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Let’s talk about the future. The Chiefs are it, and not for the reason you think.
The NFL may need a new damn record book by the time quarterback Patrick Mahomes is done breaking every passing mark in it, but he wasn’t the key Sunday in the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win over San Francisco.
It was someone else.
Running back Damien Williams saved Kansas City against the 49ers. Yes, he ran for 104 yards and a game-clinching touchdown, but it was his 6.1 yards per carry that kept the Chiefs offense going until Mahomes’ confidence returned.
It may just be the start of what the Chiefs look like going forward, and if they can mix the running and passing games like they did against San Francisco, Sunday may be the first of several Super Bowl wins for them.
This is where the future part comes in. What the Super Bowl demonstrated—what many moments this season demonstrated—is the notion that the running back position has been devalued to the football equivalent of an eight-track tape is wrong.
The stock of the running back position continues to rise, and if it keeps going like it did this season, we might see backs wearing Eric Dickerson goggles and neck rolls.
What the Super Bowl (and other parts of the season) showed is that winning is more about the value of the quarterback/running back combo than the QB/wide receiver one.
Does that sound ridiculous? Let’s go back to Super Bowl LIV for a moment.
As of the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, Mahomes had engineered the Chiefs to 10 points and thrown two interceptions.
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Meanwhile, Williams punished the 49ers’ vaunted defense all game along, especially on the edges, punctuating his evening with a 38-yard score that all but ended the game. According to Zebra Technologies, creator of Next Gen Stats, Williams reached 19.37 mph on that final scoring run, the fourth-fastest speed by a ball-carrier in the Super Bowl.
Overall, Williams rushed 10 times for 77 yards (and that touchdown) when running outside the tackles. He didn’t have a single negative play, either, gaining positive yardage on all 17 of his carries.
No negative plays against that nasty 49ers defense is pretty remarkable.
If the Chiefs can keep running like that, thus limiting Mahomes’ passing attempts and keeping him from getting hit, Kansas City would be almost impossible to stop.
The Chiefs are not alone in embracing the past. Scouts told me on more than a few occasions this season that they believe the running back position has overtaken the receiver position in importance. That wasn’t true several years ago.
Look across the league. Derrick Henry was the warp core of the Titans’ surprising playoff run, leading the NFL in rushing with 1,540 yards. Seahawks running back Chris Carson and his 1,230 yards were a perfect complement to Russell Wilson. Vikings running back Dalvin Cook was 10th in the league in rushing with 1,135 yards.
The Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott continued to be Dak Prescott’s best friend with 1,357 yards rushing. League MVP Lamar Jackson ran for 1,206 yards. His dual role, along with Mark Ingram’s 1,018 rushing yards, presented one of the greatest QB-RB threats the league has ever seen. And Aaron Jones’ 1,558 yards from scrimmage were a huge boost to a Packers attack led by an aging Aaron Rodgers.
We might see this change in philosophy continue given the offseason possibilities ahead.
While the 2020 draft class isn’t stocked with great backs (at least we think), the 2020 free-agent class could be superb.
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Henry leads it, but there’s also Carlos Hyde, Kenyan Drake, Melvin Gordon, Austin Ekeler, Matt Breida, Lamar Miller and Jordan Howard (a personal favorite). We could also see Todd Gurley II or Devonta Freeman (excellent last name) join this group if the Rams and Falcons, respectively, decide those players are too expensive to keep.
Indeed, the future is upon the NFL, and, not surprisingly, it is being led by the Chiefs. But not in the way most would expect, and this is a surprise.