In this week's Varsity Numbers, Bill Connelly revisits some measures and concepts: Adjusted Scores, Covariance, and momentum (or whatever you choose to call it).
18 Sep 2003
by Aaron Schatz
It was, as you no doubt know, a good week for the running backs. With that in mind, both ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli and SI.com's B. Duane Cross took the opportunity to remind us that the conventional wisdom still holds: running the ball leads to more wins than passing the ball.
Except, the conventional wisdom still doesn't hold -- or at least, last week doesn't prove that it does. Pasquarelli and Cross commit a very common sin of sportswriting, using a small sample and assuming it represents a larger truth.
Pasquarelli points out, "There were eight individual 100-yard rushing performances last week. All eight teams that featured a 100-yard rusher won their games." Cross adds, "Through two weeks, teams are 12-0 when they have a 100-yard rusher. Three-hundred yard passers are 2-8."
But what if, instead of using this year's Week 2 scores to prove our point, we used last year's Week 2 scores?
Last year in Week 2, there were six backs who rushed for over 100 yards, but their teams went 3-3. Fred Taylor (114), Deuce McAllister (123), and future Hall of Famer Thomas Jones (173) all won. Edgerrin James (138), Corey Dillon (108), and Moe Williams (102) all lost.
What about 300-yard passers? Well, last year in Week 2, there were also six of them. Their teams went 5-1. Rich Gannon (403), Marc Brunell (320), Rodney Peete (310), Kerry Collins (307), and Drew Bledsoe (463, albeit in overtime) all won. Only Trent Dilfer (352) lost.
So, looking at Week 2 of 2002, could we write an article saying that it is better to have a 300-yard passing day from your quarterback than a 100-yard rushing day from your running back? No, of course not -- it was just one week. Just like this week was just one week, and a fluky week at that. How often is the all-time rushing record broken?
of how to win a football game might be an entire season worth of stats, and the results of the 2002 season certainly don't justify the belief that only the best running teams will win consistently. The top ten teams in rushing yards from running backs averaged an 8-8 record, and only three made the playoffs.
Those of you who have found this site in the last couple of weeks may have missed one of the first articles we ran, questioning whether teams really need to establish the run to win. Breaking down 2002 rushing totals quarter by quarter suggests that winning teams are not the ones that run the ball the most, or even the best, but the ones that run the ball the most in the fourth quarter. In other words, Pasquarelli and Cross are confusing cause and effect. You don't have to run to win, but when you win you run.
Even our fluky Week 2 of 2003 has some data to back that up. Plenty of teams that ran the ball fine until they fell behind and needed to start passing to catch up quickly without using clock time. Chicago rushed for 71 yards in the first half, 11 in the second half. Atlanta rushed for 90 yards in the first half, 7 yards in the second half. Cincinnati rushed for 77 yards in the first half, 50 in the second half. San Diego rushed for 114 yards in the first three quarters, 7 in the fourth quarter.
On the other hand, you had another winning team like Seattle, whose rushing yard totals in Week 2, from first quarter to fourth quarter, went 6, 30, 39, 56.
Now, those are just a couple of examples. There were winning teams that didn't rush for more yards as the game went along, that ran early and often. But one week does not a season make, unless you want to hand Jamal Lewis the MVP trophy right now.
Pasquarelli asserts, "Running will forever remain the most rudimentary formula for victory." No, Len, getting points and preventing points will forever remain the most rudimentary formula for victory. Unless you are trying to kill the clock at the end of the game, it doesn't matter how you get those points - and the yards that lead to those points -- as long as you get more of them than the other team. You can try to prove differently, but let's wait until we have a few more weeks of games behind us before we check.