Running for three yards is like going backwards.
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Football pundits have long been obsessed with identity. The “Eagles lack identity on both sides of the ball,” says the Philadelphia Daily News. The Jets, who have abandoned their running game for a more wide-open offense, “have the worst identity disorder since Sybil,” declares AOL FanHouse. On the plus side, however, the San Francisco 49ers are apparently “forging their own identity” during Jim Harbaugh’s first season.
I hope I’m not being too obvious when I say that this is ex post facto idiocy. Winning teams, we’re told, have well-defined identities: They know what they do well and they focus on those successful plays. Losing teams aren’t just bad—they’re bad because they’re confused about how to be good.
It’s true that teams are better at some things than others, and it makes sense to rely on what you do best. But football is far more complicated than that. Defenses know opposing offenses’ strengths and they do their best to take them away. But a team’s run-pass ratio isn’t usually dictated by identity or philosophy. Rather, it’s largely determined by down and distance, score and time considerations, and defensive alignments and personnel.
As it currently stands—and despite what ground-and-pound-loving Jets fans might believe—running is an overused tactic in the NFL. The cliché that it’s a passing league is truer than we realize. Advanced stats that can account for sacks, turnovers, penalties, and everything else show that the average running play is a setback. We’re conditioned to think of a gain of just two or three yards as, well, a gain. But unless those couple yards are for a first down, it’s anything but a gain. About 60 percent of all running plays are setbacks, meaning that the offense is less likely to score after the play than it was before. Offenses might as well be throwing downs away. Defenses would be happy to spot an offense a third-and-four every time—the conversion rate on third-and-four (55 percent) is lower than for a series that starts with a first-and-10 (67 percent).
Let’s take a closer look at the case of the Baltimore Ravens, a team that’s been harangued by the identity police all season. After the Ravens’ struggles against the Jaguars and Seahawks, the NFL Network’s Joe Theismann declared that a pass-first team is “not [playing] Baltimore Ravens football,” while ESPN’s Tom Jackson asked, “What do [the Ravens] want to be? A winning football team? Or do they want Joe Flacco to be an elite quarterback?”
But is giving Ray Rice more carries really a formula for success? Against the Bengals on Sunday, 56 percent of Baltimore’s runs went for a single yard or less. Although a single busted play allowed Rice to run for 59 yards, only 16 percent of the Ravens’ runs went for more than four yards. No one is confusing Flacco for Johnny Unitas, but on an inconsistent day he still threw for 9.6 yards per attempt. Dock him 45 yards for his interception and for his sack yardage, and he still averaged 8 yards per attempt.
League-wide, just 52 percent of all runs in Week 11 went for more than two yards and only 29 percent went for more than four yards. Baltimore is 22nd in the league with an average of 4.0 yards per carry. Teams can’t inch down the field 3 or 4 yards at a time and hope to win games. If the Ravens didn’t throw the ball, they’d be a whole lot dumber than Joe Theismann and Tom Jackson seem to think they are.
And what of the Denver Tebows, who have won three of their last four games with an offensive heavily tilted toward the run? Against the Jets on Thursday night, Denver’s running backs ran for only 49 yards on 22 carries. Most of Tim Tebow’s own running yards, including the game-winning 20-yard touchdown run, were from scrambles on called passing plays. As hard as it is to believe, the Broncos won because they were the more efficient passing team. Tebow threw for 5.0 net yards per attempt, while Mark Sanchez averaged a net 4.4 yards per attempt, adjusted for his three sacks and an interception. So long as the other quarterback plays worse than Tebow, the Broncos can win. Unfortunately for Denver, that’s not going to happen very often.
Don’t get me wrong: Running has its purpose and is an essential part of every effective offense. It’s needed to constrain defenses, to keep them guessing, and to set up play-action passes. It’s necessary in short yardage, and it’s actually underused in the red zone, where pass defenses have less real estate to cover and throwing is thus more difficult. Running is also needed to run out the clock and minimize the chance of turnovers when the offense is trying to hold a lead.
Even so, today’s affinity for smashmouth, slobberknocking football is irrational. It’s not 1977 anymore, and running the ball for nostalgia’s sake is counterproductive. Underdogs need high variance plays to win, and downfield passing is all about high variance—big risks with bigger rewards. In contrast, running is low variance. Teams that are strong in all phases of the game have the luxury of running the ball. Fans and commentators see strong teams run the ball often and think it’s the running that causes the winning, when it’s really the other way around.
Even when teams are better at running than they are at passing, they’re trapped in a paradox. Unless your team has an all-world defense, you’ll eventually end up trailing. Incomplete passes or short runs on either first or second down typically lead to third-and-long situations, requiring a pass. The worse an offense is at passing, then, the more often they’ll need to do it, and the more they’re forced to play to their weakness.
So what does an ideally balanced offense look like? In a perfect world, it would be identity-less—unpredictable and designed to exploit defensive weaknesses and mistakes. I wouldn’t call the Green Bay Packers a balanced offense—with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, Green Bay is so good at passing that it almost never makes sense for the Pack to run the ball while the game is still in doubt. Believe it or not, I’d say the San Francisco 49ers have the NFL’s most-balanced offense. Throwing out garbage time—defined as any plays when either team has less than a 15 percent chance of winning—the 49ers are right at the sweet spot of run-pass balance, passing 57 percent of the time. This suggests they’re not seeking one identity or the other, but smartly choosing plays in proportion to how successful they can expect to be. The 49ers certainly aren’t the best offense in the league, but they’re making the most of what they’ve got.