Before the wheels fell off their wagon during the 2013 season, Gary Kubiak's Houston Texans were one of the NFL's best at running the football. In every season from 2010 to 2012, the Texans ranked in the top eight in the league in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, most of them coming from All-Pro running back Arian Foster. He rushed for 4,264 yards and 41 touchdowns over that three-year span.
Foster is a talented player, no doubt, but the zone-blocking scheme Kubiak installed in Houston with the help of offensive line guru Alex Gibbs played a significant role in his emergence, the same way it did when the Denver Broncos turned guys like Olandis Gary and Reuben Droughns into 1,000-yard rushers.
Back in September, before the Ravens beat the Texans, giving them the first of their 14 straight losses, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees chuckled when talking about how former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan and Kubiak, Shanahan's offensive coordinator, always got the most out of their running backs.
"All the sudden some back you've never heard of has got a thousand yards," Pees said. "It's kind of the system."
Kubiak is now bringing that system to Baltimore, to a Ravens team that ranked dead last in the NFL in yards per attempt in 2013. Coach John Harbaugh said on Monday that this will be the Ravens offense, not the offense that Kubiak ran in Houston and Denver, but there is a reason the Ravens hired Kubiak as coordinator.
In his 19 seasons as an NFL head coach or offensive coordinator, his offenses ranked in the top 10 in rushing yards 13 times and finished in the top five 10 times. Sure, many of those years were with Shanahan in Denver, but Kubiak showed in Houston that he knows a thing or 200 about building a reliable rushing attack.
"It's our job now to go teach our system and get them comfortable with it," Kubiak said Monday. "But it always gets back to doing what you're players do best. We've assured John that's what we've got to do, that's what we've got to go find out."
His zone-blocking scheme will presumably be different than the one that Juan Castillo implemented last season. Kubiak's Broncos and Texans made their hay running their take on the outside zone stretch runs and they used knee-buckling cut blocks to open up back-side cut block lanes much more than the Ravens did in 2013.
The Ravens' zone runs were largely ineffective last year due to a combination of factors -- scheme, poor execution by the offensive line and a sharp drop-off in performance from both three-time Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice and his backup, Bernard Pierce -- and the Ravens averaged just 3.1 yards per carry overall.
Kubiak can't fix the running game all by himself. He's not going to be the one out there blocking people and I don't think he would get very far if quarterback Joe Flacco handed him the football. But he should have something to work with if the Ravens can re-sign left tackle Eugene Monroe and Rice bounces back like he has said he will.
When I spoke with NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell about the Ravens midway through the season, he said that both Rice and Pierce -- with their ability to read where the defense is flowing, make one cut and accelerate upfield -- fit conceptually into a zone-blocking scheme. And he also felt the Ravens, with guys like Monroe, Gino Gradkowski and Marshal Yanda, had linemen who were athletic and mobile enough to fit the offense (though I suppose he could feel otherwise three months later).
After a poor showing for the offense in 2013, the Ravens say offensive line is a priority, but Kubiak said that he thinks he can make it work with the talent they've got.
"Watching John's group throughout the course of the years, what they've done offensively and how they want to move forward, I think it's a very good fit," he said. "It's up to us as coaches to put it all together."
It may take some time for Kubiak to do that and get the rushing attack up and running again -- and it's fair to wonder how long Kubiak will be sticking around if he has success here as a play-caller -- but Kubiak and his peers have shown over the past two decades that this system can churn out 1,000-yard rushers, whether they are an All-Pro like Foster or some back you've never heard of.