Column: Where did all the NFL running games go?

New York Giants' Paul Perkins (28) is tackled by Detroit Lions' A'Shawn Robinson (91) and Jarrad Davis (40) during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Sept. 18, 2017, in East Rutherford, N.J. The Lions won 24-10. (Bill Kostroun/AP Photo)

I sat there Sunday afternoon in my usual position. Legs reclined, head back, RedZone on the television. Drink in the left hand and ESPN FantasyCast open on my phone in the right. Just like any other week.

The rushing lines rolling along the stat ticker were what caught my eye. LeSean McCoy: 12 carries, nine yards. Jordan Howard: nine carries, seven yards. Ezekiel Elliot: nine carries, eight yards.

Le’Veon Bell, the undisputed heavyweight champion of patience, ran for just 3.2 yards per carry. The Bills went for 3.0 yards per tote and the Panthers 2.8 in a 9-3 stinker. Four teams Sunday were led in rushing yards by their quarterback, forced to tuck and run after a broken play, presumably.

This week’s encore came on Monday night, as I watched my Giants run the pedestrian Paul Perkins behind five traffic cones seven times for an electrifying 10 yards.

At some point, an NFL running game stops functioning as a running game and instead becomes a complex illusion to make the other coaches believe that once, just once, the quarterback will hand the ball off instead of dropping back for another pass play.

One-yard carry. Two-yard carry. Loss of three. It’s fun for the opposing defense with a veteran or two somewhere in their front seven, and downright stultifying for the home fans.

You can lower your Kareem Hunts and your C.J. Andersons. Of course, not every runner has had a miserable time through two week of the 2017 NFL season.

However, many have, and to my naked eye, these horrifying statlines seem to be occurring at a higher rate than they usually do. Someone that has more time and dedication than I do could maybe prove this with a whole bunch of numbers. I’m just a guy with a column and a bunch of low fantasy scores plastered on the scoreboard.

Let’s look at the Perkins example again. His putrid performance was the result of two factors: He’s not a good NFL runner and he runs behind a terrible offensive line.

Perkins has made a couple of nice plays during his short professional career, but his skills are below average. He doesn’t have top-end speed, he doesn’t have the strength to finish runs and he doesn’t make many defenders miss. He’ll hit the holes when they’re open, but not on a consistent basis.

So that can help explain his failures. But what about everyone else? McCoy, Howard and Elliott have proven that they can run at a Pro Bowl level, or even an All-Pro level. Why are these guys posting such clunkers?

In this Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017, file photo, Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson (22) runs for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, File)

As a Giants fan, I know where I’m directing my blame.

Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian said Tuesday the NFL offensive play today is “the worst in my memory.” Polian believes young offensive linemen are not improving because they leave college and enter drastically different systems in the pros and the league’s CBA doesn’t allow enough offseason practice time to train for high-quality defensive linemen.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick agrees. Belichick said Wednesday that practicing without pads, a practice that has been increased with the new CBA, has hindered improvement.

So maybe we have our reason. Runners can’t run if there’s nowhere to go.

It kills me to pile on the offensive line play. Those players have some of the hardest, yet unheralded jobs in sports. They work just as hard as everyone else, but the highlights they make will only be spotted by the most eagle-eyed of analysts on the All-22 film. If they slip up once, their quarterback could be drilled into the turf.

Playing on that side of trenches is all guts, no glory. Picture Joe Thomas, the consummate professional, racking up Pro-Bowls and All-Pro honors, while only the most hardcore NFL fans truly notice him wasting away in Cleveland. Thomas has never missed a play in more than 10,000 snaps. The rest of us have missed it all.

So again, it seems cruel to do this, but here we go: The offensive line play I’ve seen this season has not been good. It’s early, so it should improve as the season goes on. Linemen will learn their teammates’ tendencies and that will help them work together as a unit.

Right now, it’s killing running games and hurting the passing game in turn. With the league’s class of veteran quarterbacks slowly thinning out, we could be in for some ugly offensive play in the next few years. Hopefully that doesn’t ruin our Sunday afternoons.


Tyler Keating is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu. He tweets @tylerskeating.