AFC West teams breaking new ground

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Oct 14, 2005

Dec. 8, 2005) -- LaMont Jordan is on pace to rush for more than 1,125 yards, yet hasn't been able to lift Oakland's running game to respectability in the AFC West.

Fans of the wide open, full-throttle passing shows of the old AFL must be wondering whatever happened to the days of throwing often and throwing deep. In the AFL, caution, not to mention down and distance, was thrown to the wind like a spiral from your own end zone.

The AFC West in 2005 is a division Vince Lombardi would admire, with a philosophy that says the best thing about rushing for four yards on first down is the opportunity to gain four more on second down.

Jordan, a backup to Curtis Martin for four years with the New York Jets, signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract with the Raiders specifically to become a featured back in a division that demands it.

The Raiders are making him work for his money. With 233 carries for 844 yards and 61 receptions for 493 yards, Jordan's 294 touches are third in the NFL.

Oakland might have made the season's biggest offseason move when it acquired Randy Moss, but it is Jordan, at 5-foot-10 and 230 pounds, who has become the hub of the offense with a league-high 83.5 percent of his team's rushes.

All that work, and still Jordan barely has made a dent in the AFC West. The Raiders (4-8) bring up the rear in the standings and rushing statistics in a division dominated by three of the NFL's most high-powered running attacks.

Jordan, who will visit his old team Dec. 11 when the Raiders face the Jets at the Meadowlands, was lamenting as much after a recent loss.

"I feel like I let the organization and the fans down," Jordan said. "I was brought in here to bring our running game back to the top, and clearly we're at the bottom. I was brought in to help the team have some explosiveness to the offense and have balance. We don't have that."

Considering the quality of opposition in the division, Jordan is being overly hard on himself.

The Denver Broncos, atop the AFC West at 9-3, are second in the NFL in rushing, gaining 162.8 yards per game with the tandem of Mike Anderson (200 carries, 850 yards) and Tatum Bell (111 carries, 686 yards), supplemented of late by former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne (28 carries, 177 yards).

The Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) are fourth in the NFL with 140.6 rushing yards per game and boast the NFL's hottest back. Larry Johnson, the AFC Offensive Player of the Month for November, has 1,108 yards even though he didn't take over full-time duties until Priest Holmes was lost to injury after seven games.

The San Diego Chargers (8-4) have LaDainian Tomlinson, who coach Marty Schottenheimer believes is not only the best back in the league, but the best who has ever put on a uniform. Tomlinson has 1,172 yards rushing. He also has 17 touchdowns on the ground, plus two more receiving and three touchdown passes.

San Diego is ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing with 132.9 yards per game.

The Raiders, meanwhile, haven't been able to supplement Jordan's rushing totals with production from another back. They have improved only moderately from No. 32 in 2004 to No. 28 at 84.9 yards per game.

Add it all up and AFC West teams have run for 6,254 yards, gained 4.4 yards per carry and scored 65 touchdowns on the ground -- far outdistancing any of the other seven divisions.

"When you look at numbers, I don't think there's any division any better," Schottenheimer said. "Denver does it with more than one back. They've put as many as three guys in there. But when you look at what Kansas City and Oakland and we do, I would think that's as good as there is."

Raiders defensive tackle Ed Jasper, who played in Philadelphia and Atlanta before signing with Oakland as a free agent, said rushing defense is Job 1.

"You've got to be able to stop the run in this division, and you've got to do it week in, and week out, because somebody is coming in with some good backs and a good line," Jasper said. "That's what the AFC West is built on."

Atlanta, Jasper said, stole Denver's stretch plays, cut blocks and bootlegs when Jim Mora hired former Broncos line coach Alex Gibbs. The Falcons, with their attack rooted in the AFC West, are the NFL's top rushing team at 177.8 yards per game.

In his 11th season with the Broncos, Mike Shanahan has had five different running backs break 1,000 yards -- Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis and Reuben Droughns. Three of them -- Davis (three times), Portis (twice) and Anderson -- have broken 1,400 yards.

Shanahan told the Rocky Mountain News the first inclination of a young coach is to show off X's and O's by coming out throwing.

"Then you get a little older, call a few games, win some, lose some, and it's pretty clear," Shanahan said. "If you can't run the ball, none of the things you want to do are going to work that well. And to run the ball, you have to commit to it. It isn't a part-time thing. It's full time. It takes commitment."

The Chiefs' fortunes might have swung on a single running play against Oakland on Nov. 6 at Arrowhead Stadium. Trailing 23-20 and with time running out, Johnson caught a pass out of the backfield and ran 36 yards to the 1-yard line.

With five seconds remaining, there was time for one more snap. Coach Dick Vermeil could either call for a field-goal attempt to send the game into overtime or go for the victory.

Johnson leaped into the end zone from the 1, the Chiefs prevailed 27-23, and quarterback Trent Green said Vermeil's decision was a clear message "to get that yard because that's what we do."

Tomlinson is 28 yards shy of joining Eric Dickerson and Eddie George as the only players to reach 1,200 yards rushing in each of their first five seasons. And he feels he's getting better.

"I'm a much smarter player. I recognize what the defense is doing much faster than I did when I first came into the league," Tomlinson said. "I can have kind of a pre-snap read of knowing what might happen."

Since winning their third consecutive division title in 2002, the Raiders are 2-15 in the AFC West, in large part because they have given up 162.9 yards per game on the ground in those games and have gained only 69. Their AFC West foes have had 10 100-yard rushers in those 17 games -- Tomlinson did it four times -- and Oakland doesn't have any.

Turner knows a good runner when he sees one. As an offensive coordinator in Dallas, Miami and San Diego -- and a head coach in Washington -- his offenses churned out 1,200-yard-plus rushers in Emmitt Smith, Terry Allen, Stephen Davis, Ricky Williams and Tomlinson.

He likes Jordan's work in his first year carrying the load. Turner thinks Jordan eventually will lead the sort of strong running game that will set up a downfield passing attack.

It is Turner's belief that a running game should have a few go-to plays, but be adjusted each week, based on the opponent.

Jordan, having impatiently watched the rest of the AFC West run on its own terms, isn't so sure.

"I see offenses that run their running plays," Jordan said. "They're going to run their schemes regardless. They don't come into a game saying, 'We can't do this because this because a team does that.' "