Has Running Become More Important In The NFL Than Passing?
In the NFL, there is a widely accepted idea that a quarterback is the single most important player on a team. Good teams have good passing attacks, and bad teams are searching for a quarterback to boost their passing offense, right?
Well, it may not be that simple.
In recent years, the running game seems to have been highly ignored by both fans and GMs, who believe that as long as their team has a good quarterback, they can consistently win games. I have always believed in a balanced approach to football, and the idea that the running game was now unimportant seemed strange to me.
I wanted to examine the trends of the top and bottom 10 teams in the NFL in order to examine supposedly elite and subpar stats to get the best idea of the main differences. I did some research into the top 10 and bottom 10 teams’ passing and rushing offense, and these were the results:
All records and statistics are from the first 6 weeks of the NFL season.
*Teams that have only played 5 games so far have had their stats extrapolated for an extra game.
*Key outliers, if any, are identified as the team that brings the average up the most (UP), and the team that brings the average down the most (DOWN) by a significant margin.
*All stats and records courtesy of ESPN.com and NFL.com
I began by examining the passing stats of each of these teams so far this season.
What I expected to be completely lopsided in favor of the NFL’s elite actually turned out to be relatively even.
The completion percentage is off by a few percentage points in favor of the elite, but the touchdown rate is nearly even. The interceptions could be a problem, but ~1 extra interception over 6 games should not be the difference between a winning and losing record. In addition, the bottom 10 have actually thrown for more yards than the top 10. Many can point to garbage time passing games, but the efficiency in passing is still present.
Though slightly in favor of the top 10, these results show that the QB results are relatively even when compared side by side, and cannot be concluded as the main reason why a team wins or loses games.
On to the rushing stats:
The discrepancies stand out immediately. The top 10 teams have the edge in each category by a wide margin. So far this season, while passing offenses have been similar among elite and struggling teams, those who have an effective running game seem to be winning more often.
In order to get an even better idea of the effect that the league’s best passers have, I looked at the top 10 teams’ QBR see how efficient passing systems impact the team.
Among the Top 10 teams in QBR:
4 were in the Top-10 standings
3 were in the Middle-12 standings
3 were in the Bottom-10 standings
Each team hopes to have a top 10 quarterback, but the presence of one does not seem to impact a team’s success significantly. Of course, that’s not to say that having a bad quarterback won’t hurt your team.
Next, the running game.
Among the Top 10 teams in Yards per Carry Average:
5 were in the Top-10 standings
5 were in the Middle-12 standings
0 were in the Bottom-10 standings
I was blown away. Not a single team who is in the top 10 in yards per carry is in the bottom 10 of the league standings. It seems that the teams who utilize a consistent and effective running game have a more likely chance of winning.
So far this season, teams have begun to put the idea that a game hinges on QB success to rest.
To summarize the information above, the discrepancy of passing statistics between the best and worst teams in the league is noticeable, but inconclusive, while there is a clear difference in rushing statistics in favor of the elite. Teams with top 10 QBR are spread among the league’s standings, while teams with top 10 yards per carry averages are split among the top 10 and the middle 12, with none among the bottom 10.
Don’t think that I’m saying that having a good quarterback is insignificant and that a football game depends on how effectively a team runs the ball. I believe that a team led by a quarterback such as Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers can win a game without ever running the ball. But, not every team has a Brady or Rodgers.
There comes a time when, no matter who is under center, a team must run the ball effectively in order succeed. As I said earlier, I am a strong supporter for a balanced offensive attack. Teams will draft or sign a quarterback hoping that he will solve all of their problems on offense and entirely disregard the running game, then wonder why they suck. A quarterback or runningback can be good enough to mask the deficiencies of the other, but relying on one player to carry your offense will be problematic.
Getting back to the original question in the title, it is now time to determine whether passing or running the football is more important.
So far this season, a successful rushing attack seems to be the difference between success and failure. However, most of the time, a nonexistent running game can be made up for with good quarterback play, whereas it took Adrian Peterson one of the greatest rushing seasons of all time to carry the 2012 Vikings to a wildcard spot in the playoffs when his quarterback was playing subpar. Normally, any quarterback less than a game manager will take a team out of the game.
A team needs a good quarterback to stay afloat, but needs an effective rushing game to excel on offense.
Of course, a team can also be carried by its defense if neither facet of its offense is truly effective. Or a quarterback, such as Joe Flacco and Eli Manning, can catch fire and singlehandedly dominate a stretch of games in the postseason en route to a Superbowl.
When every team has a good quarterback, no one does (except for the truly elite.) The league has actually now gone full circle, and those with a balanced rushing attack are ahead of the curve.
There will always be exceptions, however. Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears is enjoying yet another productive season while his team struggles. The Denver Broncos have one of the worst rushing offenses in the NFL, yet boast a 6-0 record.
Despite these outliers, a 2015 offense tends to do best when it is doing consistent damage on the ground.
The statistics can always be explained as “good teams run the ball when they have a lead and bad teams throw to catch up” but those situations do not occur in every game, and the consistency displayed by these stats points to an overall style of play rather than circumstantial complacency or desperation.
Perhaps with the oncoming drought of effective college quarterbacks, GMs will begin to focus on improving their running game rather than desperately searching for a mediocre quarterback that can carry the team.
We have yet to see if this year is an outlier in of itself, but for now, those who run will remain ahead of the game.
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I agree with you Mitchell. This also highlights the importance of having a good offensive line in football, which teams often neglect to improve. Games are still won in the trenches and you have proven this with your research. Nice article!