SCHMIDT: The day the running back died

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Poof. And just like that they were gone.

Tennessee’s Chris Johnson pocketed his millions and went quietly into the night. Houston’s Arian Foster is an oft-talked about, infrequently seen phantom. Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles and his poor ACL have been banished to the sidelines. Baltimore’s Ray Rice, Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall, San Francisco’s Frank Gore – all of them silent, transparent non-factors.

If it weren’t for the great Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings I’d be convinced that the concept of deploying running backs in the NFL had been completely abandoned, disallowed in lieu of high-flying aerial assaults and gunslinger mentalities.

The running back, it seems, is an endangered species. You may still see Peterson gallivanting in the end zone, or Oakland’s Darren McFadden outrunning chump linebackers between the hash marks, but the frequency of witnessing greatness on the ground has been significantly reduced. The days of triple-digit rushing yards are history.

Bye-bye. Sayonara. Smell you later.

Meanwhile, New England quarterback Tom Brady and his passer friendly cohorts are having a ball. The reigning MVP has thrown for a gaudy, vaguely selfish, 940 yards in the first two games. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, the unproven rookie who seems to think he’s God’s gift to forward progress, has piled up an equally ridiculous 854 yards.

San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers has 715. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees has 689. The ancient, left-for-dead Matt Hasselbeck of the Tennessee Tians even has 621 of his own.

And so on. Didn’t their mothers teach them how to share?

In Week 1, quarterbacks played keep-away from the tailback like a grade school bully. They tallied – brace yourself – an NFL record 7,842 total yards, which is even more preposterous when you consider that Minnesota’s Donovan McNabb only had 39. Fourteen QB’s topped the 300-yard mark, also an NFL record.

The number of running backs who went over a buck was half of that. And the league’s leader in rushing yards after Week 2 is the tragically generic Fred Jackson, whose 229 yards for the Buffalo Bills is 10 more than the equally mundane Ben Tate of the Houston Texans.

Blah. Ho-hum. Right now Brady is laughing at their pitiful attempts at yardage. Newton is devising new ways to ignore his highly priced back DeAngelo Williams. The disdain for balanced attacks will probably be at an all-time high in Week 3.

The culprit for this dramatic shift, as you may have expected, are defenses. Not that they want quarterbacks to abuse them and air mail passes over their heads all day. They just don’t really have a choice.

Over the last couple years the NFL higher-ups have drastically limited defenders’ most potent weapon: tackling. As in they can’t do it anymore. At least not effectively. Back in the day, linebackers were, you know, allowed to hit the quarterback. Safeties could throw themselves at crossing receivers without fear of getting fined through the nose. Men were men. Football was football. And the running back reigned.

But the head injuries piled up in neat little stacks. Concussions were as frequent as stubbed toes. Former players — including Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest and donated his brain to science — suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury caused by repeated jarring to the cranium.

So, and probably for good reason but no less saddening, the hammer and blood and thunder was removed from football.

Quarterbacks were rendered off-limits. Monstrous fines were distributed to offenders of the new law of pacifism. Big-hitters became gun shy. Passing became easier. Tough-nosed runners became obsolete.

And so football has changed. For better or worse, well that’s hard to say. Carries are down, injuries are down, and the passing yards continue to skyrocket. Brady is the king of the revolution, Newton his prince. Peterson, the court jester, trying desperately to attract attention in a world where no one cares about him anymore.

Sept. 8, 2011. The day that smash mouth football died. R.I.P.

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