The Establishment Clause
by Aaron Schatz
Fixed with slightly more accurate numbers, 7-15-04
It has always been the conventional wisdom of pro football: establish the run. Winning teams run early. They use the run to set up their passing game later. Even if they don't get too many yards on the ground early, winning teams need to keep running to wear the defense down. Take at the NFL's leaders in team rushing yards, and you'll see a list of winning teams.
Other football pundits have an alternative theory. They say that winning teams pad their rushing totals by running out leads in the fourth quarter. Losing teams, even those with good running backs, spend the second half passing the ball in order to try to catch up. At the end of the season, even those winning teams that don't run the ball well end up with lots of yards because they've run the ball a lot at the end of games.
By looking at 2002 play-by-play data, we should be able to figure out which of these axioms is true. Do teams that run the ball early win more games? Or do winning teams, no matter whether they run more or pass more early, gain many of their rushing yards late in games while running out the clock?
Before we evaluate how teams establish the run, we have to isolate the plays that make up the running game. So for this analysis, I've removed all carries by players other than running backs and fullbacks. When coaches talk about establishing the running game, they don't mean end-arounds or quarterback scrambles. Well, maybe that's what Dan Reeves means, but everyone else is talking about the running backs.
Once we've removed the quarterback scrambles, the occasional wide receiver carry, and a few muffed (or faked) punts, this becomes the list of the top ten running games in the NFL in 2002:
|1) Miami||2143 yards|
|2) Denver||2052 yards|
|3) Kansas City||1887 yards|
|4) NY Giants||1844 yards|
|5) San Diego||1831 yards|
|6) San Francisco||1811 yards|
|7) Minnesota||1798 yards|
|8) Green Bay||1783 yards|
|9) Jacksonville||1749 yards|
|10) Washington||1682 yards|
Boy, tell me it doesn't surprise you to see Steve Spurrier's offense on this list.
A look at the top rushing teams doesn't do much for the idea that running the ball is the key to success in today's NFL. As you may know by now, only one of the NFL's top individual rushers made the playoffs: Tiki Barber of the Giants. Looking at the top ten running back totals by team adds two more playoff teams: San Francisco, with their well-regarded tandem of Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow, and Green Bay, where Ahman Green battled injuries but had some talented backups, namely Tony Fisher. But the average record of the teams on this list is about 8-8.
Now that we know which teams got the most yards overall, we can take a look at the teams that did the most to establish the run early. Establishing the run early means running the ball consistently from the very beginning. The adage about establishing the run has always held that you keep calling rushing plays, even if they don't succeed, in order to set up your offense later in the game.
So here are the five teams in the NFL that did the most to establish the run – the five teams with the most first quarter rushing attempts by running backs:
|1) Tennessee||110 carries|
|2t) Houston||108 carries|
|2t) San Francisco||108 carries|
|4) Cleveland||106 carries|
|5) Dallas||101 carries|
Yes, that's right. Only Tennessee worked harder than the lowly expansion Texans at establishing the running game in the first quarter. Doesn't look like it helped Houston win many games, though, and didn't do much for that other team from Texas either. Three playoff teams here, but two duds as well, and none of the NFL's top backs are represented – although the two-headed monster of Hearst and Barlow was as potent as any one back in the NFL.
So what about the other side? Here are the teams that did the least to establish the run in the first quarter:
|28) New England||84 carries|
|29) Tampa Bay||83 carries|
|30) St. Louis||82 carries|
|31) Detroit||80 carries|
|32) Oakland||71 carries|
They say you need to run early to win, but Bill Callahan isn't listening, because the 11-5 Oakland Raiders ran, far and away, the fewest running plays in the first quarter. This list has only two playoff teams, but given that Cleveland got the wild card on tiebreaker -- despite the same 9-7 record as the Patriots -- I think you can call the two lists even.
OK, some may argue, it doesn't really matter if the Texans try to establish the run. If you don't have a good running back and a good line, there is nothing to establish. So let's look at the top five teams for running back yards in the first quarter:
|1) Denver||537 yards|
|2) Miami||472 yards|
|3) San Diego||467 yards|
|4) Buffalo||462 yards|
|5) Washington||457 yards|
Ladies and gentlemen, the "just missed the playoffs" all-stars! The five teams that gained the most yards on the ground in the first quarter all finished between 7-9 and 9-7, and none made the postseason.
On the other side, the five teams with the fewest yards on the ground in the first quarter do help to support the conventional wisdom that those who do not gain on the ground to start the game are doomed to failure:
|28) Chicago||299 yards|
|29) New England||283 yards|
|30) Cincinnati||279 yards|
|31) Carolina||264 yards|
|32) Baltimore||259 yards|
Four losing teams, and one 9-7 squad whose fans spent the whole year calling for more of the running game. Then again, teams that don't get a lot of offense early, rushing or passing, aren't likely to win a lot of ballgames.
So if playoff teams aren't running up all those yards early in games while they are establishing the run, when are they getting them? The flip side of the "establish the run" argument says that winning teams have a lot of rushing yards because they are running out leads in the fourth quarter. So here are the five teams that led the NFL in fourth-quarter rushing attempts from running backs in 2002:
|1) Philadelphia||124 carries|
|2) Miami||121 carries|
|3t) Pittsburgh||116 carries|
|3t) Carolina||116 carries|
|3t) Kansas City||115 carries|
Now that looks like a list of winning football teams, although I'm not sure how Carolina got in there. Continue this list to the top ten, and you add five playoff teams: Tennessee, Oakland, the Giants, Green Bay, and Atlanta. Yes, that same Oakland team that ran only 72 times in the first quarter, when it was establishing its offense, ran 111 times in the fourth quarter, when it was grinding down the clock.
As you would expect, the bottom of this list reveals five of the NFL's poorest teams from 2002:
|28) Cincinnati||80 carries|
|29) Houston||78 carries|
|30) Arizona||73 carries|
|31) Chicago||72 carries|
|32) Detroit||67 carries|
So far, evidence would seem to suggest that establishing the run isn't really that important for winning games in today's NFL. The evidence also seems to back those who say that winning teams build their rushing totals while running out their leads. But in the interest of space, I've given a lot of top five and bottom five lists. What about the other 22 teams?
As it turns out, looking at all 32 teams together reinforces what we've seen so far: that more rushing attempts early don't indicate a winning team, but rushing attempts late do.
Statisticians have a concept called the correlation coefficient that measures how much one variable influences another variable. A correlation of 1 means the two variables are completely connected; 0 means they have no connection.
The correlation between first quarter rushing attempts and team wins is a measly .171. That means there is almost no connection between running a lot in the first quarter, and winning a lot of games. The correlation between fourth quarter rushing attempts and team wins, on the other hand, is .750. That's a sizeable relationship.
By the way, the correlation for first quarter rushing yards and team wins is a bit higher, though still not substantial, at .260. The correlation for fourth quarter rushing yards and team wins is a much lower, at .486. So early in games, it is more important to gain yards than just to run the ball for the heck of it, but at the end of the game the number of runs is more important than how many yards they gain.
To show how winning teams build their rushing statistics by running out the clock with a lead, here are the top ten NFL teams in rushing when a) leading by 14 or more in the third quarter, or b) leading by 7 or more in the fourth quarter. Along with the total yards they gained running out their leads, I've included what percentage of their total running game this represents, with the average of all 32 NFL teams being 15%.
|Tampa Bay||422 yards||29%|
|New England||332 yards||25%|
|Green Bay||316 yards||18%|
That's a pretty good list of wining football teams. Seven of these teams made the playoffs, and the other three went 9-7 and missed the playoffs by tiebreaker. But while all winning teams pad their rushing totals by running out the clock when leading late in games, those yards don't necessarily represent the same amount of the running game for all winning teams. Philadelphia and Oakland got more than one-third of their rushing yards while running out the clock, but Denver and Green Bay built much more of their rushing total earlier in games.
Incidentally, the playoff team with the fewest rushing yards in these "run out the clock" situations? Indianapolis, with only 93 yards: a mere 7% of their rushing total.
So in 2002, at least, the axiom that teams need to establish the run early to win did not hold true. Some teams won by running early. Other teams won without running early. It also appears that teams with high rushing totals aren't necessarily establishing their running game from the first snap onwards -- but when a winning football team has a high rushing total, it is very likely they got many of those yards while running out the clock.