Gregg Easterbrook took a look yesterday at how rushing is becoming less and less relevant in the NFL. He gives a nod to Football Outsiders' point about how an effective passing game is inherently more productive than an equally effective running game, but his theory is bigger.
Specifically, he contends that the ballooning weights of linemen leave fewer holes for running backs to go through. There just is simply less space to make headway. I don't doubt that there is some truth to that.
However, rushing games are still flourishing in college. Four of the last five national champions have finished in the top 12 in the country in rushing. Easterbrook himself points out that linemen are getting bigger in college just like the NFL (though not to the same degree), so if that's all there was to it, then rushing should be less important on this level by now as well.
I'll give you three reasons why rushing is still highly relevant to the college game.
1. The NFL's rushing game hasn't evolved much.
The Dolphins introduced the Wildcat to the NFL, but it's still seen as a bit of a gimmick. Prior to that, the biggest new thing in the NFL rushing game was the zone blocking scheme that Mike Shanahan and Alex Gibbs used to create a factory of 1,000-yard rushers in Denver. Of course, at this point that scheme has been subsumed into the mainstream.
Overall, the NFL really only has about five rushing plays that everybody runs. You can dress them up to look like different things, and NFL coaches are really good at it. Ultimately though, it's still just a set of five plays. NFL defensive coordinators are not fools, and they all know how to stop them. There's much more room for creativity within the NFL offensive model in the passing game, so that's where the focus is going.
2. The spread-to-run philosophy has not caught on in the NFL.
The spread-to-run philosophy has revitalized rushing games throughout the college level, and just about everyone uses it now to some degree. It helps to clear out the middle of the field a bit, creating more space where all those big bodies that Easterbrook talks of had been crowding it. With receivers talking up a lot of horizontal real estate, fewer guys can be dedicated to the area between the tackles. It's brilliant in its simplicity, and it works.
Some NFL teams have adopted spread-to-run elements, such as the Wildcat and the Pistol (which isn't a spread thing inherently, but works best with a spread formation). However, there really aren't any dedicated followers of the philosophy. Some of that has to do with the speed of NFL defenses, which counteracts a few of the advantages of the spread run game. Some of it has to do with the fact that a lot of people think you can't use the spread-to-run philosophy without a running quarterback (not true, though it helps). Regardless of reason the spread-to-run could breathe some fresh air into the stale NFL running game, but no one seems willing to commit to it yet.
3. College football doesn't have the talent homogeneity that the NFL does.
Because there are only 32 NFL teams, everyone can get really good players. Even the worst starters in the NFL could start for just about any college team. It's no surprise that the running game is seeing diminishing returns because there's less nuance to it than there is to the passing game. Yes blocking schemes and defensive fronts can be complex, but the NFL rushing game ultimately hinges on big guys pushing one another. The difference between everyone's big guys in the NFL has slowly become smaller over the years.
In college, you've got 120 teams in I-A and 66 teams in BCS conferences. There are plenty of programs to spread the top high school talent around to, and there's a larger spectrum of coaching prowess. You can create a talent and schematic disparity more readily in college, especially since the salary cap restricts the acquisition of talent far greater than the 85 scholarship limit does. Teams that don't use a spread-to-run philosophy much (Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, etc.) can better succeed with pro-style running than NFL teams can as a result, so it thrives more in college than on the professional level.