Running back to nostalgia

Posted: 8:30 a.m.

Willie Anderson's nostalgic call for a return to the old, physical days of 2003 and 2004 scrap and iron ("We got away from digging ditches and mines. Now we're using machines") centered on himself, his offensive line, and the running game.

But the man that has been impacted the most by such things is quarterback Carson Palmer. Like any other quarterback on the planet but Brett Favre, he's as good as his running game.

If you're looking for reasons why Palmer is leading the NFL in interceptions this season, don't look at the knee injury he suffered during the 2005 playoffs. In fact, be amazed that his overall numbers are the same, if not better, in the face of a declining running game.

Not only that, but a running game that is playing defenses challenging the Bengals to run the ball. It's not about challenging play selection. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski showed his commitment to the running game last month against the Jets.

But the run hasn't been as productive. Look at the rushing stats since the '05 season. Ever so slightly, the running numbers are down and the pass attempts are up.

In Palmer's first two seasons as the starter in 2004 and 2005, the Bengals ran the ball at a 4.84-yard clip at 28 times per game as Palmer threw it 34 times per game. That's a stretch he averaged 1.72 touchdown passes and one interception per game while completing 64.6 percent of his passes at 7.2 yards per attempt.

In the 26 games since, the Bengals have fallen to 3.64 yards per rush with two fewer carries a game at 26 attempts. With that running game, Palmer's attempts are up to 34.6 per game, but his numbers are the same if not better. His completion percentage is down to 63.7 percent, but his yards per attempt are 7.6.

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Anderson

But what Anderson is talking about goes beyond numbers. He's not talking about coaching, because the two men who have been the leading architects of one of the NFL's strongest running games over the past 15 years are still in place in running backs coach Jim Anderson and offensive line coach Paul Alexander.

Willie Anderson includes himself in the problem because he sees himself as "a piece of the puzzle" in the offensive line that hopes he returns as soon as this Sunday against Tennessee after a four-game absence.

"We have to go back to the mindset of being scrappy, a bunch of (under)dogs, tough guys. Even the skilled guys. I think we've lost that, myself included," Anderson said.

But his team had it the last time Anderson played, a 38-31 victory in which the Bengals hammered the Jets with running Kenny Watson's 130 yards. In the four games since, they've amassed just 261 yards on the ground.

The Bengals have been brilliant in protecting Palmer. In allowing just 14 sacks they are among the NFL leaders in allowing sacks per pass and are on pace to allow only one more than the club record at 22.

But the running numbers continue to dwindle.

"It's not one guy about the running game," Anderson said. "It's not just about the running back ... we can be a good team. It's how we go about directing the running game. We're a bunch of big guys. We have to get in attack mode. Our big guys and little guys.

"Sometimes we have so much to work with, you want to try and use everything you got. Sometimes that's not a bad idea."

But maybe not now. With the Bengals averaging below four yards per carry in the last 26 games, they are 11-15. In the previous 32 games, they were 19-13.

Sure, there are a lot of factors. The defense hasn't been the same, either, since Odell Thurman played in 2005. But in the last 26 games they've averaged 23.8 points per game. In the previous 32 it was a full point higher at 24.8.

Anderson lumps 2003 into the discussion, Palmer's rookie season in which he watched Jon Kitna take all the snaps. But it was the same deal; the Bengals averaged 4.1 yards per rush and the man that had thrown nearly as many TDs as interceptions had just 15 picks, one more than Palmer now has in 10 games. That was a season the Bengals averaged 30 runs a game because they could.

Anderson says the Bengals now go into games thinking they're better than teams instead of saying, "We have to do a lot to beat this team."

"We played New England and came within a Jon Kitna interception of winning," said Anderson of the '04 game Palmer had to leave in the third quarter with a knee injury. "We're in that game because we scratched it out. We ran the ball, we were tough. We played tough, physical football. Chad (Johnson) was running reverses, T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) was catching balls over the middle. We were a scrappy team. We weren't trying to be glamorous. We couldn't afford to be."

There has been more trauma to the running game than the passing game since '05. The retirement of the linchpin, center Rich Braham, and the injuries to Anderson and left tackle Levi Jones have been the most damaging. The emergence of left guard Andrew Whitworth has neutralized the free-agent loss of Eric Steinbach. In fact, at 340 pounds, Whitworth gives the Bengals 50 more reasons than Steinbach to be more physical.

But Anderson is talking more about mentality than personnel, anyway.

"We have to get back to that attack mode," he said.

Anderson hopes to be a part of it this season, but first he has to figure out how he and the team want to deal with his knee and a 3-7 record. On his 12th season, Anderson wants to make sure he makes it to his 15th. And he also wants to make sure he's playing at a Pro Bowl level.

He has also caught the message boards on Bengals.com, saying "Willie should just leave." Anderson knows people have the right, but it still makes him wonder when he's donated his body to a franchise for which he'll play his 180th game when next called.

"This is what we choose to do as a career," Anderson said. "It's our job. It's our career. People have their opinions. Sometimes it's hard not to listen to them. Because we all pride ourselves on being able to play with injury and playing through pain. That's part of the game. If I had continued to play, I was going to hurt myself or hurt someone else not being at full capacity."

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