Thursday, April 29, 2010

Edgerrin James: Two Great Tastes That Taste Like Anchovies and M&Ms Together

How much does a great quarterback need a great running back? The question comes up because teams have rarely been successful with HOFers at running back and quarterback. The exceptions over the last 50 years are the Dolphins, Steelers, Packers, and Cowboys, and with all of them, the HOF QBs were more famous as game managers and/or winners than record-setting passers. Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, and Bart Starr led the league in passing yards a combined zero times. They led the league in completions zero times. They led the league in TD passes three times and completion percentage five times -- which you'd expect from game managers -- but Johnny U. racked up nearly as many passing titles all by his lonesome. (The U also had a HOFer in his backfield, but Lenny Moore was as much a receiver as a running back, and in the Hall of Fame because of it, so he doesn't really count.) These QBs didn't need to throw the ball 40 times a game; they could hand it off 20 times to Larry Czonka and 20 times to Jim Taylor, and lob it to Lynn Swann or Michael Irvin as a change of pace. These QBs deserve to be in the HOF for holding all the pieces together; Lord knows there were plenty of QBs who folded like Bobby Petrino when presented with such an embarrassment of riches. (Not to name names, but: Scott Mitchell.)

In Brett Favre's case the line was that Adrian Peterson would make Brett Favre a better QB, and Favre did throw fewer balls to Hunter Hillenmeyer than in the past, but the end result was the same: the running back playing a secondary role in the big game and the QB tossing the ball in the vicinity of Ty Law or a Ty Law equivalent at the absolute worst possible moment.

That's not to say great QBs do not need good RBs -- John Elway profitted from having Terrell Davis in the backfield, and likewise with Joe Montana and Roger Craig -- but it's not essential to their success, and in some cases it merely complicates things. Brett Favre never had to ponder his options when Edgar Bennett was standing three yards behind him and Sterling Sharpe was split wide. Pitch the ball to BenJarvus Green-Ellis or throw it to Randy Moss? Hand it to Bill Belichick; he knows how to take some of the complexity out of the game.

This particular dynamic is especially interesting in the case of Edgerrin James and Peyton Manning. You'd think the Colts would have been better with Manning, James and Marvin Harrison all together, but they weren't. The individual pieces were all quite impressive but the whole wasn't, not ultimately, not when it really counted, and we wonder if it's not because when things got tight the one true path wasn't completely clear. Throw the ball or hand it off? Throw it or hand off? Throw hand or off it? The fact that Edgerrin James was good enough to put doubt in Peyton Manning's mind is all you need to know about his skills. That and he ran like a combination of Eric Dickerson and Emmitt Smith, which you just knew would eventually put him in a bad place, which it did, and it was Arizona, just like Emmitt. Eleventh all-time leading rusher; borderline HOFer.

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