For several years now, the Titans have not been a team that's been committed to the run. Long gone are the days of Jeff Fisher forcing the ball to Eddie George the ball 25 times a game. Even during the 2010 season, a season in which Fisher was still at the helm, the Titans ran the ball more than only 9 other teams. Since Mike Munchak took over, that number has only gone down. The Titans ranked 30th in attempts in 2011 and 26th in 2012. Blame it on whatever you want: the NFL trending towards a pass-first philosophy, the Titans trailing in more games than they weren't recently, whatever, but it seems reasonable that after making such a massive investment in running back Chris Johnson before the 2011 season that Tennessee would look to find new and exciting ways to get him the ball out of the backfield.
And why not? He's been incredibly durable, and even in his worst season was still able to average 4.0 yards per carry. Football Outsiders hates CJ because he's inconsistent and prone to numbers that can wildly fluctuate from week to week, but I think this is one situation where they put way too much emphasis on efficiency. Sure, it's easy to sit back and say "well when you take away all of those big, fancy long runs then you have a player who's not even worth a roster spot!", but fortunately, that's not how it works and these hypothetical do-overs are just that: nothing more than a poorly-constructed attempt to undermine a player who makes his living off of being faster than everyone else. You can't just take away all of those big plays because that's who CJ is. He's a player who has built an empire off of this stuff. It's like saying "if we take inhuman ability to hit a receiver in stride away from Drew Brees, he's just average!" but you can't, because that's what makes him good. Some might argue that CJ's skill is one that's too mercurial to bank on, but when you have a guy who's ripped off more long runs in five years than most of the game's all time great's have in their whole careers, I think you start to get the sense that CJ has the ability to be a very rare playmaker indeed.
Unfortunately for fantasy owners, he only got the ball 262 times that fateful year resulting in less-than-ideal yardage totals. It's funny, as soon as CJ got his big contract, the Titans quit riding him and, obviously, his numbers suffered for it. I don't expect that trend to change at all as we head towards 2013 with two very solid backup running back options bolstering a stable that might be the strongest, collectively, that we've ever had in Nashville. Throw in a new-look offensive line that also looks to be making its' case to be the best and deepest unit on the team and you have perhaps a recipe for great success. So now, I'll take a look at two playoff teams from last year, the Minnesota VIkings and the Seattle Seahawks, and try to find out if there is anything that the 2013 Titans can learn from how they ran the football.
Start with the Vikings.
I think we all know how they did it. His name is Purple Jesus and he doesn't take kindly to threats. Adrian Peterson had a season for the freakin' ages last year. That alone was able to overcome a slightly above average defense and passing game. The Vikings defense ranked 21st in DVOA last year, Christian Ponder was the 18th best QB in football according to the same metric and his numbers seem to be pretty consistent with that: 3,014 yards, 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions. All in all? The Vikes were perfectly adequate at everything, but adequate doesn't get you to the playoffs in a division like the NFC North, so how good did AD have to be to will his team to the postseason? Short answer? Nothing short of incredible. His season wasn't quite good enough to crack FO's top 10 seasons from a running back in the past 11 years in terms of DVOA, but consider that the last guy on there was Barry Sanders in 1997 at 25.3 and that Peterson's season was right up there at 24.9. So maybe he wasn't the most efficient guy to ever hit 2,000 yards, but he was pretty damn close. What about this works to our advantage? Well, behind Peterson, Minnesota is working with Toby Gerhart and...uh, maybe Matt Asiata? Point is, they're awful thin at the position. So while Peterson is better than Johnson, it's hard to deny that the Titans definitely have established more depth at running back. Shonn Greene could be a starter for several teams this year. Jackie Battle carried that ball almost 100 times last year in San Diego and 150 the year before in Kansas City and what we've seen out of him so far in preseason action and training camp shows that he might be even better than he was then. I see no way that he doesn't make this team, especially after last night with Greene tweaking his ankle and Battle coming off the bench to punish Atlanta's second stringers. His YPC is lower than what I'd like to see at 3.2, but keep in mind that most of his carries came in garbage time when the Titans were running the clock out. He's had an outstanding camp and has looked like a more than passable option for third string or backup, depending on how severe of a sprain Greene is dealing with.
Let's check Seattle's numbers.
With the emergence of Russell Wilson as a top-tier QB last year, a lot of people saw the Seahawks as a pass-first team that could run a fantastic read-option when they wanted to. Truth is, that's only half true. The Seahawks have a real weapon in Russell Wilson in the backfield and it makes them very dangerous when they decide to go into read-option mode, but in actuality, no team in football ran the ball more than Seattle last year. And when you look at the roster, why wouldn't you? Michael Robinson is a strong lead blocker, Russell Wilson can run with the best of them, and Marshawn Lynch's career revival in Seattle continues to amaze as he racked up nearly 1,600 yards on 315 carries. His DVOA was behind only Peterson and CJ Spiller over a much smaller sample size. With a capable backup in Robert Turbin and now Christine Michael, Seattle is built to run teams over. This is the type of team I think the Titans would be wise to model their offense off of. Only Minnesota and Washington ran for more yards than Seattle's 2,579 and their backs found the end zone 16 times. Russell Wilson and a deep and talented defense completely put them over the top as they emerged as one of the top teams in football. What's important here to note is that although they were built around the run, they were also quite adept at throwing the ball and since we can't all have an AP on our team, I think that's what has to happen.
Ok so to try and condense all of that, the Titans are going to have to rack up roughly 2,600 yards yards and 15-ish touchdowns between the two backs (and probably with a little help from Jake Locker) who will get the majority of the carries. Remember, it doesn't matter who's getting the yards, all that matters is the team can effectively move the ball. No one is going to have an Adrian Peterson season on this team. CJ might be good enough to pull it off again with a little luck, but he won't get the carries he needs if history repeats itself. I'm not concerned, though. If we're being conservative, I think CJ will end up with somewhere in the realm of 275-ish carries. If he keeps consistent with career averages, plus a slight boost that I feel will come with an offensive line that continues to impress in the run game and his recent abandonment of the classic stutter-step at the line, he should end up somewhere near the 1500 yard mark. When CJ first broke into the league, Smash 'n Dash was what carried this offense. LenDale White racked up 200 carries. This was a true two-back system. He took those 200 carries and turned them into 773 yards and an astounding 15 touchdowns serving as the primary goal-line back. I don't think that Greene is going to get that amount of touches. This team might run the ball 400+ times, but I get the sense that Shonn Greene won't account for half of those by himself. Let's say he gets something in the realm of 150 carries and, with his career average, we can estimate he'll be sitting somewhere in the 650 yard range. Last season was a strange one for Shonn. On one hand, his DVOA, -4.7%, was brutal and had him ranked as the 24th best back in football. On the other hand, his success rate was 52% which saw him just barely crack the top ten running backs in the league.
As far as rushing touchdowns go, this one is a total toss up, you just can't predict at all how many times the Titans will run the ball on the goal line and it's even more of a joke to try and figure out how many times they'll use Greene to do that.
So can this team be carried by a run-heavy philosophy? Well I think it's possible. I want to see what CJ does behind this line when it counts, but so far he's looked like a complete stud. I don't think 1,500+ yards and a return to double-digit TD's is out of the question, despite the fact that some of his goal-line carries will be vultured by one of the big guys. Can Green/Battle manage 500 yards between them? For what they paid to get Shonn in here, I would certainly hope that he could do that on his own. That leaves roughly 400-500 yards sprinkled in for Jake Locker. We all know how good he is as a runner, he's absurdly efficient and has some break-away speed that you don't often see at his position. If the Titans are committed to running the ball with their young QB, I think it's virtually a lock that he can put up those kinds of numbers. Projecting out a really strong ground game with this team is not difficult.
What you should take from this is the difference between Seattle and Minnesota: If Locker plays more like Wilson, they'll have a top offense. If he plays more like Ponder, they'll be a playoff-caliber offense that's destined to be bounced in the first round. All signs point towards the former at this point. I'm not willing to come out and proclaim that Jake is going to set the league on fire like Wilson did last year, but I think he has a better chance to do so than Christian Ponder does.
What happens on defense isn't what I'm concerned with, right now, what matter is that the Titans have a sturdy run game that they would be very wise to ride all year long.