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.
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?