls. Clearly he's a member of the NFL's quarterbacking elite.
Several teams can claim that of their QB, but only the Seahawks can say they have the league's most dominant rushing attack. Seattle ran for 2,762 yards, the most by any team since 2006. Leading the way was Marshawn Lynch, who put up 1,306 yards. (Wilson chipped in 849, showing that not all rushing comes from backs.) That ground game gives them a great chance to advance to a third straight Super Bowl. (You can see our full predictions on page 35, but here's a spoiler: We think the Seahawks are going to be really good.)
Seattle has split its last two Super Bowl appearances, but the Seahawks really should be shooting for a three-peat. They had a great chance to win last year's game, but coach Pete Carroll surprisingly called a pass play on second down with 26 seconds left at the New England one-yard line instead of giving the ball to Lynch. The pass was intercepted, sealing the Patriots' 28-24 win.
Even though New England didn't put up the eye-popping numbers that Seattle did, the Patriots used the run to their advantage. "The team that won the Super Bowl last year, when they were struggling early in the year offensively, what did they start to do in order to turn their season around? They started to run the football more," says Bills defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman.
The end result was a more balanced offense. Even though the Patriots finished just 18th in the league in rushing yards, by showing that they could move the ball on the ground they forced opposing defenses to at least worry about the run. That allowed the passing game to flourish under Tom Brady.
New England wasn't the only team to realize it needed to shape up its rushing attack. Says Thurman, "There's no one better during the regular season at throwing the football than Peyton Manning, but toward the end of last year, what did [Manning's Denver Broncos] start to do to get ready for playoff football? They ran the football."
One of the biggest moves of the offseason came when the Philadelphia Eagles signed free agent running back DeMarco Murray (page 31). That made Murray the first reigning rushing champ to change teams. And it elevated the Eagles to the role of favorite in the NFC East.
Run to Win
Carroll has been preaching the importance of a strong running game since he took over as Seattle's coach in 2010. After trading for Lynch during that season, the Seahawks have used him as a workhorse — almost always. Seattle dropped two games early last year in which Lynch ran the ball a total of only 16 times. "Whenever we're running the ball a lot, then we're fine," Carroll said at the time. "We've got to get right back to it, because that's the way we play. And that's the way we need to be playing."
Carroll also explained, "We don't ever want to play a game when Marshawn carries the ball 10 times. That's not enough. That's not a format that we're trying to build from."
After Carroll said that, Lynch only had one game with fewer than 14 rushing attempts — a blowout win in which he carried 10 times for 103 yards and took much of the second half off. Following their slow 3-3 start, the Seahawks romped their way to victory in 11 of their final 13 games.
That success proved what Thurman said about life in today's NFL: "You throw to score, and you've got to run it to win."
These backs will be in the spotlight in 2015:
The Indianapolis Colts had one glaring weakness last year: Their leading rusher, Trent Richardson, had only 519 yards and averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. Enter Frank Gore. The 32-year-old has run for 1,000 yards in eight of his 10 NFL seasons. Last year he was with the San Francisco 49ers, and at times it looked like he might be slowing with age. But in the final two games of the season he ran for 158 and 144 yards — the first time he had back-to-back games of at least 140 yards since 2006. If he's got enough fuel left in his tank, he could give the Colts the balance they need to win the AFC.
The Green Bay Packers had one of the NFL's most explosive passing attacks long before Aaron Rodgers took over at QB in 2008. Now, thanks to Lacy, the Pack almost has a ground game to match. The 25-year-old comic book lover has run for more than 1,100 yards in each of his first two seasons. At 5' 11", 230 pounds, Lacy is a bullish runner. Last year he improved his pass-catching skills, so he no longer had to leave the field in passing situations. He'll need to continue to develop if the Packers, who narrowly lost the NFC championship game to Seattle, are going to beat the Seahawks at their own game.
Photos: David E. Klutho for Sports Illustrated (Lynch), Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire (Gore), Joe Robbins/Getty Images (Lacy)