By Joey Tire-Esquire
Rushing offense is the new Eli vs Romo. It gives us something to scream at each other about all offseason, which is fine I guess… but we’re mostly talking past each other. This article is intended to be a balanced, nuanced discussion to hopefully get us to consensus, so we can finally shut the fuck up about it and move on.
Question 1: Does running the ball matter?
41.2% of plays in the NFL last season were run plays. By simple correlation, more runs means more run yards, and teams that run more times for more yards tend to win more games.
Question 2: Does running the ball WELL matter?
Answer: Not much.
Let’s define running “well” as something other than getting a lot of rushing yards. Why? Because volume-based yardage stats don’t have strong predictive value, there is a chicken-and-egg problem with the running-winning correlation and because a 3-yard run on 2nd and 2 is better than a 12-yard run on 3rd and 15. Over the past three seasons, on average 11 teams per year finish the season with a positive rushing DVOA, and the variance between the best run offense and the worst run offense is about 41%. On average 24 teams per year finished with a positive pass DVOA and a 92% variance from the best to worst team. This supports two things: 1) only about 1/3 of teams improve their win probability with the average run play, and 2) it’s hard to be REALLY good or REALLY bad at running the ball. Improving the passing game not only leads to more efficient offense, it increases the distance from the pack by a greater margin. Running the ball well is better than running the ball badly, obviously, but most teams, most of the time, don’t help themselves by running, and the returns on passing are significantly higher. Rushing offense has less than a third the effect on winning games that passing offense does.
Question 3: Okay, but what about individual games? Can’t running well against a bad run defense win a game?
In Week 11, 2017, the Eagles trailed the Cowboys 7-9 at halftime. In the first half, they had 18 pass plays to 10 runs and totaled 115 yards of offense. In the second half, they made an adjustment and passed just 12 times for 88 yards versus 24 runs for 180 en route to 30 unanswered points and a blowout win. They weren’t running to salt the clock or preserve a big lead. Running well and running often won them the game.
Question 4: Running well doesn’t matter, except when it does. Are these nerds in their nerderies with their calculators offering anything of value?
“Establish the run”; “Run to set up the pass”; “Manageable third down”. We’ve all heard the clichés on broadcasts and press conferences, and they’re all wrong. They imply some benefit to running for running’s sake, and coaches like Mike Zimmer and Brian Schottenheimer have repeated them as recently as last year. The passing game is more efficient than the run game, and their relative success is largely independent. “Establishing the run” is just wasting downs that could have been spent moving the ball more efficiently.
Question 5: If passing is so much better than running, should teams pass on every play?
Answer: Probably not.
Passing is a more efficient way of moving the ball and scoring points, but running has certain benefits over passing. 1.) It’s safer. From 2016 to 2018 there were 1689 pass plays resulting in turnovers versus just 250 run plays. 2.) Short yardage. With 1-2 yards to go for a conversion, running is a more efficient option than passing. A quick note on running to burn clock – it can be an effective use of run plays but is probably relied on too heavily. First downs burn more clock than run plays and passing generates more first downs than running.
Question 6: So what is the goddamned point?
Answer: Most teams should pass more than they do.
Most teams in most games should skew closer to 80/20 or 75/25 than 60/40. Otherwise they typically decrease their chances of winning.
Question 7: What about running backs? Are they important?
Answer: No, not really.
There are two things to consider here. 1.) What is the impact of rushing efficiency on winning games? and 2.) What is a running back’s impact on rushing efficiency? Number 1 was addressed above in Question 2, and the answer is not all that much. Number 2: Looking at 2018 alone there are numerous examples of teams not skipping a beat after losing a premier running back. Pittsburgh replaced Le’Veon Bell with James Conner and improved in YPC. Kareem Hunt was replaced with journeyman Damien Williams and undrafted rookie Darrel Williams, and the Chiefs’ rushing success rate actually INCREASED. CJ Anderson was dumped mid-season, then picked up by the Rams and stepped right in for Todd Gurley. That’s three All-Pro caliber backs replaced without skipping a beat. Nobody would say undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay in Denver or 2017 seventh-rounder Chris Carson in Seattle have special talent at RB, but they were two of the most effective backs in the NFL in 2018. On the flip side, David Johnson (another All-Pro caliber back) returned from injury in 2018 and didn’t see any improvement at all in their rushing offense. Ezekiel Elliott, indisputably one of the best RBs in the league, has essentially replicated the same success that league-average back Demarco Murray had in 2014. This isn’t to say you can trot out just ANYBODY. Wendell Smallwood is still terrible. But the difference between a great back and a league average back turns out to be negligible. Rushing doesn’t really help you win, and a great RB doesn’t really help you rush.
Question 8: I stopped listening a while ago. Are you done yet?
Answer: Just a couple final points.
Question 9: Fuck. Seriously? (Editors note: You billed some poor non-profit for this, didn’t you?)
Answer: Almost. I swear.
• An important caveat to all analytics data is that it is collected from a league that has a roughly 60/40 pass/run split. There is no way to know how that data would look with, say, a 90/10 pass/run split. I mentioned above that play action effectiveness is not contingent on how well or how often an offense runs the ball, but again that presumes a roughly 60/40 environment, and LBs and safeties may be less likely to bite on play action if running accounted for a minimal part of an offense.
• A note on gravity. “Gravity” and the “Kobe assist” are concepts in NBA analytics. It’s the idea that a player can draw defenders to him and open up the floor for other players. It’s possible that gear up to stop a guy like Le’Veon Bell but not a guy like James Conner. There isn’t a lot of data out there on this but consider the 2018 Rams. They were the best rushing offense in football, had the 8th most rushing attempts and the 9th highest run play percentage, and featured an All-Pro RB in Todd Gurley. If ever there was a runner defenses would want to load up to stop, it would be Gurley. But among RBs with at least 100 carries, nobody faced fewer 8+ man boxes than Gurley, so my hunch is the RB Gravity concept isn’t very strong.
• A note on roster construction. As noted above, running can win you games. “Matchup-based” football is argued as a counterpoint to the pass-heavy offense recommended by analytics. Football will always be matchup-based, and in-game tactics won’t always square with spreadsheet results. This isn’t a conflict. The analytics position refers to the best way to maximize return in the aggregate. The shift in baseball is still good defensive strategy even though some opposite-field grounders will sneak through it. Rosters shouldn’t be built to capitalize on the exception, and this goes beyond just RBs. Road-grader OGs or run-stuffer DTs have never been less valuable. A rule of thumb for intelligent roster construction is just watch what Dave Gettleman does, then don’t do that.
Question 10: Can we have Keal ban Squatch?
Answer: I think that’s probably for the best.