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In terms of NFL averages, completion percentage is way up, interception rate is way down, pass attempts are way up, and the passing game has never been more valuable. We all know that. But sometimes, when everyone is zigging, a lone team might be better off zagging.

The question here is does that theory apply to trying to build an offense that revolves around a power running game? Defenses are looking for lighter and faster defensive ends and linebackers who can excel in pass coverage; just about every defense is taking linebackers off the field for defensive backs more than they did a decade ago. And defenses spend the majority of their practice reps focusing on stopping the pass, too. As defenses try to become faster, quicker, and lighter — and better against the pass — should a team try to respond by developing a power running game?

On one hand, it’s tempting to say of course that model could work: just look at the Seahawks and Cowboys. Seattle does have a dominant running game, of course; what the Seahawks did to the Giants last year is not safe for work. But Seattle also has Russell Wilson, perhaps the most valuable player in the league when you combine production, position, and salary. And the best defense in the NFL. So yes, the Seahawks are successful with a power running game, but that’s not really a model other teams can follow. And for all the team’s success, Seattle doesn’t even have a very good offensive line, which would seem to be the number one focus for a team that is trying to build a power running attack.

The team with the best offensive line in the NFL is probably in Dallas. But the Cowboys also have Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, so again, that’s not really a model capable of imitation.

I’m thinking about some of the teams in the middle class of the AFC — the Bills, the Jets, the Browns, the Texans — teams that are currently trying the all defense, no quarterback approach. Finding a quarterback is the most difficult thing there is to do in the NFL, and these four teams can attest to that. By trading for LeSean McCoy, it appears as though Buffalo is trying to do what this article implies, but there are two problems with that plan. One, the Bills have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, and two, McCoy is not necessarily the right guy to build a move-the-chains style of offense.

The Jets have invested a ton of money in their offensive line, courtesy of hitting on first round draft picks in 2006 with Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson, and spending to acquire mid-level free agents from Seattle (James Carpenter this year after Breno Giacomini last offseason). But the Jets offensive line is far from dominant, and the team isn’t really building around a power running game (the team’s top two tight ends are below-average blockers, and the Jets are investing more in wide receivers than running backs).

Houston is an interesting case, because the Texans led the NFL in rushing attempts last year. The Texans do have a very good run-blocking offensive line and Arian Foster, but it still feels like that’s just not enough. Houston’s efficiency numbers were harmed by giving carries to Alfred Blue — the Texans were 8-5 when Foster was active — but the team also doesn’t have much in the way of run blockers at tight end or fullback.

Perhaps the team that seems most capable of following through on this approach is Cleveland. I thought Kyle Shanahan did a great job last year, which probably explains why he’s gone. But the Browns designed an offense around a power running game and taking shots down the field: Brian Hoyer led the league in air yards per completion but ranked 32nd out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage.

Left tackle Joe Thomas, center Alex Mack, and guard Joel Bitonio are three of the best run blockers in the NFL. John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz are both good run blockers, too. Cleveland was harmed by losing Mack for most of the year, but in theory, the Browns could field one of the most dominant run-blocking lines in the NFL in 2015.

Should the Browns invest a first round pick in a running back, and add punishing run blockers at positions like tight end and fullback? The key here is those types of players are marginalized in today’s game, which means they are undervalued assets for a team looking to build a power offense. This is your classic Goliath strategy: why continue to fight the best teams by waging a war of “Who has the better passing game” when it seems as though defenses might be unprepared for a classic throwback rushing attack?

The Eagles may be trying to do this, too. Philadelphia had two games in December 2013 where the running game completely dominated overmatched defenses. Could that be what Chip Kelly is building towards in 2015? By swapping McCoy for DeMarco Murray, he’s off to a good start, and the team still has Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, and Lane Johnson on the offensive line. Philadelphia released Todd Herremans in the offseason, who was probably the worst run blocker among the starting five. And Philadelphia has focused on getting bigger wide receivers who can help in the running game.1

Kelly’s Eagles are their own case study, but even Philadelphia isn’t your classic power running team.  So here’s the real question: Can constructing a run-heavy offense — investing heavily in the offensive line, getting wide receivers and tight ends that can block, spending big at running back, and finding a true fullback — lead to a top five offense even without good quarterback play in 2015? As passing gets easier, it’s tempting to suggest that it’s unrealistic to expect any running attack to ever be able to compete with the top passing games.

Again, I’m not talking about teams like Dallas and Seattle that have Pro Bowl quarterbacks. Or even Cincinnati, where Andy Dalton at least has the benefit of A.J. Green. The 2012 Vikings are a good example of this, although that was more like one player’s superhuman effort and ability than the product of team construction.

But as every team spends most of their assets (dollars, draft picks) on improving their pass offense and pass defense, would a team be wise to go heavy in the other direction? Or is there just an upper limit on how good a running game can get, so much so that if the goal is to win the Super Bowl, it’s best to hope you can just outsmart the crowd at the same game? What do you think?

  1. Then again, trading for Sam Bradford flies in the other direction, as paying thirteen million dollars to a mediocre quarterback doesn’t scream “focusing on the running game.” []
  • jmvillelabeitia

    That already happen severas decades ago. The NFL in the 50 was turbing to a passing league, teams like Rams, Browns and Lions were passing teams, suddenly Vince Lombardi changes to a run heavy attack that teams were simply not ready to stop

    • That’s a great point. But I wonder if the rules are so tilted towards the passing game now that a run-heavy attack just can’t be as good, even if everyone else is going the other way. What do you think?

      • Nick Bradley

        I think that rush attack skillsets are currently underpriced by the NFL, and there’s some gains to be had there, but generally power rushing is done by teams with good defenses and no quarterback.

        The threat of rushing also keeps teams honest. If the opposing offense has a horrible run O, you can just sit in nickel most of the time and not really worry about it

      • Richie

        Yeah, I think this is probably the case. Running is probably just as difficult as ever. But passing became so much easier after 1978, that it became the path of least resistance.

        I’ve often wondered about switching to a run-first system to “zag” like you suggest.

        Has anybody done a study as to which types of plays are “safer” from a concussion standpoint? WR and DB getting laid out 20 yards past the line of scrimmage seem to be the more common and horrifying injuries we see. But a lot of concussion studies seem to indicate that the repeated small collisions over many years can be just as bad. But, would it be at all safer if the NFL changed rules to encourage less passing? Would football be less exciting if that happened?

    • Bryan Frye

      I don’t think the Lombardi Packers fit the mold Chase is talking about. They are more akin to the modern Seahawks example he provided. From 1960-1967, Green Bay never ranked below third in points allowed, while featuring a handful of Hall of Fame defenders. In the same time frame, Bart Starr’s 86.1 passer rating and 7.55 AY/A were best in the league among QBs with 750+ attempts. This was a team that was great at running, but they were also great at everything else. This was basically an all star team.

      • Yeah, that’s a good point. They’re basically a slightly richer version of the modern Seahawks.

    • Upnorth

      Although history remembers the 60’s packers as a power run team first, the statistics show they were more dominant in the passing game on both offense and defense. There run game was okay during this period but sometimes it was not in the top half of the league. Where it excelled was once a lead was built by the passing game and defensive play, it then killed the clock. Mike McCarthy tries to do this now as well, but doesn’t have the Lombardi defense.

  • Ben Fitzgerald

    I think u either need a defense or a qb. With just a defense u just need to hide your qb. With a just a qb (cowboys) u just need to hide your defense. With neither (vikings) even an amazing grouND game doesn’t get u past great teams.

  • Corey

    Harbaugh’s 49ers did exactly this pretty successfully for three years.

    • Yep, that’s a good point. Was thinking of them earlier, although I’m not sure if that would have worked with a worse QB and worse defense. But they really build up an impressive OL and running game, mimicking what Harbaugh did at Stanford.

      • Corey

        Having a great defense certainly helped. But they didn’t really have great QB play, probably no better than slightly above average at best.

        Another key was that they did all kinds of unusual things in the running game that teams had forgotten how to prepare for, which was a key part of the zag-when-others-are-zigging strategy. Traps, whams, counter-sweeps with multiple pulling linemen, QB sweeps, zone-read options with unusual tweaks (arc-back option blocks?), lots of motion and odd formations to create blocking angles, etc. They had the most complex and diverse run game in the league by far.

    • Nick Bradley

      Not really. If you look at adjusted line yards or something like that, the 49ers were terrible in 2011, amazing in 2012, not good in 2013, and just plain awful in 2014.

      For spending 3 first round picks on the OL and drafting two RBs in the second round, it’s been a very bad investment. Anthony Davis/ Iupati or Dez Bryant, take your pick

      • Corey

        ALY/DVOA isn’t really the best measure of this, because of selection bias. Run-first teams with big rushing volume are always going to look worse in terms of efficiency than than pass-first teams that run only in the most advantageous situations. Similarly, Smith/Kaepernick had great efficiency numbers in 2012/13, precisely because the running game was so good they could throw only in the most optimal situations. When Kaepernick’s passing had to carry the offense in 2014, his efficiency fell off a cliff.

        I’d hardly say the Davis/Iupati picks were wasted. Davis has been an above-average RT and Iupati is a 3-time pro bowler, maybe the best run-blocking guard in the league the last four years.

        They were certainly awful in 2014 though, no doubt about that.

        • Nick Bradley

          They were near or at the bottom for power success rate in 2011, 2013, and 2014. They were dead last in power success in 2014 and significantly worse than the next worst team, Indy. Converted only 48% of 3rd/4th and 2 or less…wow.

          To be honest, as a 49ers fan, the Harbaugh/Roman offense was really overrated. They brought back the wham blocks and all that in 2012 and nobody was prepared for it. Then the league figured those out. The only reason people think the offense improved is because the Singletary/Jimmy Raye era was abysmal.

          • LightsOut85

            To ‘pile on’, as it were, if we look at rushing success rate (from AFA, which measures it by % of plays with positive EPA), from 2011 to 2014 they were:
            21st, 1st, 20th, 12th.

            • Nick Bradley

              Based on that data, I’m assuming they were very successful on first and second down rushes, then abysmal on 3rd and 4th. So they piled up a bunch of negative EPA runs on 3rd and short that zeroed out all the positives they did.

          • Corey

            I don’t think they were overrated at all. They were 5th in offensive DVOA in 2012 despite switching QBs in midstream, and 8th in 2013. They scored 45, 28, and 31 points in the three 2012 playoff games. Even 18th in DVOA 2011 was decent considering the short offseason. the Alex Smith reclamation project, and the lack of quality WRs. They did very well considering they didn’t have a star QB.

            The 2014 “debacle” (really only relative to expectations, they still went 8-8 and were 16th in offensive DVOA) shouldn’t obscure the real achievements in previous seasons.

            • Nick Bradley

              All I’m saying is that the coaching staff is “overrated” because they’re compared to the well below average job the previous staff did wasting talent

    • Vance Bacri

      negative

  • sn0mm1s

    Emphatic no. Even the best rushing seasons over the last 35 years (those with guys like Dickerson, Sanders, Smith, Tomlinson, Faulk, AD, Holmes, TD, Charles etc. etc.) are rarely better than more than a handful of even the worst passing teams in any given season. The Seahawks, the top YPC team in 2014, averaged 5.3 YPC (and that is with a running QB padding that team YPC) which matches the worst YPA team last year (the Jags with Bortles). And, as we have been pleasantly shown, YPA is influenced just as much from “outliers” as YPC so there really isn’t an argument for consistency.

    I can almost guarantee a team would be more successful if they built around passing 90%+ of the time (only running with 2 yards or less to go or to run out the clock) than they would be trying to build around any type of running game.

  • Clint

    Glad someone remembers what the Browns did last year. To win games, you need an awesome offensive line. Outside of that, you just need competency. That’s what we had until Mack got hurt. Killed the running game, and made Hoyer incredibly uneasy in the pocket. Arguably may have ruined Ben Tate’s one big shot at starting too.

  • Vance Bacri

    I think our beloved Champions were starting to trend this way, Gaffney , Blount, White and Gray. What do ya say?

    WE CAN RUN SUPERBOWL 50 HERE WE COME