The last time an NFL team rushed for more than 3,000 yards in a season, John Harbaugh was a high school defensive back in Michigan. The Colts still played in Baltimore. Tom Brady had just celebrated his first birthday.
When the Ravens crossed that mark Sunday in Cleveland, they dragged the NFL’s bruising past into its vivid present, reminding us that the league’s best offense can begin on the ground. If they add another 93 yards in their season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers, they’ll displace the 1978 New England Patriots as the top single-season rushing team in league history.
The Ravens are so exceptional in the NFL of 2019 that they feel like an artifact from a different age. With 3,073 rushing yards through 15 games, they stand 896 ahead of their nearest competitor, the San Francisco 49ers. That’s about the same as the difference between the 49ers and the Atlanta Falcons, who rank 30th in the NFL in rushing.
The last team to approach 3,000 yards for a season was the 2006 Atlanta Falcons, who finished with 2,939. The No. 1 rushing teams from the last 10 years averaged 2,594 yards over 16 games, a mark the Ravens passed in their 13th game of this season. With their league-leading average of 5.6 yards per attempt, they’re also the most efficient rushing leader of the past 50 years.
This is Wayne Gretzky torching the NHL record book in the 1980s or Barry Bonds getting on base more than 60% of the time in 2004. The Ravens have truly turned pro football on its head.
“It’s probably a bit of an outlier at this point,” Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “And that’s a good thing. That means people aren’t used to working on that style quite as much. So we take them out of their comfort zone a little bit.”
The irony is that if the Ravens do surpass the Patriots’ mark on Sunday, they’ll cross the line without the two players responsible for most of their yards: quarterback Lamar Jackson and running back Mark Ingram II.
With the No. 1 seed in the AFC already secured, the Ravens won’t risk injury to Jackson, their most essential player and the man who smashed Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback. Vick needed all 16 games to reach 1,039 yards in 2006; Jackson pushed the record to 1,206 yards in just 15 games this season. The one area where he didn’t catch his boyhood idol was efficiency. Jackson leads the league with a per-carry average of 6.9, but Vick averaged a mind-boggling 8.4 yards per carry in his record-setting season.
Ingram, meanwhile, will rest the strained calf he suffered in last Sunday’s win over the Cleveland Browns, the same game in which he surpassed 1,000 yards for the season. He’s been an ideal No. 1 back for the Ravens, complementing Jackson’s virtuosic outside runs with his off-tackle ferocity and versatile skills as a blocker and receiver.
In their absence, backup quarterback Robert Griffin III will pilot the offense against the Steelers. Gus Edwards and rookie Justice Hill will step forward as the top runners.
“To beat this team, we’re going to have to run the ball well,” said the soft-spoken Edwards, who’s been a powerful third option, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. “If we run it for 93 yards, I think that would be good. … Guys are going to step up, and we’re focused on winning more than anything. But to have the record would be nice as well.”
Other than Jackson, no one has received more credit for the Ravens’ running prowess than Roman, the NFL’s current maestro of ground warfare. He spent six previous seasons as offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills, and five of those teams finished in the top five in rushing. When Roman took over the Buffalo offense for the 2015 season, the Bills leaped from 25th in the league in rushing to first.
When Harbaugh promoted Roman in the offseason and asked him to rebuild the Ravens’ offense from square one, he thought no coach in the league could do a better job conceiving an attack around Jackson’s once-in-a-generation running skills.
The Ravens delivered a preview down the stretch of last season, averaging 229.6 rushing yards in the seven games Jackson started. But skeptics wondered if they could sustain such production over a full schedule, with defensive coordinators primed to counter their ground tactics.
Roman was confident.
“In the NFL you’re always trying to be the best in the world at whatever you do,” he said. “Be great or do something else.”
The Ravens burst out of the gate with 265 yards in their season-opening rout of the Miami Dolphins and book-ended that with 243 in Week 16 against the Browns. They’ve surpassed 200 yards in eight different games, with an offense that also leads the league with 37 touchdown passes.
If there’s a bottom to the Ravens’ bag of running inventions, opponents have not found it. They’ve used toss sweeps and option pitches, power bursts by Edwards and improvised scrambles from Jackson.
“All warfare is based on deception,” Roman said, quoting the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu with a grin.
Though coaches usually take a wary approach to discussing records, he did not minimize his offense’s flirtation with history.
“That would be quite an accomplishment for our guys,” Roman said. “We don’t make it easy on them, running the ball in training camp. Our defense does a great job, and we try to put them in as many tough situations as possible in training camp. I almost like it to where it doesn’t look good, so we’ve got to keep digging and getting better. And guys have really worked hard and been very productive, so if that’s something that happens as the course of the game goes, it would be just an amazing milestone.”
All the more so because the game is so different than it was in the 1970s, when previous team rushing records were set. When the Patriots rushed for 3,165 yards, they did so in a league where teams averaged 141.8 rushing yards per game. When the Bills rushed for 3,088 yards in 1973 (over a 14-game schedule, no less) they did so in a league where teams averaged 144.4 rushing yards per game.
In 2019, teams average 112.3 rushing yards per game. The pass is king, except in Baltimore.
“That was the big emphasis this offseason,” said fullback Patrick Ricard, one of the team’s essential run blockers. “When everyone’s zigging, we’re going to be zagging. We’re going to be doing the opposite of what this league is going towards. And the product we’re seeing now … it’s just something this league hasn’t seen in a long time.”
The 1978 Patriots set their record without a single player rushing for 1,000 yards. Fullback Sam Cunningham led the team with 768, but five different players, including 25-year-old quarterback Steve Grogan, ran for at least 391 yards.
Roman’s offenses also tend to spread the wealth, which is one reason players would genuinely enjoy breaking the record.
“It really is the whole unit; that is the reason why we’ve been successful,” Ricard said. “It isn’t just one guy. It’s not Lamar getting 300 yards rushing every game or Mark Ingram. … So for us to have potentially the best rushing attack this league has ever seen, that’s a big deal.”
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
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