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The Truth about Running vs Passing and Team Success


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All season long I've read complaints on this board as well as every other football board I visit about running the ball. There is a fairly large segment of fans who seem to think that every non-3rd and long play should be a run and that running will cure all.

I've found this a little surprising since Stephen Davis led the NFC and Priest Holmes the NFL in rushing last year and both their teams sat home for the playoffs, but I haven't said much. But now that the season is over and we can examine the facts about 2002.

First I want to mention that Spurrier does run more than some seem to believe. The Redskins have 392 carries by running backs (not QBs or WRs) this year. That figure ties them with Indy for 11th in the league in running back carries, although SF will almost certainly knock both teams to 12th after Monday Night Football.

My real point, however, is that running the ball does not give teams a better chance at the playoffs than passing the ball. To see what I'm talking about, please look at the lists of the top-10 rushers and passers and notice the playoff fates of both.

Top 10 rushers

1. Ricky Wiliams - 1853 - Didn't make playoffs

2. Ladanian Tomlinson - 1683 - Didn't make playoffs

3. Priest Holmes - 1615 - Didn't make playoffs

4. Clinton Portis - 1508 - Didn't make playoffs

5. Travis Henry - 1438 - Didn't make playoffs

6. Deuce McAllister - 1388 - Didn't make playoffs

7. Tiki Barber - 1386 - Wild Card (5th seed)

8. Jamal Lewis - 1327 - Didn't make playoffs

9. Fred Taylor - 1314 - Didn't make playoffs

10. Corey Dillon - 1258 - Worst team in football

Top 10 passers

1. Rich Gannon - 4689 - No. 1 seed in AFC

2. Drew Bledsoe - 4359 - Didn't make playoffs

3. Peyton Manning - 4198 - Wild Card (5th seed)

4. Kerry Collins - 4076 - Wild Card (5th seed)

5. Dante Culpepper - 3859 - Didn't make playoffs

6. Tom Brady - 3762 - Didn't make playoffs

7. Trent Green - 3690 - Didn't make playoffs

8. Brett Favre - 3658 - NFC North Champs (#2 or #3 seed)

9. Aaron Brooks - 3574 - Didn't make playoffs

10. Steve McNair - 3387 - AFC North Champs (#2 seed)

* Jeff Garcia - 3328 w/1 game left - NFC West Champs (#3 or #4 seed)

So, only 1 of the top 10 rushers made the playoffs as a wild card while 5 of the top 10 passers made it including 3 division champs and 2 wild cards. This is true whether Garcia eclipses McNair or not.

An interesting conincidence I noticed is that of the 5 teams with QBs on the second list who did not make the playoffs, 3 also had running backs on on the first list. The Giants are the only team with players on both lists who did make the playoffs.

My conclusion: The NFL is now a passing league and passing teams have a better chance of making the playoffs than running teams do.

My secondary conclusion: Merrill Hoge is an idiot.

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I think the goal is balance. If a Defense can dictate what an Offense is going to do, they will win most times. I think the main complaint that SOS has had over his coaching career is that sometimes he lets Defenses frustrate him into going away from the run completely. What most of us gripe about is when you can start to see that happening and we KNOW what the results are going to be and we are praying and begging for SOS to not give up on balance.

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You've got to be able to pass because passing is how a team racks up points.

The problem with sticking to running and ball control is that a team con dominate a game, but then a fluke play can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It is also a formula that is ultimately destined to fail as the competition gets better, i.e., the playoffs.

The ability to strike downfield is a must. It generates points. As Richie Pettitbone said, the point of running the ball is to slow down the pass rush. Running is also good for sitting on a lead in the late going.

BTW, Collins threw for > 4K yds????!!!!!!!!

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Your stat does suprise me.

I recall an argument (coming to a vastly different conclusion) some years ago: If you ranked the NFL teams (then 28 or so) according to rushing yardage, and then made a second list, sorted by final W-L record, the two lists would be identical (except #16 and #17 would be swapped).

I will point out that your stat doesn't consider teams that have more than 1 RB.

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I kind of agree with your assessment DBL, however I think that you need to cite a bit more than one season as evidence of you claim. I'd do it myself, but I'm about to head out to work.

Anyway, as previously mentioned I think balance is key. If you can run AND pass well, it not only enables you to keep the defense off balance but it also allows you to be able to take advantage of any potential weaknessess a given defense has. This is why I think the FNG will ultimately be successful in the NFL. It's predicated on taking whatever the defense gives you rather than running a set play regardless of what the defense is doing.

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Larry, you are absolutely right that by citing only the top running backs I ignored multiple RB teams - SF being the best example. That does even things up more, although it still doesn't show the correlation between running and success that some would lead us to believe exists. I'll post those #'s below.

Yusuf06, I understand why you would want more than one season's worth of data to prove anything. However, part of my point is that the NFL has become a passing league. This has happened gradually over a period of time, but this season it is more true than ever. That's why league-wide records, most importantly scoring records, have fallen this year.

Anyway, I'm not really sure I'm trying to prove anything. What I'm trying to do is disprove the notion that running is the only way or best way to achieve success. Personally, I'm a believer that there's more than one way to skin a cat.


OK, part of the reason I didn't use team totals for rushing is that some playoff teams got a significant % of their yards from their QBs (Vick, McNabb, McNair, Garcia). Since most of these yards come on called pass plays and my main argument is with those that complain so strenuously about play calling I didn't want to include this. But I can see how that isn't fair to a team like SF where they use running back by committe and I know an argument could be made that a coach like Dan Reeves knows he's going to get a certain amount of rush attempts out of the pass plays he calls for Vick.

So here's the top-10 overall rushing teams (by average since SF still has a game left):

1. Miami - no playoffs

2. Minnesota - no playoffs

3. Atlanta - Wild Card (#6 seed)

4. Kansas City - no playoffs

5. Denver - no playoffs

6. Philly - #1 NFC seed

7. SF - NFC West Champs (#4 seed)

8. SD - no playoffs

9. Pittsburgh - NFC North Champs (#3 seed)

10. Jacksonville - no playoffs, coach about to be fired

So, we are up to 4 of 10 looking at it this way. Again, at least 2 of the 4 and maybe 3 of them got a significant % of their rush yards from the QB position.

Top-10 passing teams:

1. Oakland - #1 AFC

2. St. Louis -no playoffs

3. Buffalo - no playoffs

4. Seattle - no playoffs

5. Indy - Wild card (#5 seed)

6. Denver - no playoffs

7. NY Giants - Wild card (#6)

8. Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh?) - AFCN Champs (#3)

9. Minnesota - no playoffs (lots of offense for a bad team)

10. Green Bay - NFCN Champs (#3)

So the passing side again comes out ahead 5 to 4, although it is much closer than in my original post.

Just for the hell of it, here's the top-10 teams in terms of Running back yardage only:

1. Miami - still not in

2. Denver - not in

3. KC - not in

4. SD - not in

5. Giants - #5 NFC

6. Minnesota - not in

7. Green Bay - #3 NFC

8. Jax - not in

9. SF - #4 NFC

10. Washington - (Steve Spurrier's pass happy Washington Redskins?) Not in :(

So, we have 3 of 10 on the Running Back Only list. Atlanta and Philly both fell out of the top-10 when their QBs are removed.



1) While I probably overstated my case in the original post, passing teams still outperformed running teams.

2) Running QBs are very helpful

3) I'm an incredible dork with too much time on his hands

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It's the balanced teams that performed the best. Teams that force defenses to defend the entire field with a credible run and pass threat are the ones that won.

Neither pure passing teams nor pure running teams can get it down. If you're one-dimensional, defensive coordinators will stop you. How hard is it to put 8 men in the box to stop a running team? How hard is it pin your ears back and swarm the Qb to stop a passing team?

The way you burn those defenses is to pass when they're stacked up to stop the run and to run when they're thinking pass. It ain't rocket science. But if you're just not any good at one or the other, you're not going to be successful.

I think your stats prove that.

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