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The ground game is a runaway winner

There is a runaway winner for newest trend in the NFL, but the trend is as old as the game itself.

Offenses have rededicated to the running game and the results have been impressive.

Statistically, this is the best rushing season since 1989. About two-thirds of the teams are rotating backs, and in some cases, there are three rotations.

The NFL's single-season record for 200-yard rushers (five) was surpassed last week when Denver's Terrell Davis rushed for 207 yards against Buffalo. The record was tied two weeks ago when Oakland's Napoleon Kaufman gained 227 yards against the Broncos.

There are 11 rushes for more than 60 yards this season, three shy of another single-season record.

There are almost three times as many 100-yard rushing performances (67) than 300-yard passers (23). In 1996, there were 103 100-yard rushers and 50 300-yard passers.

"There are a bunch of running backs out there that have the ability to make people miss," Denver coach Mike Shanahan said. "The emphasis is there obviously, because people have to run the football to win. Maybe that has something to do with it."

It also developed out of necessity. With the proliferation of zone-blitz schemes, teams needed to find a way to move the ball in a manner that minimized risk to quarterbacks.

Offenses also are finding the most basic way to move the ball can yield the biggest reward, especially if a defense sends too many players after the quarterback. The Broncos (7-1) won their first six games without John Elway passing for 300 yards. That marked the longest opening stretch Elway had gone without a 300-yard game since the 1990 season.

"People are doing so many different things like zone blitzes to try and pressure the quarterback that, all of a sudden because they've done that, they've forgotten about the rush a little bit," Elway said. "They're worrying so much about the quarterback that it's opening things up for the running game."

Seven teams are averaging 129.5 rushing yards or more. Denver (165.0), Pittsburgh (162.9), Tennessee (162.6) and San Francisco (138.3) are atop the league.

"You've got teams averaging 160 yards rushing now," Seahawks backfield coach Clarence Shelmon said. "It's an interesting dilemma. Teams that win pretty much play the two-back _ the Cowboys, the 49ers, the Packers. They utilize the fullback in the passing game and to block. They get you in situations where they can run and they wear you down. The 49ers are better now because they've got a two-back.

"I know this: If you can't run that ball, you're in trouble. Look at Dallas. They are very average because they can't run it, and if you can't run it you aren't going to be able to throw it."

Teams also are finding that the best way to beat the zone blitz may be with a rushing attack.

"Maybe with so much zone blitz, teams are running the ball more," Shelmon said. "Offenses try to spread out the defenders with receivers. Defenders (such as defensive linemen) are dropping into areas they aren't accustomed to, trying to make a play in space when they aren't space players. If he doesn't make the tackle, you've got a long run."

Seahawks offensive line coach Howard Mudd said defenses are geared more toward stopping the pass than the run.

"It's the two-deep concept," Mudd said. "When you have two safeties deep who are not involved in the running game, they are there to stop the pass. That leaves you seven players between the tackles to stop the run. If the run comes to a safety in the two-deep, that leaves the middle of the field open if the back can split the safeties."

GILBERT'S GOOF: One of the worst decisions this season came from Washington defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, who held out for a $5-million contract.

Gilbert apparently thought the league's worst run defense couldn't play without him. He was right _ three opponents have rushed for more than 200 yards against the Redskins and Bam Morris became the fifth back to have more than 100 _ but his holdout hasn't changed anything.

Now, with a Tuesday deadline looming, Gilbert has dropped his demands from $5-million to $4.5-million. The Redskins say they are willing to raise their offer from $3.6-million to $4 million. If Gilbert isn't signed by Tuesday, he'll be forced to sit out the season.

There are only a handful of players who can name their price, and Gilbert is not one of them. In the NFL, more than in any other league, holdouts are resulting in failure, and Gilbert should have realized that compromise is better than no compensation.

STAYING THE COURSE: Falcons owner Rankin Smith died Sunday, but all indications are the Smith family will maintain ownership.

Smith recently had purchased a number of high-premium insurance policies so his heirs would not be burdened by estate taxes that could force a sale. Rankin and Taylor Smith, the son who has run the team for several years, said recently that the family would maintain ownership.

SOFT SCHEDULE: The 49ers first eight opponents have a combined record of 14-27, with Tampa Bay and Carolina providing nine of the 14 victories. Their opponents in the next eight games have a record of 40-24.

Dallas represents the first of what will be "real" tests for San Francisco. The observation has not been lost on the 49ers.

"We understand this," safety Tim McDonald said. "Everybody said at first, "Wait 'til they get to Carolina.' And the same thing's going to be said with Dallas. It's like every week, we've just got to continue to do our thing because people are going to find something bad to say about every game.

"If we beat Dallas, they'll say, "Well, Dallas has been struggling. Who's the next guy?'

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TAKE THAT: It might have been a coincidence, or perhaps it was the Silverdome's way of exacting revenge against the Lions, who are committed to moving to a new stadium in Detroit.

Either way, the Lions found themselves conducting practice in a cramped, converted storage shed Monday. There were lights and a 30-yard strip of turf, but the ceiling was so low they couldn't throw the ball long, couldn't punt and couldn't work on placekicking. Position groups had to take turns on individual drills. One group had to stay out of the way while another worked.

The Lions couldn't use the Silverdome because it was being prepared for a U2 concert Friday night and they couldn't use their grass practice field Monday because heavy weekend rains left standing water all over the field. Supposedly, a stage was being set up for the concert on Monday, but as of Wednesday, there was still no stage in the dome.

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