There’s a throwback bout coming to Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday, a duel between two teams fighting where football is going. In a league that’s shifted vertical, the Colts and Titans are the leading outliers, two franchises desperate to prove games — and possibly championships — can still be won the same way they were 25 years ago.
At the heart of this, of course, are two of the game’s top running backs, the NFL’s rushing champ in each of the past three seasons. Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor won the crown in 2021 after a 1,811-yard effort, while Tennessee’s Derrick Henry was the rushing king in 2020 (2,027 yards) and 2019 (1,514).
They are the engines behind their respective offenses, the backbones of their teams, and when they’re at their best, they’re two of the most productive players in the game. But they also play a position that’s increasingly undervalued, diminished by $50 million-a-year quarterbacks and $30 million-a-year wide receivers and the pass-heavy schemes that have changed how Super Bowls are won in the modern era.
The Colts and Titans, as constructed, feel like test cases, two squads seeking balance in a league that now favors imbalance. They might also be our best shot at answering this question: Can a team built to win in 1995 still win big in 2022?
Or is there a ceiling when your best offensive player is your running back?
As much as Frank Reich values Taylor and what he brings, the Colts’ fifth-year head coach knows what happens when the passing game fades and his team becomes too run-centric. He has watched two promising seasons (2019 and 2021) crumble late because of it.
“At some level,” Reich says, “you have to be dynamic in the pass game to go all the way.”
He’s right. The running game is no longer a requisite for postseason success. Each of the past three Super Bowl champs has finished outside the top 20 in total rushing, and only one runner-up, the 2019 49ers, finished inside the top 10. Of those three champions — the 2021 Rams, the 2020 Buccaneers and the 2019 Chiefs — the running game accounted for no more than 26 percent of the offense. By comparison, Taylor accounted for 36 percent of the Colts’ offense in 2021; at his peak, in 2020, Henry was accounting for nearly 40 percent of the Titans’ offense.