LIANE HANSEN, Host:
NPR's Mike Pesca diagnosis the decline of the run as a means to victory.
MIKE PESCA: Ask any retired NFL player - the old guard always had it tougher, even if the old guards were 100 pounds lighter than the current offensive linemen. So, this reminiscence from Joey Browner, a legendary defensive back for the Minnesota Vikings in the '80s and early '90s, should be taken with a grain of smelling salt.
JOEY BROWNER: If the quarterback got hit and knocked out, you just had to go get the water boy or somebody like that.
PESCA: Karl Mecklenberg, who played with the Broncos during the same era as Browner, recalls his bag of tricks being gradually depleted.
KARL MECKLENBERG: Back in the day, if you just put your arms up when you're rushing the quarterback, you could just run him over. It wouldn't be roughing or anything. My last year I got caught and fined for that, so I stopped that.
PESCA: The rule changes didn't open up the passing game by themselves. But, like clever investment bankers who elude regulators, coaches began to find loopholes they could exploit. Current Green Bay Packer running back Ryan Grant sees it every day in practice.
RYAN GRANT: Right now there's more emphasis on making passing plays more interesting because you have more guys. If you have a pass play, there's potential for five guys that can get the ball.
PESCA: Grant ran for over 1,200 yards this year - or 50 percent more than any running back in today's Super Bowl. But on the pass-happy Packers he is still but a complimentary piece.
GRANT: Passing is taking over as of right now because it's the fastest way to get into that end zone.
PESCA: Of the top 12 passing offenses, nine made the playoffs this year. Of the top 14 passing offenses, none had a losing record; five top 14 running teams did. Former offensive lineman Ross Tucker can't deny the evidence.
ROSS TUCKER: I think we've seen as of late you don't need to run anymore. I mean, I'm only 30, so I'm not exactly old school, but as a lover of the physicality of the sport of football, it's a little disheartening. It's a little bit upsetting.
PESCA: Miami Dolphin great Mercury Morris is old school. He and his backfield mates ran into the record books as the only undefeated team in NFL history. He says the current way of the NFL with its aerial emphasis isn't worse than the football played in his day - I'm just not sure he means it.
MERCURY MORRIS: The quintessential concept is to be able to run the football, and if you can't run the football now you have to pass. Every time I see a team third-and-three and third-and-four and they're lining up because they don't think that they have what it takes to simply manhandle somebody up front in the basic law of nature, which is fight or flight.
PESCA: There is an appeal to the running game that strikes at the heart of a football man. Former Steeler quarterback Jim Miller hints at it.
JIM MILLER: It's kind of the old last frontier, where kind of men can be men and we're just out there getting physical, playing our sport and they couldn't stop us - and that is demoralizing for a defense when you beat them physically.
PESCA: Mike Pesca, NPR News.