Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The NFL is a Passing League...right?

Wednesdays usually mean one of two things for us: writing a statistical analysis post or being jokes and not blogging. Guess which you get treated to today? Stay tuned next week for more of the thrilling drama: Us vs Lethargy.

The NFL is now a passing league.

We've heard this same mantra droned by members of the media for years now. "The NFL is a passing league." "You have to pass to win." These types of comments have gained a lot of momentum sine 2006 when the Colts won the Super Bowl. The ensuing season, when the Patriots went 16-0, everyone seemed to think that the age of running the ball was essentially over. In 2008, when the Steelers won the Super Bowl on a last-minute drive that was comprised entirely of passing plays and the Arizona Cardinals, a pass-first, pass-second, and pass-third team made the Super Bowl, the shouting grew even louder. Last season, two passing teams made the Super Bowl, and even though the one with the more balanced offense came out on top, it seemed like the coup de grace for running teams.

Ignored during this time was the Giants winning the Super Bowl with a clock-control game and good defense. The New York Jets led the league in rushing last year and it carried them to the AFC Championship Game. Granted, their lack of a passing game was the final hurdle that prevented them from getting to the Super Bowl.

Coming in to this season, all the talk was on passing games. Teams without quarterbacks were, for the most part, being discounted before the season even started. Everyone said the Steelers weren't likely to win more than 2 without Ben Roethlisberger, and they certainly couldn't beat the mighty Atlanta Falcons with Dennis Dixon at quarterback.

But let's take a closer look at what exactly went down this week. Obviously it's only Week 1 and we can't draw too many conclusions, but there are some really interesting stats to be had.

Currently, only 2 of the Top 10 teams in passing attempts won their Week 1 games (Arizona and Baltimore) The Top 5 all lost.

Only 4 of the Top 10 in passing yards won their Week 1 games (Chicago, Arizona, New England, New York Giants). Four of the Top 5 all lost.

Now let's look at the flip side of things. How did teams that decided to pound the rock fare?

All of the Top 10 teams in rushing attempts won their Week 1 games.

8 of the Top 10 teams in rushing yardage won their Week 1 games. Only Philadelphia, behind a monster effort from backup QB Michael Vick, and Oakland lost.

So what does this tell us?

It tells us that running the ball is still an important factor in the NFL.

Obviously, our sample size is small, and this statistical analysis really wouldn't stand up to any kind of real scrutiny, it can be torn apart with one quick statement ("Teams that are losing tend to throw more, so it's not surprising that, after only 1 week, the high passing teams all lost").

Is it really that early in the season that we're counter-arguing our own arguments, just for something to do? Yup.

In response to that, let's look at the games lost by the teams that led the league in passing:

Indianapolis (Att - 1, Yds - 1) 
Houston led the whole game, but there were points when it was close. Indy was only down 3 at halftime.

St Louis (Att - 2, Yds - 10)
No clue why they had so many attempts. This is Exhibit A of a team drinking the Kool-Aid of the media and thinking they need to become a passing team just because they drafted a franchise QB. Seriously? 55 pass attempts with Sam Bradford behind that line? Especially when you have Steven Jackson? This is one of the most shocking, particularly since St Louis had a lead or was tied for at least 2 1/2 quarters of this game.

Cincinnati (Att - 3, Yds - 3)
Cincinnati is going to run their team into the ground trying to throw this much. They had a solid year last year being built around running the ball and playing good defense. Guess what they didn't do well at all in Week 1? Play good defense or run the ball. They were behind for a lot of the game though.

Dallas (Att - 4, Yds - 5)
Was there any more satisfying game to watch than the Cowboys crapping all over themselves? When you have Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice all healthy (something that only happens about 2 weeks in any given football season), why only run 22 times? Dallas was 25th in the league in rushing attempts last week, and with no real reason, they were in the game with Washington the whole time.

San Francisco (Att - 5, Yds - 15)
This might be the most surprising number of the week. San Francisco only ran the ball 19 times, 30th in the league last week. So what did they do? Threw the ball a crapload of times, even after they had a 6-0 lead.

Atlanta (Att - 6, Yds - 11)
Yeah, they played against Pittsburgh and our run defense looks awesome. However, they threw the ball a lot and only had 9 points to show for it. Their offense didn't reach the end zone and they didn't even try to go over the top once to keep Pittsburgh's defense balanced.

San Diego (Att - 8, Yds - 4)
Steelers fans can relate here. Driving rain and winds, yet still throwing the ball a crapload of times? Yup, sounds like a recipe for victory.

Cleveland (Att - 9, Yds - 12)
Jake Delhomme? Joke. Not only were they winning most of the game, they also lost to Tampa Bay.

So what's the conclusion?

Running the ball still has its place in the NFL. No matter what the guys on The Fan, or ESPN, or the Post-Gazette will tell you, a solid running game will still get you places in the league. The Jaworski Theory that you have to pass to win does hold true in some respects. You do have to be able to throw a pass if you want to be able to win games (See: Jets, New York). However, you don't have to go gunslinging 50+ balls around the field. A balanced offense is the key to winning in the league, and that includes both passing and running. Look at New Orleans, they're a much better running team than people give them credit for. They may not rack up a ton of rushing yards, but they are able to run effectively when they want to and get the hard yards that they need to when it counts. Teams that forego their running game may see some temporary success in the weeks to come, but in the long run, success in this league is still predicated on having a balanced offense.

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