Two-running back attacks proving better than one

The Bears and Colts feature two-headed running back attacks, a growing trend in the NFL, Greg Garber writes.

Updated: January 31, 2007, 10:53 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Thomas Jones, his custom-accessorized Timberland boots fidgeting behind a makeshift podium, raised his eyebrows and considered an unusual question during Monday's media session.

For those of you occupied with world events, be advised there is a football game Sunday in South Florida, but for some reason reporters seem to be fascinated by subjects that have nothing to do with the zone blitz or play-action passes. The sleek Chicago Bears running back -- who has a Miami garage full of vehicles, including a Ferrari, an Expedition and Range Rover -- was asked which one he most resembled.

"Probably the Ferrari," Jones said. "I'm quick, and I try to run smooth. But if I need to be powerful, I can be powerful, too."

Thomas Jones #20
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThomas Jones led the Bears in rushing this season with 1,210 yards.
That would make Cedric Benson, Jones' bruising alter ego in the Bears' backfield, the Expedition.

"We complement each other very well," Jones said. "I'm kind of shifty and I like to cut back a lot. He's more of a downhill guy. His main thing in the open field is punishing guys -- headfirst. I'll come in, and I'd rather make a guy miss."

The Bears have ridden this two-headed running back all the way to Super Bowl XLI, but they are not alone. The Indianapolis Colts have a dynamic duo of their own: Nifty rookie Joseph Addai and rugged Dominic Rhodes. It is worth noting that the two other teams in the conference championship games also had a double dose of diversity at running back. The New Orleans Saints came at you with the power of Deuce McAllister, followed by Reggie Bush, all sweetness and light. The New England Patriots used Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney in much the same fashion.

Back in 2000, the Giants' offense, coordinated by Sean Payton, featured Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne in the backfield. They called it Thunder and Lightning, and the Giants ran all the way to the Super Bowl.

"One, it's a function of maintaining health," Barber said. "Two, it's different guys that do different things. If you get the right guys, it's a tough combination to stop. You're seeing it more and more."

In a season that saw the Kansas City Chiefs Larry Johnson set an all-time NFL record for carries (416), the NFL trend is going in the opposite direction. It seems to be less a function of philosophy -- there are only a handful of lead runners, after all, of the caliber of Johnson or LaDainian Tomlinson -- than mere pragmatism and circumstance. Whatever the rationale, throwing human changeups at opposing defenses is sound strategy

Consider the Colts:

Edgerrin James led Indianapolis in rushing the four previous seasons, eclipsing 1,500 yards in each of the last two. When he left during the offseason for the Arizona desert, some folks wondered whether the pressure on Peyton Manning's right arm would be too much. Uh, no.

While the reliable Rhodes -- who led the Colts with 1,104 yards way back in 2001 -- was the starter for all 16 regular-season games, Addai was the eye-opener. Drafted with the 30th overall choice out of LSU, he carried 226 times for 1,081 yards to lead all rookie rushers. His elusiveness (he has a penchant for cutting back against the grain) is why he averages 4.8 yards per carry. Rhodes, who carried 187 times for 641 yards, gets the tough yards. In the final, critical drive against the Ravens in the divisional playoff game, Rhodes carried on 10 of 12 plays before Adam Vinatieri sealed the game with a 35-yard field goal.

Head coach Tony Dungy has always been an old-school proponent of "Buc Ball," but with Manning under center, the Colts always have been a passing team. As Indianapolis progressed to its first Super Bowl, there has been a less-than-subtle run on running. In their three playoff games, the Colts outrushed opponents by an average of 61 yards per game. Their average carries have crept from 27 per game in the regular season to 35.

"That might not seem like a lot," Rhodes said, "but it's made a difference. Teams, I think, have been a little surprised by how we've stuck with the run."

Said Manning, "[They] both have allowed us to run the same plays and be as complex in our offense as we have been in the nine years that I have been here. That is a real credit to both guys."

Off the field, the Bears' two-back system has caused its share of turmoil. Jones and Benson are alpha males, both taken early in the first round, No. 7 (2000) and No. 5 (2005) overall, respectively. Jones, who has one year left on his contract, skipped the offseason workouts. Benson isn't completely thrilled with the arrangement, either.

"I'm not going to stir the pot or create drama," he said before the win over the Saints. "I kind of have to swallow my pride and put all the goals aside that I may have set."

On the field? They've been unstoppable.

Jones cleared 1,200 yards for the second straight season. Benson contributed 647 yards and each ran for six touchdowns. In the first playoff game against Seattle, Jones carried 21 times for 66 yards and scored two touchdowns. Benson added 12 carries for 45 yards. And then against New Orleans, Benson carried 24 times for 60 yards and Jones had 19 carries for 123 yards. The formidable two-game playoff total: 76 carries, 294 yards, 5 TDs.

"This is something that's been good for our team," Jones said. "It's kept me fresh and it's good to give the defense a different look."

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.