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Titans, Cowboys, Rams returning to power football

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The rise of analytics in professional football ushered in the devaluation of ball carriers a half-decade ago, relegating starting running backs to the fringes of team payrolls alongside specialists such as kickers and punters.

Mega contracts at the position disappeared, undrafted and unheralded backs began stealing headlines and first-round selections appeared to be facing extinction.

That wasn't always the case.

Before a succession of rule changes brought on the current passing revolution, franchise workhorse backs such as Walter Payton and O.J. Simpson were the league's highest-paid players at a time when risk-averse coaches subscribed to the theory that three things can happen on a passing play -- and two of them are bad.

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Buoyed by advanced offensive schemes, a concentration on shorter passes with quicker releases and wide receivers running free through secondaries barred from disrupting routes, even average quarterbacks post gaudy numbers in today's NFL.

The 2015 season established new records for completions, attempts, completion percentage, passing yards and passing touchdowns. At the same time, the interception rate reached its lowest point in NFL history while the sack rate continued to drop.

It's hard to blame teams for throwing on an all-time high 61.5 percent of plays when the average passer rating balloons to 90.2. For frame of reference, former 49ers superstars Steve Young (96.8) and Joe Montana (92.3) are the only Hall of Fame quarterbacks to retire with a higher career passer rating.

Defenses have responded to that increased passing efficiency with five or six defensive backs on nearly 70 percent of plays from scrimmage. Nickel and dime alignments are the new norm, leading to a premium on "subpackage" players once reserved for the draft's later rounds.

Analytics tell us that running backs are fragile and fungible while quarterbacks and cornerbacks dominate an increasingly aerial sport.

But what if those analytics -- always a fluid proposition -- are starting to fall behind the curve in a league that now accepts the tenets as dogma? What if going in the opposite direction of conventional wisdom results in a competitive advantage?

That mindset has been evident for more than a decade in New England coach Bill Belichick, who has consistently stayed ahead of the NFL curve. The Patriots borrowed shotgun spread and no-huddle schemes from the college ranks, only to switch gears to extra tight ends, fullbacks and linemen once the rest of the league caught up to the spread.

"One of the things we've tried to do is be an outlier in some respects," Belichick explained in April via ESPN.com, adding that the Patriots attempt to exploit talent pools that are "less populated."

We see the basic logic in Michael Lewis' "Moneyball," an iconic baseball book that preached the concept of finding a market inefficiency and exploiting it. Embracing a fluid worldview that encourages outside-the-box thinking, pro sports coaches and executives with a Moneyball bent attempt to approach conventional problems from unconventional angles.

"An NFL football field is a tightly strung economy," Lewis explained a few years later in "The Blind Side," his best-selling football book. "Everything on it comes at a price. Take away from one place and you give to another."

If smaller, quicker defenses are built to stop the pass, why not turn back the clock to the power football of the 1970s and '80s?

"Teams are starting to build to play in sub-defense now a lot, so they are going to more defensive backs," Titans general manager Jon Robinson explained to The MMQB after this year's draft. "Well, to counteract that, we can play a bigger game, and maybe move some of those smaller guys off the ball, if you will."

It's no coincidence that Robinson cut his teeth under Belichick, with a clear blueprint of building tough, physical teams from the inside out.

As NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks recently pointed out, Patriots disciples are fond of comparing football to a boxing match where lightweights are simply outclassed by the superior size, strength and power of heavyweights.

Along with Robinson's Titans, the Cowboys and Rams also have invested heavily in the offensive line and backfield to protect their quarterbacks and zag while the majority of the league zigs.

Offensive Line

John Madden once wrote that the only serious conflict he ever had with former Raiders owner Al Davis was over which position was the most valuable to team building. Madden staunchly believed in starting with the offensive line, while Davis insisted it was the second-most important position behind cornerback.

That might be an outdated mode of thinking at a time when Titans guard Chance Warmack refers to offensive linemen as "the NFL scapegoats."

Even if offensive line play is in decline, it's easy to draw a line between quality blocking and the league's most effective offenses.

If quarterback is the undisputed king in 21st-century football, offensive linemen function as the sentry.

The Titans have poured plenty of resources into the position, using first-round draft picks in 2013 (Warmack), 2014 (Taylor Lewan) and 2016 (Jack Conklin) and a third-round pick in 2015 (Jeremiah Poutasi).

The Cowboys boast three first-round picks of their own (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin) in addition to road-grading guard La'el Collins, who would have been a top-30 overall selection if not for a tangential connection to a murder investigation.

The Rams drafted a whopping five offensive linemen in 2015, signaling an intention to build the offense around ultra-talented franchise back Todd Gurley.

"I've said this for a long time, we were able to accomplish it last year," coach Jeff Fisher recently explained. "I've always wanted to draft four or five offensive linemen in the same draft, and we did that. They all got to play and all developed. A need now becomes a strength for us."

Backfield

The last six NFL drafts have seen just four running backs selected in the first 25 picks. If Gurley was the most dynamic power runner to enter the league since Adrian Peterson in 2007, Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott has a strong argument as the most complete tailback prospect of the past decade.

"With all due respect to all the other running backs in Ohio State history," Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said in January, "my first-round draft pick, I'd take Zeke Elliott."

Meyer also lauded Elliott as the best player he's ever coached without the ball in his hand.

Even if Elliott is a special talent with no weaknesses, why spend a top-five pick on a running back when the position is so devalued?

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett was Troy Aikman's backup during the Dallas dynasty of the 1990s that rode a dominant offensive line and Emmitt Smith's Hall of Fame rushing ability to league supremacy. Garrett oversaw a return to that style of play in Dallas two seasons ago, with DeMarco Murray capturing Offensive Player of the Year honors on a division winner.

With Elliott leading the backfield and Dez Bryant winning on the outside, Tony Romo is set up to direct what could be the league's most well-balanced offense, capable of converting third down after third down to burn the clock, shorten games and keep a suspect Dallas defense off the field.

"Ezekiel Elliott could play for every team in the league," former Browns general manager Phil Savage told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel leading up to the draft. "Derrick Henry is not for every team in the league."

If Elliott's ability to run power as well as zone gives the Cowboys a chance to keep defenses guessing, Henry is purely a hammer in the Titans' I-formation, "exotic smashmouth" attack.

The surprise wasn't that Henry landed in Nashville. It's that he was selected in the second round after Robinson traded for Murray as the strong, physical bell cow in Mike Mularkey's offense.

The Titans plan to use Murray and the linebacker-sized Henry as two churning pistons in a "Thunder and Thunder" engine, exploiting the weaknesses of smaller subpackage defenses.

"You are talking about every down, we've got a fresh, physical player running the football or blocking for us," Mularkey crowed after the draft. "It's a really nice thing to have."

Quarterbacks

When it clicks on all cylinders -- as we've seen over the past half-decade from teams like the 49ers, Seahawks and Panthers -- a conservative offensive approach featuring the power running game is an effective incubator for young quarterbacks.

Nascent face of the franchise Marcus Mariota took too many hits as a rookie, attempting to operate a hybrid read-option, play-action aerial attack against defenses that had no respect for Tennessee's feeble ground game. Mularkey and Robinson have placed a high priority on ensuring that won't be an impediment to Mariota's development going forward.

"Marcus will be a better quarterback if our run game gets going," Mularkey said in February. "This offense is built around balance, and if the run game is not functioning like we want it to function, it's going to affect everything. It's going to affect our passing game, it's going to affect our defense, it's going to affect our team. So the running game, we've got to get it going."

The Rams are embracing the same philosophy after sending a treasure chest of draft picks to the Titans for the opportunity to select Jared Goff as their quarterback solution. Much like what Baltimore did with Joe Flacco in 2008, Los Angeles' coaches will keep Goff on a limited pitch count, simplifying the passing game as a complement to Gurley's ground attack and a hard-hitting defense.

While the Titans and Rams concentrate on spoon-feeding their greenhorn signal callers, the Cowboys' emphasis is on keeping an increasingly brittle Romo healthy enough to take advantage of a Super Bowl window that could slam shut with one vicious hit.

In 2014, the Cowboys ran the ball on 51.58 percent of their plays, easily the highest figure of any organization with a veteran franchise quarterback.

Running the ball to save wear and tear on Romo comes with the added symbiotic effect of forcing defenses to pick their poison. If linebackers and safeties stack the box to stop Elliott, Romo will make them pay with efficient strikes to Bryant, Jason Witten and the rest of the weapons in his arsenal.

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As Madden once outlined, every NFL coach wants his fair advantage. It's no coincidence that Hall of Fame coaches Bill Walsh and Don Shula both placed the phrase "winning edge" in the titles of their respective football tomes.

The Titans, Cowboys and Rams will rely on brute force to provide their fair advantage in a sport that has sacrificed size and toughness in favor of speed and finesse.

Dallas defensive boss Rod Marinelli recently stressed his belief in the "physical nature of the game." Robinson raved about his new draft class as one that boasts the requisite strength and toughness to "play our brand of football here."

As the first pick of Robinson's regime, scrap-iron right tackle Jack Conklin is the linchpin of that new Titans brand of football.

"When I think of football," Conklin emphasized in his introductory press conference, "I think of putting people on the ground."

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