BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The Tom Brady-Bill Belichick dynasty actually lacks something: a 100-yard rusher in the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots.
Perhaps that’s the best way to explain why it’s been a decade since a title game winner reached a mark often reserved for Super Bowl MVPs. It also illustrates how the game has changed since Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis were carrying the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos to championships.
Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles will be the 20th since the last time a running back was the MVP: Davis.
“I think gone are probably the days of the one running back that carries the ball 35 times,” Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “People use running backs in a lot of different roles and they use running backs, I don’t want to say by committee, but by specialty.”
That’s a pretty good way to describe both these teams, who have combined for just three 100-yard rushing games all season.
Jay Ajayi, the heralded midseason acquisition by the Eagles in a trade, doesn’t have the one for Philadelphia. It belongs to LeGarrette Blount, who led the Patriots with just 31 yards last year when New England threw almost non-stop in the second half while rallying from 25 points down to beat Atlanta.
The most recent Super Bowl winner with a 100-yard rusher was Indianapolis with Dominic Rhodes in 2007, which incidentally included a 100-yard game for Chicago’s Thomas Jones.
The last 100-yard rusher in the Super Bowl was Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch against the Patriots three years ago, when the Seahawks infamously threw an interception at the goal line instead of giving the ball to their bruising runner for the potential winning touchdown.
“There was a period of time where the running back position was being — quote, unquote — devalued in some way,” said Ajayi, who had two 100-yard games for Miami before the trade and is averaging 59 yards in nine games, including the playoffs, with the Eagles.
“As of recent, if you look across the league, especially on our team, the running game is essential,” Ajayi said. “For me personally, I take pride in showcasing how the position can be a game-changer in every game.”
The Eagles finished third in rushing during the regular season and had a pair of 200-yard games. They have restored a three-back rotation despite the season-ending injury to Darren Sproles. Ajayi and Blount get help from third-down back Corey Clement.
“I think the teams that have an opportunity to go to the postseason, they do have the ability to run the football,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “You have to stay patient and diligent there. That’s something we’ve been able to do all season long. It’s something we stay committed to.”
Dion Lewis had both of New England’s 100-yard games and averaged almost 5 yards per carry. He also had three receiving touchdowns to go with six rushing scores. James White and Rex Burkhead also had three receiving TDs apiece.
“There’s no position group that’s going to touch the ball more than the running back except for the quarterback,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.
“Whether you hand it to them, throw it to them, screen it to them, spread them about, throw to them outside the backfield, they’re going to have the ball in space because they’re the best runners on your team. We’ve always believed in that.”
The closest thing to a 100-yard Super Bowl rusher for the Patriots under Brady and Belichick was in their first trip. Antowain Smith had 92 yards when New England beat St. Louis in 2002.
“Game’s different than the way it was when I first got in the league,” said Lewis, a seventh-year pro. “I think as a running back, you’ve just got to be more versatile, be able to do a lot of things so you can get the ball in your hands as much as possible.”
Some of those things aren’t necessarily new — swing passes to running backs, screens to receivers, other glorified running plays that count as passes.
And Schwartz says the run-pass options the Eagles use aren’t really new either, even though it seems that way as a popular Super Bowl week topic with backup quarterback Nick Foles finishing Philadelphia’s path to the title game after Carson Wentz’s season-ending knee injury.
There have been other tricks through the years as well.
“The Patriots used to do a little jet sweep where they’d tap the ball forward from the quarterback, almost like a volleyball tap,” Schwartz said. “That goes down as a pass. When it’s all said and done, you don’t get any extra points for running the ball across the goal line.”
While Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley agrees that it’s a passing league, he doesn’t think much of it being so long since a Super Bowl winner had a 100-yard rusher.
“All I know is for the Eagles to win,” the former Philadelphia running back said, “we’ve got to run the ball.”