Sept. 10 (Bloomberg) -- National Football League teams finished with the fewest rushing yards in the opening week of a season since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002.
While defending rushing champion Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings had a 78-yard touchdown run on his very first carry of the season, Lesean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles and Shane Vereen of the New England Patriots were the only running backs to surpass 100 rushing yards during Week 1, with Vereen just one yard over. A record six quarterbacks had more than 350 passing yards in opening games.
NFL teams combined for 2,964 rushing yards through the first 16 games, an average of 185 a game. The lowest previous Week 1 rushing totals over the past 12 years were 3,092 yards last season and 3,136 in 2003, according to research by Bloomberg Sports’ StatsInsights.com.
“It’s the style of the game now,” Gil Brandt, a former vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys and now an NFL.com analyst, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a passing league now and it starts in high school. Then they go to college and that’s become a pass-oriented game.”
The only other player with more than 100 rushing yards in Week 1 was Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who ran for 112 on 13 carries. Three quarterbacks surpassed 400 passing yards: Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos (462), Eli Manning of the New York Giants (450) and Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers (412).
During the decade of the 1970s, five quarterbacks threw for more than 400 yards in a game.
“All you have to do is look and see how the running game is treated in the draft now,” Brandt said.
This year marked the first time since 1963 that no running backs were taken in the opening round of the NFL draft.
Peterson, who rushed for 2,097 yards last season to finish nine yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record, ran for 93 yards on 18 carries in the Vikings’ 34-24 season-opening loss to the Detroit Lions two days ago.
Matthew Stafford had 357 passing yards in leading the Lions to victory, joining the Manning brothers, Kaepernick, Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens and Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints with more than 350 passing yards. Matt Schaub threw for 346 yards last night in leading the Houston Texans to a 31-28 comeback win over the San Diego Chargers.
Rushing yards were much harder to come by in Week 1.
Lead backs Arian Foster, Doug Martin, Matt Forte, Darren McFadden, Trent Richardson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, Ray Rice, C.J. Spiller and BenJarvus Green-Ellis combined for 501 yards on 187 runs, an average of 2.7 yards a carry. The New York Jets’ leading rusher, at 47 yards on six carries, was rookie quarterback Geno Smith; running backs Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory combined for 44 yards on 22 rushes.
NFL rule changes have helped the passing game. Quarterbacks and wide receivers have more protection from being hit, while penalties for pass interference, defensive holding and illegal contact are more strictly enforced.
“It’s almost impossible to play pass defense in the NFL right now,” said former Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer, who’s now an NFL analyst for ESPN.
Brandt said that, in 1956, a quarter of the NFL’s then-12 teams had Hall of Fame starting quarterbacks, with none of them completing more than 57 percent of their passes or throwing for more touchdown than interceptions.
Brees connected on an NFL-record 71.2 percent of his passes in 2011, when he also set a league mark with 5,476 passing yards. Twenty-one quarterbacks completed more than 60 percent of their passes in Week 1, with six topping 70 percent.
“It’s an evolution that starts with the high school, and moves to college and now the coaches get this sort of accuracy and talent and they are going to throw the ball,” Brandt said.
There have been four 400-yard passing games by rookie quarterbacks, all in the last two seasons.
Of the nine highest single-season passing yardage totals, eight have come in the past five years.
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