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Super Bowl hopes often depend on a team's depth at running back

(Note: The following story appears in the Super Bowl XLII Official Program.)

There's a lesson to be learned from Super Bowl XLI, but it has nothing to do with Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning winning their first Super Bowl together and everything to do with Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes winning theirs.

Addai and Rhodes were the Colts' top two running backs, and either could have been named the game's Most Valuable Player. Addai starred in the first half; Rhodes took over after intermission. Both excelled when they were called upon, which is where our lesson begins.

"You can never have enough running backs," is a favorite saying of former NFL head coach Marty Schottenheimer.

And the Colts proved it. Again.

They juggled Addai and Rhodes throughout the 2006 season, just as Dallas (Marion Barber and Julius Jones) and Jacksonville (Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew) successfully alternated their backs this season. Call it a trend, but it's more a necessity. Coaches know they'll go nowhere without a running game, so they do what they can to establish, protect, and nurture one for 16 games and -- if all works out -- the postseason.

For Indianapolis, the final payoff came at Super Bowl XLI in South Florida, where Rhodes piled up 113 rushing yards and scored a touchdown, while Addai added 77 yards on the ground and caught 10 passes (for another 66 yards) out of the backfield.

But forget the Colts for a moment. Look at their opponent that day, the Chicago Bears. They alternated Cedric Benson and Thomas Jones all season. As a matter of fact, all four of last season's conference championship game participants had one thing in common, and it was their running backs. Each rotated two.

Which proves it's no longer enough to find two good quarterbacks. Now two good running backs are just as important. That's why San Diego has Michael Turner penciled in behind LaDainian Tomlinson. It's why the Patriots signed Sammy Morris to complement Laurence Maroney. It's why Derrick Ward was able to step in for an injured Brandon Jacobs in New York and carry the Giants early this season. And it's why Indianapolis had no trouble calling on backup Kenton Keith when Addai bowed out of an October start against Tampa Bay (Rhodes, a free agent after last season, had moved on to Oakland).

"What you want to do," says Colts president Bill Polian, "is have that first guy fresh for December and January.

"I remember last year when Tony said to me, 'I don't want a repeat of what happened with Edgerrin (James in 2005).' We got to December and January, and his legs were dead because he took every carry."

As we know now, the Colts' revised strategy worked perfectly. But their tact wasn't new. It's been going on for years, only now it's more in vogue than a decade or so ago when Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Eric Dickerson, Ricky Watters, and Marcus Allen were going wire-to-wire for their teams with almost no relief.

And there's certainly enough Super Bowl history to back up the two-back approach. The Jets had Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer in Super Bowl III; the Super Bowl VI champion Cowboys paired Duane Thomas and Walt Garrison. There was the Jim Kiick-Larry Csonka-Mercury Morris triumvirate for the undefeated Dolphins, and the Franco Harris-Rocky Bleier duo for those dominant Steelers teams. When the Raiders won Super Bowl XI, they came at teams with Clarence Davis, Mark Van Eeghen, and Pete Banaszak. The first time the 49ers won the Super Bowl they had Earl Cooper and Ricky Patton; the second time, they featured Wendell Tyler and Roger Craig.

More recently, there's been the Dorsey Levens-Edgar Bennett pairing for the Super Bowl XXXI champion Packers, Mike Alstott and Michael Pittman for the Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII, and Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker divvying up the carries for the Steelers' Super Bowl title team of two years ago.

"I think it's a necessity," says Bills head coach Dick Jauron, "because the game gets more and more physical every year, and with the types of things you're seeing from defenses, it requires protection for your running backs."

That fact was proven again this year in New Orleans, where the Saints lost the services of Deuce McAllister to torn knee ligaments after just three games. The club was supposed to wilt, except that it had Reggie Bush, Aaron Stecker, and Pierre Thomas to call upon -- and their combined efforts kept the team in the NFC playoff hunt until the final weekend.

But backfield depth was part of New Orleans' thinking when it selected Bush in the first round of the 2006 draft. The Saints already had McAllister but could not pass on Bush's talent -- especially at the position he played. Yes, Bush was arguably the most talented player in the draft, but the Saints also were gaining an insurance policy against an injury to McAllister. Their logic? Two backs are better than one, and when McAllister was healthy, they occasionally teamed him with Bush. In 2006, the duo combined for more than 1,600 rushing yards and 118 receptions as New Orleans made the NFC Championship Game.

"If you're a good coach," says Redskins assistant head coach Al Saunders, "you utilize the talent you have. That means you don't want a good player not involved in the game. If you have two good running backs, they have to be involved in some fashion."

Saunders is an expert on the subject. He ran the Kansas City offense when the Chiefs lost Priest Holmes midway through the 2005 season. No problem. Saunders inserted Larry Johnson, pointed him toward the end zone, and saw him gain 1,351 yards in nine games, including a pair of 200-yard efforts.

"You're really talking about wear and tear," says Jauron. "If you think you're going places, you better not wear your starter down. The goal, remember, is to get to the playoffs. And when you get there, that's your shot, and you don't get many."

Fast forward to one year later in Kansas City. This time there was no Holmes, so the Chiefs called on Johnson to shoulder the entire load. He responded with a Herculean effort, carrying the ball an NFL-record 416 times and gaining a franchise-best 1,789 yards. But it exacted a toll, and Johnson was spent by January. In the Chiefs' wild-card playoff loss to the Colts, he managed only 32 yards -- with no run longer than five yards.

"That's what happens," says Eagles head coach Andy Reid, who carefully monitors the workload of prize back Brian Westbrook each year. "Guys just get worn out. For the longevity of the player and for maximum performance, it doesn't hurt to give them roles and put them in situations you think they're the best at."

Schottenheimer never needed a reminder. Throughout his 21 seasons as a head coach, he almost always had a second back he trusted. In San Diego, he had Tomlinson -- "the best back I've ever seen" -- but used Turner regularly. In Kansas City, he teamed Christian Okoye with Barry Word. But the best example may be Cleveland, where he alternated Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner, who each gained 1,000 yards rushing in 1985 when the Browns won the AFC Central.

"You're always going to have one guy who gets the work," says Jauron, "but you've got to have relief for him because he can't take that pounding and still be able to function at the end of the year. If you're good enough to make it to the playoffs, you want your guy to carry the load then."

So while having two solid backs makes sense, it's not always possible in pro football's salary-cap era. Look what happened to St. Louis this season when a spate of injuries robbed the Rams of key players, including star back Steven Jackson for four games. Their ground game floundered, they went winless in his absence, and they never recovered.

"Marty Schottenheimer is right," Saunders says. "You can never have enough running backs. We have Clinton (Portis), Ladell (Betts), and Rock Cartwright, all three-dimensional guys. They can run the ball, they can catch, and they can block.

"They have different qualities and different levels of ability, but if the starter comes out -- if he misses a game or even a half -- you can plug the next guy in and not miss a beat. The only difficulty with two backs is that they share time during practice, so they're only getting half better. So, for the most part, you always want to have a featured starting back."

The question, of course, is: How much do you lean on him? The sentiments of Polian and Jauron are echoed throughout the league, with coaches and general managers nearly unanimous in their support of a go-to back only if he can be kept fresh for the postseason.

It may mean curtailing a running back's carries, with some coaches as vigilant as baseball managers tracking pitch counts. In the year the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV, head coach Brian Billick paid special attention to running back Jamal Lewis. He wanted Lewis rested and ready for the playoffs, which meant he didn't want him called on 30 times a game.

"One of the biggest things we had to do," says Billick, "was to limit (Jamal's) touches. We knew if he was well over the 350-carry mark, then we were going to have some tough sledding. So we tried to balance that."

Lewis wound up with 309 attempts, and the Ravens wound up winning the Super Bowl. In that 34-7 victory over the Giants, he rushed for 102 yards and scored a touchdown.

"There are very few teams," says Billick, "that have a back who is so much better that you say, 'I have to have this guy every snap.'"

San Diego could be considered one of those teams. While the Chargers boast two backs with the talent to start anywhere in the league, they have one, Tomlinson, who is the best in the business. Consequently, he gets almost all of the carries -- averaging nearly 340 over the past seven seasons.

"When people start talking about having two backs," says San Diego general manager A.J. Smith, "I ask them, 'What are you (looking for)? A change-of-pace guy who can give your starter a blow? Or a big back who can close a game?' Because if you're telling me you're going to use two backs the same way, then you're telling me you don't have one."

That's the exception. The rule is to try to stock your team with running backs and hope for the best. And the best is to have them fresh for the playoffs by reducing their carries. Fresh legs produce fresh results, which the Colts reminded us last February.

"Unless you have a LaDainian Tomlinson or a Larry Johnson," says Vikings head coach Brad Childress, "I don't see the downside of having two guys just from the standpoint that there's a change-up.

"Those linebackers get their cleats screwed in, and then an Adrian Peterson (the team's rookie back who paired with Chester Taylor to give Minnesota the league's top ground game in 2007) comes in and it's 'whoosh, whoosh.'

"It's a different speed. There's a recalibration. And I don't see anything wrong with it. Not to mention the freshness and lack of wear and tear."

Not to mention it? Quite to the contrary, freshness and lack of wear and tear are what it's all about.

Clark Judge is a senior writer for He has been covering the NFL for the past 25 years.

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