Monday, January 28, 2008

What Matters Most: Brandon Jacobs – The Iron Horse


Normally, TiT throws up the Five That Matter each week, discussing the important games to be watching for. This is the Super Bowl, however, and in two weeks, everything is going to matter. But because we can't discuss every single part of the game, we're going to spend the time in between now and then looking at the characters, settings, and conflicts that matter most to Super Bowl XLII. Today, Giants RB Brandon Jacobs.

There are times when football is beautiful to watch. Randy Moss grabs a ball out of the air, defying gravity, and we all look in awe. Adrian Peterson spins away from a tackle, and everyone stands and reacts; it’s the age old sports cliché of poetry in motion. Those are the times when all the stereotypes of football being a game played by brutes seem to fall away.

A Brandon Jacobs run is not one of those times. Indeed, he’s looks like something of a relic, given the way that the game has gone so vertical over the last several years. Every time he gets the ball, there’s a sense that something bad is going to happen to a defender. Some running backs make people miss. Rare running backs attack defenders early when the opportunity presents itself. Jacobs, on the other hand, is something else entirely. The hits that he takes, which he seems to create as much as defenders do, are like side effects, afterthoughts to his greater plan. It never looks like there’s any improvisation to his game; he is simply going to run the routes he’s given, like a destination driven machine. God save the unlucky defender standing between point A and point B.

It shows most at the goal line. Defenses know he’s getting the ball, and yet he keeps coming, keeps running his route, driving through anything in his way and arriving in the end zone. His more powerful runs evoke the kind of feelings I imagine little kids used to have when they saw a train thunder by. Jacobs is, essentially, everything that Tiki wasn’t. Tiki was graceful; Jacobs is punishing. Tiki was improvisational in the backfield; Jacobs runs simply and matter of factly. More importantly, Tiki frequently looked uninterested in what he was doing, despite the fact that he was, when he wanted to be, a brilliant offensive player; every run by the Iron Horse looks important, largely due to the aforementioned brutality with which they often conclude.

All of this makes Jacobs sound decidedly old school, but what is more accurate to say is that Brandon Jacobs represents the next dramatic evolutionary step of the power back. The image of the “power back” who takes joy in collisions with defenders was first fully embodied by Jim Brown. Backs like Ricky Williams, in his prime, and Marion Barber III represent the natural physical development of the Jim Brown mold in the modern NFL because they seem or seemed to take joy in the power of their collisions.

Jacobs represents not merely a superficial development of the same mold, but a new mold entirely. The passion, the desire to create violence for violence’s sake, that seemed or seems to drive the painful collisions of all three of those men is nowhere to be found at the heart Jacobs’s style. This may seem like a jarring disconnect, given the fact that Jacobs on average days creates collisions as brutal as any of Brown’s, Williams’s, or Barber’s, but it actually makes perfect sense. The goal of any running back is to make the run they’ve been assigned work. Some backs, upon realizing that their planned path is unavailable, change paths and improvise well outside of the set play. Most power backs, in responding to obstacles in their path, attack defenders, essentially ambushing them with violence before they expected it, in the hopes that they can create chaos in the defense, which will allow them to return to their path.

Jacobs, on the other hand, runs with such precision, such unwavering dedication to his routes, that violent contact isn’t part of a plan; it is a foregone conclusion, as inevitable as an exhale after a deep breath. Defenders will inevitably find their way into Jacobs’s path from time to time, and where a small back would dodge or a traditional power back would attempt to create contact early, Jacobs will remain steadfast on his path, which means that his initial contact with defenders will take place with both him and his opponent primed for impact, which explains the stunning way in which defenders are often thrown away from Jacobs on contact. It is a total disregard for any concept of pain resulting in explosions of human force the likes of which are usually reserved for injuries, all performed by a man with no more malice than any other machine designed for violent tasks, as evidenced by the way Jacobs seamlessly moves past the violence he causes as soon as it takes place.

He’ll be asked to do his brutal work again when he faces the Patriots in Arizona. As good a defense as they are, the Patriots aren’t prepared for the kind of force that Jacobs brings, and if he gets past that front line, which he usually does after linemen stop trying to attack him directly in order to avoid the full force of Jacobs’s rush, there will be hell to pay for some unfortunate linebackers or, if God answers my prayers, Rodney Harrison. If the Giants are smart, they won’t try to rely on their most dynamic weapon, Plaxico Burress, to beat the Pats; stopping dynamic tools has been how Belichick has made his bones in the League. Instead, they’ll make Belichick answer the question that I’m most interested in myself: How do you game plan against something that is equal parts simple and relentless? How do you stop a freight train from reaching its destination? How do you stop a full speed Brandon Jacobs going from point A to point B?

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