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Point, counterpoint: Do you need a strong running game to win?


! Staff Writer Mike Spofford says yes.

I know Vic is going to launch into his "it's a pass-the-ball/defend-the-pass league," and I don't disagree. When it comes to playoff football, you'd better find a running game. It doesn't have to be dominant, but it needs to be effective.

As impressive a streak as the Packers are on, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers putting together one of the best passing seasons the league has ever seen, people conveniently forget that Rodgers wasn't really the offensive star of two of the four postseason wins last year.

In the Wild Card round at Philadelphia, James Starks ran for 123 yards and kept the Eagles off-balance. In the NFC Championship at Chicago, Starks added 74 yards and a TD. Rodgers didn't throw for a touchdown in that game, but ran for one himself. Starks carried the ball 45 times in those two games, both of which came down to the wire.

It's no coincidence that those were the two outdoor, cold-weather games in the Packers' playoff run last season. Considering the Packers are likely to earn homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs this year and won't have places like Atlanta's Georgia Dome or Jerry Jones' palace in Dallas to play in prior to the Super Bowl, these games merit even closer examination.

The Packers were facing stingy defenses and cool winds in the 15-20 mile-per-hour range that weren't conducive to throwing the ball all over the yard. The Green Bay offense scored 21 points in Philadelphia and just 14 in Chicago (with the defense adding the third TD), yet, they won the time-of-possession battle in both games – providing their defense the stamina to make necessary last-minute stands – because they ran the ball effectively.

In fact, I would argue that without Starks and the running game, the Packers' playoff run last year may have ended as soon as it started, in Philly. Sure, Rodgers threw for two touchdowns to stake the Packers to a 14-3 halftime lead, but after Starks gained eight yards to set up third-and-two on the opening drive of the second half, a sack/fumble of Rodgers set up an easy Eagles score and it was game on.

How did the Packers respond? By giving the ball to Starks four times on first down on the next drive, and he gained four, 19, five and three yards on those four plays, helping produce a touchdown. The drive took 11 plays and six minutes, 17 seconds, keeping the Packers in control when the Lincoln Financial Field crowd was trying to roar the momentum back to Philly's side.

With Green Bay's defense struggling in the rankings and giving up too many big plays, the Packers are going to need that running game in the playoffs, in my opinion. They'll need productive drives that take six minutes off the clock and limit opponents' possessions. That's winning, playoff football.

Look closely at some of this year's success, too. The 49-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings early in the third quarter in Carolina that gave the Packers the lead for the first time at 14-13? It came off play-action. The 65-yard TD pass to James Jones on Thanksgiving in Detroit that put the Packers firmly in control came off play-action, too. I could list several more.

Those pass plays worked because the defenses were respecting the Packers' running game. Now, they could be chided as foolish for biting on play-action against a team that hasn't run the ball effectively much at all this year, but that, in essence, makes my point. That was the regular season.

In the playoffs, defenses won't be fooled.

! Editor Vic Ketchman says no.

Mike, I gave you a choice. You picked and then I even gave you a warning about your choice. I was willing to take the old-school, run-the-ball assignment and just explain that I'm too old to change my ways, but you stuck with your original choice so I have no choice but to crush you with simple, undeniable logic.

The Packers are 29th in the league in rushing and they are 12-0. Need I say more?

OK, I will.

The Packers were 24th in the league in rushing last season and they won the Super Bowl title.

The 1981 49ers are the first team I can remember that won a championship without being able to run the ball. It was an outrage; it made me angry.

I mean, they couldn't move it an inch on the ground, but they had this new scheme called the "West Coast Offense," a brilliant coach in Bill Walsh and a resourceful quarterback named Joe Montana, who appeared to be born to run Walsh's creation. The 49ers won the Super Bowl that season.

Run-the-ball football was soon restored to popularity by Joe Gibbs and the Redskins' "Hogs," and by Bill Parcells and the '80s Giants, and it stayed that way for a good, long time, through Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis and the millennium, until 2001, when a second-year quarterback named Tom Brady replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe, and Brady began a long-term relationship with a mad-scientist coach named Bill Belichick. In the Patriots' run to the Super Bowl title that season, a new style of football was born: attack, attack, attack, even on fourth down.

If Vince Lombardi was the embodiment of block-and-tackle football, then Belichick is the father of scheme football. He completed the lesson that Walsh began. Belichick taught us how to spread out your opponent and beat him with the pass, and how to be fearless in doing it, and it's a trend that not only hasn't ended, it's been advanced by rules changes the league has authored to reward coaches that build their teams around the pass.

We have, by the way, one of those coaches right here in Green Bay. Mike McCarthy is Belichick 2.0. Yeah, a guy from Pittsburgh is the king of finesse offense. That's funny.

I know, you want stats, right? Of course, you do. Fans of the passing game live according to the stats; they can't live without them. OK, here are some stats.

The Steelers are ninth in passing and 18th in rushing this year. Yeah, the Steelers, the standard-bearers of run-the-ball football. Even they've abandoned the run for the pass.

Kansas City was last season's top rushing team. The Chiefs were No. 1 in rushing and No. 30 in passing and won, of course, no playoff games.

Oakland was the league's No. 2 rushing team and Jacksonville was No. 3. Neither team made it into the playoffs.

All of this, of course, is difficult for me to write because nobody, and I mean nobody, likes the running game better than I do. In my twisted perception of how football should be played, the mere idea of abandoning the run for the purpose of passing the ball is an admission of weakness. It's not manly to do that. Unfortunately, it's smart to do that because that's how you win in today's game.

I can tell you this: It's how the Packers win, and that's good enough for me, Mike.

What do you think?

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