Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

27 Sep 2013

ESPN: The Death of the NFL Run Game

The 2013 NFL season is on pace to be the pass-happiest season in NFL history. In other words, the pass ratio (60.1 percent) is set to break last year's mark (57.65 percent). Using DVOA, we found the correlation with wins for passing and rushing efficiency along with some data on whether or not you need a good running game to succeed with play-action passing.

If the running game was ever truly a quarterback's best friend, it's been replaced by defense.

The NFL's not that different from normal life. If you want to get to a far away destination (Super Bowl), it's quicker to go through the air than by ground. When all the rules are in favor of the pass, building your team to run will never get you where you want to go.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 27 Sep 2013

9 comments, Last at 28 Sep 2013, 1:32am by dmstorm22


by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Fri, 09/27/2013 - 2:03pm

While I don't disagree on the conclusion, isn't it true that in general, passing starts out faster than running? I know it's true that every year people come out and say "punters are killing it this year!" and then winter comes, and reality settles in.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Fri, 09/27/2013 - 3:40pm

Guess the first table's not included in the preview, but there's a table with the stats for Games 1-3 in each season since 2002. In the previous three years the running game was just barely over 4.0 YPC before finishing over 4.2. Maybe we'll get there again, maybe we won't. There probably is a little something to the "throw it because the weather's nice" aspect of September.

I do agree there are a lot of poor offensive lines out there right now who really struggle to open holes when they run block.

As for punters and kickers, I haven't looked at the numbers yet for 2013, but I know the last 8-9 years are all among the best ever for average yards per punt and FG%. Pretty crazy stuff how those specialists have just gotten better.

by Dean :: Fri, 09/27/2013 - 4:16pm

A better barometer than YPC would be a simple raw number of attempts, and the run/pass ratios, broken down by month and compared to years past.

This used to be one of Easterbrook's pet peeves. Probably still is. But it may have been one of the cases where he was actually right.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Fri, 09/27/2013 - 4:19pm

I'd probably just do a quarterly split (4 four-game samples), but sure, that's doable. Maybe we'll run that during the season on here.

by shah8 (not verified) :: Fri, 09/27/2013 - 2:32pm

When I look at games, the primary reason is because run blocking in the league, as a whole, is terrible right now, and this is causing more throwing downs.

by Guido Merkens :: Fri, 09/27/2013 - 3:31pm

To me, it always seemed obvious why yards per rushing attempt has a weak correlation with team success. If a team is behind late in the game, it will pass more often, so the defense will expect it to pass more often, which makes it easier to run the ball successfully. (The inverse of this effect may have a positive impact on the correlation between yards per passing attempt and winning).

I would be interested to see the correlation between yards per carry in the first half (or some other game-situation-neutral measure) and winning percentage.

by Blotzphoto :: Fri, 09/27/2013 - 7:53pm

I asked at ESPN (where I don't expect much of a response) whether this trend is "good" for the NFL. With so much of the focus on QB play, are we setting up a league to be dominated by a handful of teams with great passers whilst the rest of the hoi polloi sift through the Bradfords and Daltons hoping to get lucky?

by Cythammer (not verified) :: Sat, 09/28/2013 - 1:03am

Well, the Ravens did just win a Super Bowl with Flacco at the helm… Even if we take him to be 'elite', we still have the success the Jets had over two year stretch with Sanchez, and a Texans team that two years ago were probably as good as any other team in the league, even with a rookie fifth-rounder at quarterback.

by dmstorm22 :: Sat, 09/28/2013 - 1:32am

On the one hand, yes, the year-to-year consistent teams in the NFL probably have to have great QBs. Baltimore from 2008-12 is an exception.

Then again, change like two things from Championship Sunday in 2011, and Super Bowl XLVI stars Joe Flacco and Alex Smith at QB.