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The Value of Things: The Value of a Running Game

How necessary is a running game to ultimate success?

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Cincinnati Bengals v Tennessee Titans Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Sports announcers and pundits love their clichés. Defense wins championships. You win the games in the trenches. The best teams are the teams that can run the ball. You have to keep the opposing quarterback off the field. Most of those clichés are related to the running game. Obviously, good teams usually are able to run the ball. They are also able to pass the ball and defend the other team as well.

So, looking at total offensive yards is a kind of a well duh kind of study. However, in this piece and the next one, we will break down offenses to see whether the run or the pass is actually the most related to winning. We will be doing that in three ways. First, we will take a look at the NFL leading rushers since 2000. How successful were their teams? In other words, how much benefit does a team get from having the leading rusher?

Secondly, we will look at the top rushing team in the league. Believe it or not, in most instances it was someone other than the team with the leading rusher. Most teams spread their carries out or have athletic quarterbacks that also impact the running game. So, did leading the league in rushing bring those teams any success?

Finally, we will look at the final four teams in the playoffs each season from 2000. Where did they rank in team rushing? Just a frequent reminder that we are looking at correlations here. We aren’t saying that leading the league in rushing CAUSES teams to win or lose. We are testing to see how strong the correlation is. If it is a strong correlation then selling out to have a good running game makes sense. If it isn’t a strong correlation then teams need to sell out in a different area.

Leading Rushers

There have been a total of 17 running backs that have led the league in rushing. Ironically, only one player (Adrian Peterson) has done it more than twice. LaDainian Tomlinson, Ezekiel Elliott, and Derrick Henry have each led the league twice. Shaun Alexander was the only one to advance to the Super Bowl in a season where he led the league in rushing. Two runners made to the conference championship game. However, the numbers start to explode in the divisional and wild card rounds where a combined eleven runners made it that far.

I suppose 14 out of 22 is not that bad. If you lead the league in rushing then your team is more likely to be a playoff team than not. However, the correlation is not really all that strong considering. Perhaps, it is better to spread the wealth around. We’ve seen the steady decline in the bell cow back that carries it 20 times a game. Maybe teams that distribute their carries have more success.

Leading Teams

Funny, but the results for the leading teams were not incredibly different from the teams with the leading rusher. I guess that would make sense because we would expect some overlap there. 14 of the 22 teams that led the NFL in rushing advanced into the playoffs. It should be noted that five of them advanced to the conference championship games. Only one team made it to the Super Bowl. That leaves the other eight teams between the divisional round and wild card rounds.

These results are rather weak when you consider the way most NFL games go. Teams that are ahead normally move to their running game to put the games on ice. Playoff teams win more games than they lose by sheer definition. So, you would expect them to run the ball more at the end of games. That is, at least, if they are ahead in games for most of the game.

We certainly could look at yards per carry in addition to the total yards. After all, the best teams probably pass the ball well. So, maybe they don’t run it as often. Still, if they demonstrate that they are proficient at running the ball then they will have more success overall.

The Final Four

I like looking at the final four teams each season because we end up looking at 88 teams over 22 seasons. On a long enough timeline, the survival rate drops to zero. The more data points you get the more meaningful your results usually are. The final four teams are successful by definition. They have been more successful than any Houston professional team since 1979 and more successful than any NFL team in Texas this century.

There are two ways to do this. First, we could go with the aggregate. The aggregate tells us a lot, but sometimes we get skewed data. When we have a few teams that rank really low in rushing it can drive the aggregate up artificially. The aggregate for the teams that advanced to the conference championship game, but not the Super Bowl was 11.5. That goes up to 12.2 for the teams that lost the Super Bowl. The teams that won the Super Bowl ranked a collective 15.1.

In other words, the correlation is moving in the wrong direction. The better the running game (in terms of total yards) was less likely to win the big game. The conference title participants were technically better than average (16 would be average) but not significantly better. The champs were virtually average.

Five of the teams that finished first in rushing yards advanced to a championship game. Only one of those made it to the Super Bowl. 28 of the teams in the final four finished in the top five in rushing. 47 were in the top ten. So, basically almost as many teams finished outside the top ten as in the top ten.

Localize It

The Texans have been last in the NFL in rushing yards the last two seasons. Obviously, things need to improve for them to be a playoff contender. Yet, running the ball is not necessarily the most important thing in winning. Obviously, you need to move the ball and score points to win. We will take a look at passing stats next time to see if they are more correlated with winning than running. In the modern NFL, that is highly likely.