1 of 3 | Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) fakes a handoff to running back DuJuan Harris (32) during the first half of their NFL game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland, December 13, 2015. Photo by David Tulis/UPI | License Photo
In a National Football League working hard to glorify squeaky clean quarterbacks who bloat the scoreboard -- despite the league's curious inability to define a catch -- it is ironic that two of the league's top teams head into the stretch with running backs as a primary topic of concern.
What transpires in the next three weeks could be interesting, especially considering it may give a chance to two of the more interesting shoulda, woulda, coulda running back prospects in this century. More on them later.
Running backs are not pampered like quarterbacks. They get hit on every play whether they have the ball or not -- below the knees, on the helmet. They are throwbacks to when football was a "collision sport," which Vince Lombardi explained was different than a mere contact sport such as basketball.
At this time of the year, rugged running backs are a premium weapon. Their barbaric ability to barge through or around defenders becomes a huge asset as winter weather impacts games played outdoors.
Not coincidentally, the two teams in question here are the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, each with an outdoor stadium and its own brand of wicked, winter weather.
Seattle is infamous for unrelenting rain and wind that made music called Grunge sound like, well, music. New England has those nor'easter snow blasts that are so numbing that game officials deliriously invent things such as the now-banished Tuck Rule. But that's another story.
Each team won a recent a Super Bowl championship thanks to tough winter runners -- the Seahawks with Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch and the Patriots with LeGarrette "One Punch" Blount, appropriately pronounced "blunt." The "one-punch" is a leftover from an infamous, postgame incident in college, but it describes his no-nonsense running style, too.
Each of those players makes oft-criticized Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel look like a choir boy, but hey, they are running backs, after all -- throwbacks, as it were. Give them a break. Lynch can dis the media. Blount can get a slap on the hand for a marijuana-related issue last year in Pittsburgh. Heck, it enabled him to move to New England.
Lynch is still recovering from abdominal surgery, and his impressive rookie replacement, Thomas Rawls, is out of the season with an ankle injury. Seattle hopes Lynch will return for the playoffs.
Blount is done for the season after a hip injury last Sunday, leaving fourth-year backup Brandon Bolden and second-year receiving back James White, neither considered a hard-running, clock-eating, built-for-winter running back.
It is interesting to see how each team responded.
The Patriots, who keep better tabs on every breathing pro prospect than anybody this side of the IRS, signed former Wisconsin superstar, but Denver Bronco bust, Montee Ball. He is on the Patriots' practice squad for now.
The Patriots apparently visited with former first round pick (No. 24 overall, 2004) Steven Jackson, a long-time star with the St. Louis Rams whose last two years with the Atlanta Falcons were largely forgettable. However, New England coach Bill Belichick deflected questions Wednesday about Jackson.
The Seahawks, still leaning on Pete Carroll's extensive college recruiting experience, signed Bryce Brown, whose ability coming out of high school was legendary, but his college career evaporated in a series of ridiculous, controversial circumstances before he entered the draft as almost an unknown in 2012. The Philadelphia Eagles, with Andy Reid still head coach, took a chance on Brown with a seventh-round pick, 229th overall.
So, if given a chance, Ball and Brown might be able to display the abilities that once made them players to watch.
Ball's story is probably better known by NFL fans. With the help of a great offensive line at Wisconsin, he was one of the most prolific backs in college history, tying Barry Sanders' single-season record of 39 touchdowns in 2011.
He finished college with 5,140 yards rushing and 598 receiving, but that included 924 rushes and 59 catches for a total of 983 touches, raising concern about the mileage on his 5-foot-10, 215-pound frame, especially with a slow time in 40 yards (4.51 to 4.66 seconds).
Sure enough, his stay with the Broncos was literally painful. After a so-so 2013 rookie season, 2014 included three games, a groin injury, an appendectomy and injured reserve. Ball was waived after training camp this year. The Patriots signed him Tuesday.
Brown may be generally less known by most, but he has an interesting past that earned him a following of curious fans who recall seeing his ample talents, a charge to which we plead guilty -- and curious.
Prepping for the 2012 draft for our NFLDraftScout.com site, we delved into lore of Brown's remarkable career at Wichita High School East, where he rushed for 7,209 yards, won the Hall Trophy as best prep player in the country and in 2008 was the first running back to be rated the top football recruit since Adrian Peterson (2004). He was on the USA Today All-USA first team two years in a row.
At 6 feet, 220 pounds he was fast -- timed between 4.38 and 4.48 seconds -- agile, tough and had great hands. With all that ability, he never spent much time blocking. He had strength to hoist 225 pounds 22 times and explosion reflected in a 34-inch vertical jump and a 1.51-second time at 10 yards.
While unmentioned by most draft prognosticators, Brown was given a chance by NFLDraftScout.com to be taken in the seventh round. Reid and the Eagles agreed, although it might be mentioned here that team owner Jeff Lurie subscribes to that very draft service. Chicago journalist and excellent draft evaluator Dan Pompei listed Brown as the 17th-best prospect and was enamored with the player's raw talent.
At first, Brown made the most of his shot in the NFL. On Nov. 26, 2012 -- in his first start since high school -- Brown starred on the biggest regular-season stage, a Monday night game. Against the Carolina Panthers, he ran for a 65-yard touchdown in the first half and finished with a rookie franchise record of 179 yards on 19 carries, two touchdowns and four catches for 11 yards. But there were two fumbles.
The next week against Dallas, Brown ran for 169 yards and two touchdowns, but his fourth-quarter fumble was returned for the deciding touchdown and his pro career began a disappearing act similar to that in college.
In May 2014, Brown was traded to the Buffalo Bills, who released him last September.
But in Seattle, Carroll knew Brown. He recruited the five-star prospect to USC, which became one of the few colleges to which the talented player neither committed nor visited (the others being a verbal commit to Miami, a visit to Oregon and brief stays at Kansas, Tennessee and Kansas State).
In fact, this is Brown's third stint in Seattle in three months. When Brown was signed to the active roster back in October, Carroll recalled recruiting him to USC.
"(We) watched him play and as we looked at him on film, John (Schneider) and I both thought we saw a real spark there running the football," Carroll told Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com. "He's a strong, tough kid, too, kind of fits our style. So we'll see how that fits."
So there it is. One more chance, perhaps a last one for Brown.
He will compete with DuJuan Harris as a candidate to replace Rawls. Veteran Fred Jackson is the most experienced back on the roster but is mostly a receiving threat, and despite a long career in Buffalo, not really that grind-it-out, winter-season runner.
Brown came through on that Monday night as a rookie. Now -- much as Blount was given the chance to earn a Super Bowl ring with New England after being waived by Pittsburgh last season -- Brown may get a chance to resurrect his own Beast Mode in Seattle.
We will be watching.
Meantime, here is a tour Around the League to look at interesting numbers and quotes provided by reporters covering every NFL team for The Sports Xchange:
BY THE NUMBERS: 0: Postseason victories in Chiefs franchise history that came in a season with a winning streak greater than seven. Kansas City won nine in a row in 2003 and then 2013, but lost in the AFC playoffs each time to the Indianapolis Colts. The Chiefs' current streak of seven victories is tied for third in club annals.
--4: Games the Giants won this season when quarterback Eli Manning was not sacked. The Giants did not lose a game this year when they protected their quarterback.
--6: The franchise-record number of rookies the Minnesota Vikings started at Arizona last week. The starters were right tackle T.J. Clemmings, receiver Stefon Diggs, linebacker Eric Kendricks, linebacker Edmond Robinson, cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Anthony Harris. Robinson, Waynes and Harris were making their NFL starting debuts. Harris was promoted from the practice squad two days before the game.
--6: Consecutive fourth-down plays stopped by the Bears defense.
--7: Touchdown passes needed by Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr over the last three games to overtake Daryle Lamonica for the single-season franchise record. Lamonica had 34 touchdown passes. Carr has 28.
--7: Consecutive years that the Patriots won the AFC East division title -- including this season thanks to the Miami Dolphins' loss last Monday night -- tying the record set by the Los Angeles Rams winning the NFC West from 1973-79.
--7: Seasons with double-figure wins the Packers would achieve under head coach Mike McCarthy with their next victory to get to 10 wins this season. That would be a franchise record. Curly Lambeau also had six seasons with double-digit wins from 1921-49.
--8: Touchdown catches by Cleveland's Gary Barnidge. He needs one more to tie the franchise record for tight ends set by Ozzie Newsome in 1979.
--9: Division titles the Indianapolis Colts have won in the 13 years since the inception of the AFC South (2002).
--12: Consecutive seasons the Pittsburgh Steelers posted eight or more victories. Only the New England Patriots have more (13).
--13.2: Punt-return average by the Ravens this season -- the best mark in the NFL. Rookie Kaelin Clay is averaging 14.5 yards per return.
--109: With wide receiver Julio Jones' third catch of the Carolina game, he set a career high for catches in a season (104). He now has 109 catches on the season, which is a league high and is also the third-highest total during a single season in franchise history.
--313-312: Seahawks franchise record after last week's victory over Baltimore. It is the first time in franchise history the team has been over .500 all-time.
--1,086: Penalty yards by the Bills, which is only 22 yards shy of the single-season franchise record of 1,108 set in 1970. Interestingly, that was set in a 14-game season. The Bills probably will surpass the record in their 14th game Sunday.
QUOTES TO NOTE
--"Let's just end on a high note." -- A smiling New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick as he walked away from the podium preferring not to answer a question about the team's reported interest in veteran free agent running back Steven Jackson.
--"This is a team that is crumbling right before our very eyes." --Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian, on the Atlanta Falcons.
--"I thought it was because of my jumping jacks." -- Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, when asked about receiver Odell Beckham Jr.'s exciting touchdown receptions against the Dolphins on Monday Night Football.
--"We have to take it personal. If a team is going to come out and play us one-on-one we have to win those matchups. That's what we get paid for as receivers. Our guys are confident a lot in those matchups. We're excited to get prepared this week against a great opponent. It's good on good, the No. 1 defense vs. a great offense. It should be some good competitive football." -- Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, on the matchup with the Broncos this week.
--"Our record may say about the games we've won or lost, but it doesn't say about who we are as men. We carry ourselves with pride. We always keep our head up, no matter what the times are. When the good times are good, and when the bad times are bad, we're always together. There are three games left, and for sure, we're going to give 110 percent." -- Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley.
--"We don't want to go up and down. We want to be even-keeled. We want to flatten stuff out, because the preparation is the key." -- Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio.
--"What an accomplishment by everybody. We were really on it in the route-running and throwing on time, and we targeted it really, really well, obviously (on the offensive line). That's the whole group really, really coming together. That display is what we've really been searching for." -- Seattle Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable on giving up no sacks last week to Baltimore and the overall performance of offense.
--"You sit back and look across the locker room and say there is no reason we shouldn't have more wins than what we do. I mean, we let a lot of games slip where we could have had won." -- Linebacker Preston Brown, on the Buffalo Bills' disappointing 6-7 record.
--"I don't know. I'm not that careful. I count on other people to be careful for me." -- Minnesota Vikings free safety Harrison Smith, when asked if he would be "extra careful" not to return too soon from his hamstring/knee injuries considering he pulled his hamstring two weeks ago when he rushed back too soon from his knee injury.
--"I think he's clearly a generational player. We definitely enjoyed our time here with him, and you know it's a privilege to be a part of his career. But, it doesn't shock me; I'm not surprised he's still rolling the way he's rolling. ... Hell, I don't know when he's going to stop playing. He looks pretty good." -- Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, on Raiders safety Charles Woodson, 39, an 18th-year pro who played for Green Bay from 2006-12.
--"You look back and say, 'Hey, we finished the final three games 3-0,' and then that can carry over into training camp, OTAs and then lead on into the regular season." -- Chicago Bears cornerback Tracy Porter, on the need for a strong finish.
--"Joe is one of the best players in this league, so when you lose that, it hurts. We've had to adjust our defense. We've had to adjust our coverages. When you have a great player, you build it around them. That's the NFL. You're going to lose guys as the year goes on. You have to be able to adapt and adjust." -- Browns defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil, on the loss of cornerback Joe Haden (concussion).
--"You go back, you go to work, prepare, you grind, you don't change anything, you clean up what you need to clean up. It's a matter of believing. It's a matter of trust and staying the course." -- Colts coach Chuck Pagano, on how he and his team are approaching preparations for the Houston game after consecutive blowout losses to Pittsburgh and Jacksonville.
--Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and is a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Material in this report was contributed by The Sports Xchange NFL network of reporters.