Commentary

Three's a crowd? Not in Giants' backfield

The Giants don't have a clear-cut featured back. What they do have is the best rushing attack in football, thanks to a talented and unselfish trio of runners, writes Greg Garber.

Originally Published: January 6, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad BradshawRich Kane/US PresswireThe Giants' RB trio known in some circles as Earth (Brandon Jacobs), Wind (Derrick Ward) and Fire (Ahmad Bradshaw) has helped New York secure the No. seed in the NFC playoffs.
"Please hold for Jerry Reese," the pleasant voice says.

Suddenly, it's February 2008 in the Arizona desert: Bob Papa's slightly incredulous radio call of Eli Manning's winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress in Super Bowl XLII unspools and then, amid the hysteria, the Giants' general manager comes on the line.

"The Super Bowl -- is that what they've got on there?" Reese asked recently. "Well, we'd like to have a new one."

That, of course, is getting ahead of things. Although the Giants are the top seed in the NFC with a 12-4 record, they must win two playoff games -- the first against the pesky Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday -- before they make their reservations for Tampa.

One of the primary reasons the Giants won four consecutive playoff games away from Giants Stadium last season was the team-first culture created by head coach Tom Coughlin. This can be seen clearly in the team's ensemble running game.

While the NFL's two leading rushers -- the Vikings' Adrian Peterson and the Falcons' Michael Turner -- were largely one-man shows (and, instructively, gone from the postseason after a single game), the Giants rely on a more subtle collaboration. Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw have combined for 468 carries, 2,469 yards and 18 touchdowns, and comprised the league's No. 1-ranked rushing game over the regular season, ahead of the Falcons and Panthers. As a team, the Giants gained 157.4 yards rushing per game and a league-leading 5.0 yards per carry.

1,000-yard rushing duos
Year Team Players (Yards)
1972 *Dolphins Larry Csonka (1,117) and Mercury Morris (1,000)
1976 *Steelers Franco Harris (1,128) and Rocky Bleier (1,036)
1985 Browns Kevin Mack (1,104) and Earnest Byner (1,002)
2006 Falcons Warrick Dunn (1,140) and Michael Vick (1,039)
2008 Giants Brandon Jacobs (1,089) and Derrick Ward (1,025)
*=Achieved in a 14-game season

Jacobs and Ward became only the fifth set of teammates in NFL history to each reach 1,000 yards rushing in the same season.

"Granted, everyone wants the stats, but collectively we are No. 1, so we can't really complain about that," Ward explained in an interview with ESPN's Rachel Nichols. "We want to go out and take charge of the offense, set the tone so Eli [Manning] and the wide receivers and the offensive line can feed off us."

Said Jacobs, "We all complement each other."

They have been known as Earth, Wind & Fire since defensive end Justin Tuck borrowed the name from the 1970s rhythm-and-blues band from Chicago and dropped it on Ward before the Week 2 game against the St. Louis Rams. Truth be told, neither Tuck nor the running backs -- all children of the 1980s -- can name a single Earth, Wind & Fire song. Still, these symbols of nature's raw and powerful elements manage to capture how the Giants are taking care of business. Again.

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"We have always been that way with the New York Giants -- that's our history," Reese said. "That's who we are. We always wanted to be a power running team, especially in the Northeast. You have to be able to run in windy, cold weather.

"The offensive line has been together for a couple of years. We're lucky enough to have a nice stable of running backs."

Jacobs, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 264 pounds, is, undeniably, "Earth." Bigger than many of the players trying to tackle him, Jacobs is one of the most difficult players to bring down in the league; he is the epitome of the downhill runner. Running behind one of the best offensive lines in the game, he carried 219 times for 1,089 yards and 15 touchdowns -- and missed two of the past three regular-season games.

A fourth-round pick out of Southern Illinois in 2005, Jacobs was the Giants' designated goal-line option as a rookie, scoring seven times on 38 carries. He was a human changeup a year later, as the Giants increasingly used him along with Tiki Barber. When Barber retired, Jacobs cleared 1,000 yards in 2007.

As Reese said, Jacobs has "an unusual skill set for a man his size." Not only does Jacobs run through defenders, he has the athleticism to jump over them, as the Eagles' Asante Samuel discovered. The three-way partnership, the three running backs agree, will extend all of their careers.

"It definitely helps because [of] the way I run," Jacobs said. "If I happen to run over someone and get like 15 or 20 yards, then [Derrick] can come in and do his little thing, and we keep going back and forth."

Ward, at 5-11, 228 pounds, would be "Wind."

"Nice and smooth," Ward said.

Signed as a free agent (New York Jets) in 2005, Ward finished the regular season with 182 carries for 1,025 yards and a sporty 5.6-yard average, the best number among the league's 16 1,000-yard rushers. When Jacobs couldn't play against the Cardinals in Week 12, Ward carried the load, rushing for 69 yards on 20 carries. In Week 13 against Washington, he caught five passes for 75 yards. Ward blew up in the pivotal victory over the Panthers, rushing 15 times for 215 yards.

"I am from California, cool breeze windy," Ward said. "Then you got Ahmad. He is 'Fire' because he is quick to ignite on any play."

Bradshaw, 5-9, 198, is the swiftest of the three. His signature run was a 77-yarder against the run-stingy Ravens. He is part of last year's terrific class of rookies, a seventh-round choice from Marshall. Bradshaw ran for only 190 yards in the 2007 regular season, but led the Super Bowl champions with 208 yards in the postseason. This year, he ran a modest 67 times for 355 yards, a 5.3-yard average.

"After those two guys, Brad goes in the game and he's a blur out there," Reese said. "In this day and age, you can't have enough running backs. You're sometimes one step away from having one -- or none.

"We're glad to have that stable."

Going forward, with cold, blustery weather settling into the Northeast, the running game likely will sustain the Giants' offense, perhaps well into the playoffs -- and beyond?

"If they want to keep it together, then we are more than willing to win a couple more Super Bowls," Ward said. "We won't have the wear and tear of a No. 1 running back that is always getting the ball 25 or 30 times a game.

"I'll get 10, [Brandon] will get 15 and Ahmad will come in and get you five or six, and that will keep us fresh throughout the whole year. I don't think one NFL team has that, so it works in our favor."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for 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.