Bengals Should Spend Their Money on the Defense Instead of Rudi

One of pro football's "cherished myths" has come under the local microscope in the last week as the Bengals considered re-signing Rudi Johnson while their passing attack forged their toughest w

Jerry Dowling

One of pro football's "cherished myths" has come under the local microscope in the last week as the Bengals considered re-signing Rudi Johnson while their passing attack forged their toughest win in 14 years.

The so-called myth concerns the necessity of rushing effectively to win in the NFL. It's interesting that the necessity of running is widely accepted in a league with rules written for wide-open passing. In its defense, the "myth" has only recently been unmasked, so one can credit its persistence to a bias that was easy to defend not long ago.

More cautiously, one might concede that the past two Super Bowl winners finished 27th in league rushing and protest that the importance of rushing still isn't mythic. It remains a reliable principle.

One might still not expect to win without running the ball, and one might still mistrust teams that can't run. Two years is a blip on the screen.

For most of the past 30 years, as teams have become more efficient at passing, it remained that a strong running attack was mandatory for winning the Super Bowl. The Bill Walsh 49ers needed Roger Craig, just as the Joe Gibbs Redskins needed John Riggins, the last Dallas dynasty needed Emmitt Smith, the greatest show on turf in St. Louis had Marshall Faulk and even John Elway needed Terrell Davis to win his two Super Bowls.

Of 12 Super Bowl winners from 1990 through 2001, seven were top five rushing teams and the rest were among the league's top third in the category. Whatever the appearance, offenses won primarily by establishing physical dominance at the line of scrimmage.

Once upon a time, a team might win a game and feel a little under because it didn't run or stop the run. About 25 years ago, the Minnesota Vikings mucked about with a short passing game to sides of the field, ending lots of plays out of bounds with relatively little contact. Opposing defenses complained it didn't even feel like a football game.

That was a different day in football, not so long ago. In the 21st century, pro football seems to have changed. Looking at the past three years of league yardage statistics, little support is to be found for the idea that a team must control the run both ways. The indispensability of the running attack has been debunked before our eyes.

The past two Super Bowl winners, New England last year and Tampa Bay the year before, each finished 27th in the league in rushing yards. This year, Philadelphia, easily the NFC's best team, is 20th in rushing.

But we shouldn't go knee-jerk over small deviations. Of 12 NFL teams with winning records through Sunday, nine were among the top 10 in rushing and two others were in the top 14. Broadly speaking, good rushing teams win more often than not in the NFL. If "run to win" no longer is an exceptionless law, it remains a reliable generalization.

Some of us are neanderthals about football, and we like to see our guys knock over their guys and run past them. It's basic football. We know running matters because it's exasperating when teams run on our guys.

And that, evidently, is the truth preserved. It doesn't necessarily matter if your team can run, but it must be able to stop the run.

New England finished fourth in run defense last year and Tampa Bay finished fifth in that category and first overall the year before. And each of the past two Super Bowl winners, not surprisingly, led the league in scoring defense.

That's what the past two Super Bowl winners have in common. That, and the fact that each entered the playoffs with the home field advantage in its conference. And each was among the league leaders in pass interceptions. Indeed, each finished in the league's top two in giveaway/takeaway ratio, each at plus 17, a little more than one per game during the regular season.

Of the past four Super Bowl teams, three were top five run defenses. The fourth, Carolina last year, was 11th — about the top third in the league.

In six Super Bowl and conference championship games from the past two years, five were won by the higher ranking defense by yardage. The exception was pretty close — Oakland's 11th ranked defense beat Tennessee's 10th ranked defense in the 2002 AFC title game.

Defense wins. That's not a bulletin. If your question is whether offense or defense more reliably wins when it counts, your answer is simple. In those six conference championship and Super Bowl games, the higher ranked offense won only twice.

Offensively, if you're aimed at the championship it doesn't matter what you do, nor does it especially matter if you're good at it. New England won the Super Bowl ranked 17th in total yardage last year. Tampa Bay ranked 24th a year earlier. One recalls that Super Bowl winners New England in 2001 and Baltimore in 2000 relied on turnovers and defense. But they could also run the ball.

Unless Philadelphia wins the Super Bowl this year, the winner will be a good running team. Indeed, the Eagles are vulnerable because it doesn't run well. See what happens when someone dares Philadelphia to run.

It's way too early to declare rushing obsolete. Which brings us back to the Rudi Johnson question.

You pay a running back $6 million per year if he makes a difference. While productive, Johnson's production is so inconsistent that it's not obvious he's better than the blocking in front of him. It's not obvious Johnson makes a difference, unless the Bengals' blocking is so poor that those four 100-yard games this year are miracles.

Four times this year, Johnson has averaged three yards or less per carry. In six of 12 games, he's carried for 67 or fewer yards. About half the time, he's a good producer. But an organization with any acuity can match his baseline production for a lot less than $6 million per year and still find someone with a more consistent high end, particularly as the offensive line improves.

Other issues loom, of course. On last week's Boomer Esiason Show over WLW-AM, Bob Trumpy indicated that Marvin Lewis wants Johnson signed and complained that the Bengals' failure to do so is evidence of the Brown family undercutting the coach who was presumed to have broad control. It's a legitimate concern, considering the Bengals lost out on Warren Sapp last spring because they wanted to "sleep on" his contract.

That said, some other guy could have matched Johnson's 56 yards in 19 carries Dec. 5, when the Bengals won on the road against a winning team for the first time since 1990. But maybe another back wouldn't have drawn so much attention from the Baltimore defense.

It doesn't really matter. The Bengals won through the air when Baltimore's defense knew they would throw.

The Bengals scored 24 points, including three touchdowns, in the fourth quarter. Wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh were clutch, each making 10 catches in that 27-26 win. Carson Palmer put to rest most questions about whether he should start at quarterback. The Bengals beat a good run defense without running.

Does that mean the Bengals shouldn't be concerned with running? Of course not. But neither does it mean they should overpay for running backs.

If they're going to overpay, it needs to happen on the defense, preferably for run-stopping and pass-rushing linemen. More often than not, that's what wins in the NFL.

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