Real football is back, baby, and it's beautiful

The counterpunch in 2021 is to unleash a running game. That's good for the sport... and that's also great news in Green Bay and New England.

Too many football games have become unwatchable this 2021 season. No longer is it just our grandfathers cursing “The refs!” at the television set. The officiating has become such an objective disgrace that vitriol crosses every conceivable demographic.

Nobody wants to see officials, like self-absorbed Tony Corrente, hip-check players.

Nobody wants the emotion effectively drained from the game. The league’s crackdown on “taunting” continues to feel like something straight out of the Soviet Union. We maintain here at Go Long that a smart taunt — like Antoine Winfield dropping the peace sign in Tyreek Hill’s face to close out a Super Bowl win — should be rewarded 15 yards on the field and $15,000 off it. Not penalized. Not fined. These are humans playing the most violent sport on earth, not robots.

Yet as egregious as “taunting” penalties have become, “roughing the passer” has reached a more disturbing extreme.

Quarterbacks continue to be smeared in Purell and covered in bubble wrap. You’ll see more violence in elementary dodgeball than smooches on the cheek like this in the Ravens/Dolphins game Thursday and this in the Saints/Titans game Sunday. The latter “hit” essentially cost the New Orleans Saints a win on Sunday. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw an interception into the end zone with two minutes left in the first half but, gifted this new set of downs, soon snuck in for a one-yard touchdown.

The Titans eventually won, of course, 23-21.

You are not a get-off-my-lawn curmudgeon to suggest quarterbacks will soon be wearing a flag in their belts. That feels like the next step for NFL owners deadset determined to keep their marquee stars healthy.

Yet before you slingshot that remote control through the screen and yell at your dog for no reason, count to 10. Take a deep breath. Put on that relaxing Bon Iver. Bask in the good news we’re about to share here.

Real football — the football you fell in love with — is making a quiet, glorious, undeniable comeback. Beneath the surface, the sport is actually in a really good place because it is returning to its physical roots. By no means are the owners or the commissioner to thank. Rather, this is pure Darwinism. To reach the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl, in 2021, NFL teams must run the ball. Blocking and tackling matter. Still.

Why? Defenses have reacted to the transformative quarterback. To say they’re shutting down the likes of Mahomes and Allen and Rodgers is a stretch, of course. Patrick Mahomes came back to life against the sinking Las Vegas Raiders last night. But this season, the good defenses are obsessed with eliminating the big play. They’re propping two safeties deep. They’re disguising coverages presnap. They’re featuring smaller, quicker lineups to deal with speed on offense. Teams are making a conscious effort on draft day to deal with spread offenses.

Thus, we’re now seeing the counterpunch. Teams willing to embrace the run have an advantage.

Go Long is a newsletter dedicated to enterprising pro football journalism. Free and paid subscriptions are both available. You can support this publication best by subscribing here:

A.J. Dillon blasts through defenders in Green Bay. Christian McCaffrey has the Panthers thinking playoffs again. Jonathan Taylor stakes his claim as the best running back in the game.

And the best proof is in that low… rumbling… evil chuckle you hear in Foxborough, Mass.

Ever the diabolical genius, Bill Belichick zigged where everyone else zagged last spring and now has his New England Patriots thinking championship again. His team’s 45-7 strangulation of the Cleveland Browns, of course, was the greatest takeaway from Week 10. Instead of throwing himself into the quarterback craziness that consumed the NFL all offseason long, Belichick spent like crazy on practically every other position — $232 million in all on the likes of Matthew Judon, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Jalen Mills, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.

Belichick let quarterbacks Cam Newton and rookie Mac Jones duke it out in camp.

Jones won. Jones, then, was handed a thin playbook that has seemingly grown by one or two pages each week.

Belichick was convinced he could win in 2021 with a gnarly defense, a running game and a rookie quarterback that’d only improve as he learned on the job. (Note to the ‘Niners: QBs learn by doing, not clipboarding.) This formula seemed like archaic nonsense to most observers in September but now — despite three gut-wrenching losses to Miami, Tampa Bay and Dallas — the Patriots are 6-4 and a mere half-game back in the AFC East. They should be 9-1. Their season will likely boil down to those two games against the division-leading Buffalo Bills on Dec. 6 and Dec. 26. Belichick wouldn’t want it any other way.

Starting running back Damien Harris missed Sunday’s game with a concussion, but it didn’t matter because this entire unit’s been conditioned to deliver pain. Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson bashed away for 100 yards and a touchdown and Jones keeps getting more comfortable. The 2021 15th overall pick had the best game of his career against the same Browns defense that ate up 2020 first overall pick Joe Burrow one week prior.

You are what you eat. Add tough players and, chances are, your team will be tough.

The ethos of this team is clear: They play downhill. They are violent.

Belichick was ready to counter.

How did it get here? First, understand what makes these All-Pro quarterbacks so special: Improvisation.

This past offseason, the smart defensive minds running this league decided to combat this raw improvisation.

“A lot of these dudes don’t know how to read defenses,” one high-ranking NFL exec says. “When you don’t let them play streetball, right? And they have to sit back and truly decipher what you’re doing? That’s why Mahomes struggled. He’s not a dummy. He’s a smart enough guy. But that was never his thing. He was so dynamic in extending plays and his arm was so different. Now that people are forcing him to stay in the pocket and not giving away any of the junk stuff, he has struggled a little bit and he has to adjust. He even admitted he hasn’t put in enough time in the playbook to understand what he was seeing. It’s so much ‘Hey, here’s the play call. You have these two reads. If nothing’s there, you scramble, you make a play.’ Defenses are now adjusting to, ‘Hey, let’s be a little bit smaller and a little bit faster and get more coverage players.’”

Maybe Mahomes discovered that necessary adjustment on Sunday.

His Chiefs beat up Las Vegas, 41-14, and the former MVP was electric with 406 yards on 35-of-50 passing with five touchdowns. The damage actually could’ve been worse, too. He missed some deep balls early. As our loyal readers here know, the Mahomes Hill is one we’ll gladly die on. He’s too rare, too talented, too damn creative to not find a counter of his own. Similarly, Allen broke out of his funk against the New York Jets. Next week, Mahomes gets the resurgent Cowboys and Allen gets the Colts.

Both games should tell us more about each quarterback.

The Colts are a sneaky contender themselves. They’re 5-5 but could easily be 8-2. No running back is playing better than Taylor, too. His blend of brains and brawn is truly unique and now he has 999 yards and 10 touchdowns in his last seven games.

Tackling Taylor is not an enjoyable experience.

Ten weeks in, it’s clear that boasting some beef up front helps. Defenses want to go light and sit back? Turning the clock back to 1995 is a recipe for success.

Above all, this breeds a brand of football.

The Bills’ 9-6 loss to Jacksonville one week ago, in which the lowly Jags mauled them up front, was a sobering wake-up call. Any offense that asks its offensive linemen to move backward 40 to 50 times a game — as opposed to forward — is bound to be softer. No team can snap its fingers and acquire a mashing mentality out of thin air vs. those two deep safeties. Yet this mentality is what the Bills need to get over the hump in 2021. No wonder the team’s head coach, Sean McDermott, had such a terse message for everyone in his building last week.

“You have to play a certain way in this league,” McDermott said then. “And that’s how we have to play.”

McDermott, a man of minimal detail, might as well have screamed from the mountaintop that the Bills needed to kick a little ass. He’s a defensive-minded coach, of course, and this defense ranks No. 1 in the NFL. He’d rather not see offensive coordinator Brian Daboll throw the ball every play. Smashing the Jets was a good start but, surely, McDermott knows that Belichick will do everything in his power to drag Buffalo into a dark alley those two games in December. And, surely, Belichick carved out time in the offseason to devise a Josh Allen Plan. (He sure had one for old friend, Tom Brady.)

This Patriots/Bills rivalry in the AFC East is suddenly juicy as hell, and I cannot wait to tune in.

It’s hard to blame teams for thinking running backs don’t matter. A year ago, it sure looked like the NFL was trending toward full-fledged street ball. You wanted a quarterback that’d go full "White Chocolate" on the field. Crossovers. Spin moves. Behind-the-back passes. No-look passes. Maybe that was the reason the Jets made Zach Wilson their pick at No. 2 overall. He flashed Mahomesian tendencies at BYU.

The smarter approach is to think about your entire team, Player No. 1 through No. 53.

Because, beyond the box score, there’s a value to handing the ball off to a 225-pound back 20 times a game. Turning your “running game” into a dizzying array of screens and slants and short passes may seem like the future but an actual running game seeps into the soul of your entire team. Until the league outright bans tackling, the very basic physicality this sport’s built on will remain intact.

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley put it beautifully earlier this season.

As he explained, there’s a distinct value to forcing the opposition to defend the run.

“What I think that the running game does for a quarterback is it gives you some breathers," Staley said at a press conference. “You don't need a good running game to be a good play-action team, but what you need the running game for is the physical element of the game. There’s a physicality to the game that’s real, right? If you’re just a passing team, OK, there’s a physical element to the game that the defense doesn't have to respect. And that's the truth. Because the data will tell you that you don't need a run game to play pass. You don't need that. But what the running game does for you, it brings a physical dimension to the football game.  

“And what the running game does that the passing game does not, is the running forces the defense to play blocks and to tackle. That happens on a run play -- You must play blocks and you must tackle. In the passing game, those things don't have to happen, right? You don't have to play as many blocks. And you may not have to tackle based on incomplete or not. So what the running game does is it really challenges your physicality and that's why I think the run game is important to a quarterback. Because it’s going to allow him literally to have more space to operate when you do throw the football.”

The Chargers (5-4) have been up and down since, but Staley nailed it.

His words should be blared over the intercom of every NFL team facility.

Bracketing two safeties deep isn’t anything new. The Packers dealt with this same look after their 15-1 season in 2011. After Aaron Rodgers lit defenses up for an NFL-record 122.5 passer rating, 45 touchdowns, only six picks and 9.2 yards per attempt, defenses dared the Packers to run the ball in 2012. And they could not. They finished 11-5 and were waxed by Colin Kapernick at Candlestick. GM Ted Thompson promptly drafted Eddie Lacy in 2013, the Packers clawed their way back to the NFC Championship in 2014 and, unfortunately, Lacy ate his way out of the NFL.

However you plan to combat this defense, you need exactly that. A plan.

Thompson’s successor, Brian Gutekunst, certainly has one.

The Packers are now 8-2 with a shot at a title run because — much like Belichick — the team’s general manager built a team for the times. In the 2020 draft, Gutekunst drafted Dillon 62nd overall. A “unicorn” that we profiled last spring. The pick was widely panned and Dillon heard all of the criticisms. How could a team select a big back from Boston College!? The horror. But this front office knew that for a good decade, the Packers’ offense was exposed as soft each postseason. Rodgers might’ve been scripting a Hall of Fame career but a pass-first operation could only take Green Bay so far.

When Lacy was at his peak, they came within an onside kick recovery from facing the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

This roster is capable of doing the bullying now. The defense just shut down Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson in back-to-back-to-back weeks, pitching a 17-0 shutout at Lambeau Field on Sunday. Now, Dillon is ready to be the heartbeat of the offense. As he explained to Go Long a while back, Dillon won’t be making the same mistakes Lacy did, either. This is a 247-pounder with 7.8 percent body fat who lives in the weight room.

Against Seattle, the entire offense ran through Dillon. He finished with 128 total yards and two touchdowns.

There aren’t many humans in the NFL capable of carrying six-time All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner on their back four yards into the end zone.

Nor are there many backs capable of plucking a low pass off the turf and turning upfield with this head of steam:

Even Rodgers has to admit Gutekunst put the perfect team around him. Odell Beckham Jr. would have been a neat Christmas ornament but if it’s another Super Bowl that Rodgers is interested in? Guys like Dillon and De’Vondre Campbell and Kenny Clark and Darnell Savage — guys with a very distinct, mean play style — are going to get him there. In fact, the three-time MVP hasn’t really been throwing deep much at all this season, instead leaning into the Packers’ run game. He deserves credit for not shifting into autopilot and freelancing like he often did with Mike McCarthy.

This 2021 Packers offense does not resemble the 2011 Packers offense one bit… and that’s a good thing.

Months spent bashing defenses moving forward, with Dillon as the hammer, will pay off in the playoffs.

I know, I know. It’s tempting to quit the NFL like a bad habit and fire up those Seinfeld re-runs on Sunday, but trust us. This trend is good for the game.

No amount of Corrente hip checks will derail football from remaining football.

Share Go Long