Every Inch Counts: Run The Ball, Stupid

By: Chris Dagonas

By now, you must have heard that the Dallas Cowboys lost to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, and that blame belongs on the shoulders of Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo and head coach Jason Garrett. The Cowboys, with a 23 point lead at the start of the third quarter, proceeded to call 24 pass plays and 8 running plays, give up the ball on two interceptions, and lose the game by one point. A victory could have locked up the NFC East for the Cowboys, while the loss means they still have to win out and hope for two Eagles losses to win a division that was gift-wrapped for them all season.

"Yup, throw the ball on ALL THREE DOWNS!" - Jason Garrett

“Yup, throw the ball on ALL THREE DOWNS!” – Jason Garrett

Meanwhile, the Packers managed to come from more than 3 touchdowns behind and win, on the strength of a mixture of run and pass plays. Between the red-hot Eddie Lacy, and the not-totally-trustworthy Matt Flynn, the Packers have done surprisingly well without Aaron Rodgers, and are still in the playoff hunt themselves.

A balanced approach to offense is statistically the most likely to succeed in football. Being unpredictable, mixing running plays with throws of all distances will keep a defense guessing and have them react to an offense’s plays, rather than predict and be able to get a jump on them.

The Real McCoy (Lame Caption Award Winner, 2013)

The Real McCoy (Lame Caption Award Winner, 2013)

This year’s rushing yardage leader is the Philadelphia Eagles’ LeSean McCoy, and the Eagles are in good position (thanks to the Cowboys) to make the playoffs this season. Behind McCoy, 7 of the next 9 running backs are all on teams that have either qualified for the playoffs or almost have.

Last season, 6 of the top 10 running backs by yardage were on playoff teams, while only 5 of the top 10 quarterbacks by yardage could say the same. Having the league’s best runner, such as Adrian Peterson last season or McCoy this season, seems to be a guarantee that your squad will make the playoffs, while having the league’s top passing quarterback is not. In fact, throwing the ball more means that your team is probably behind more often, which probably means you’re not winning many games.

I think this picture shows the balance of run and pass plays. Probably.

I think this picture shows the balance of run and pass plays. Probably.

The Cowboys’ second half play-calling blunders on Sunday illuminated the fact that to be successful in the NFL, your time of possession is a key stat. Teams that tend to hold on to the ball more often, tend to win more often. This season, according to TeamRankings.com, the top 7 teams in time of possession are all playoff teams or contenders. On the contrary, some teams near the bottom of that ranking are also playoff contenders, but they tend to be high-powered offenses with very good quarterbacks (Denver, New England) or high-speed, no-huddle offenses (Chip Kelly’s Eagles, dead last in time of possession, but a very potent offense nonetheless).

I suppose one caveat to all of this is that your team must actually have a very capable, talented, and healthy running back. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers season might have looked a little different had Doug Martin stayed healthy, instead of missing every game but two. Likewise, I’m sure the New York Giants would have loved to be time of possession monsters this season, but David Wilson could not hold on to the ball, then suffered a serious injury, and it was not until Andre Brown’s return in Week 13 that the Giants even resembled a team that could run the ball effectively, and that was short-lived anyway.

Tampa Bay - Doug Martin = Very Bad Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay – Doug Martin = Very Bad Tampa Bay

Far from being solely a play-calling decision, offensive balance is also a player personnel decision, one that starts with a GM and team philosophy. An effective running team starts with an offensive line and receivers and tight ends that are capable run blockers. Teams that pay a lot of attention to the running game, by drafting and signing offensive linemen and a group of skilled running backs, tend to have better long-term success than teams that focus more on the passing game.

Look at the success Denver had in the years before they added Peyton Manning, and even in the Manning era, or the New England Patriots (this season) with the combination of Stevan Ridley, LaGarrette Blount, and Shane Vereen. Both organizations, as well as many others, have paid attention to drafting running backs, developing their ground attacks, and focusing on time of possession stats.

The three-headed Patriots running attack.

The four-headed Patriots running attack.

That is where the Cowboys dropped the ball, figuratively speaking. They do have a very capable runner in DeMarco Murray, and use him frequently, but their offensive centre piece is Tony Romo and the aerial attack. Last Sunday, the weight of carrying Dallas’ offense was too much for Romo and the offense to bear.

The playoff picture will be mostly clarified by the end of this weekend’s games, and the stats will hold that teams that run the ball and control the clock are the teams that, by and large, will be representing their divisions and conferences come January.

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