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A running trend: Ground games could make a big comeback

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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The Jaguars are the only team over the last three years to run the ball more than then they throw it. Will more teams look to copy that formula in 2008?


The NFL has become a pass-to-set-up-the-run league over the past twenty five years. The rules favor the offense when it comes to the aerial attack; the necessity to score more points and the kind of athletes playing the game all seem to point to passing rather than running the ball.

Things may be changing, however. Back in 2002 only three of the 32 teams actually ran the ball more than they passed but since then running the ball is on the rise. I was surprised at where the trend is headed and 2008 may be a special season for running games.

I asked a few NFL head coaches about the rise in running and of course they all started out with the idea that every team wants to run the ball. But eventually we got down to other possibilities - like attacking undersized defenses built to defend the pass, protecting the number of inexperienced quarterbacks forced to get on the field too early in their careers, the number of defensive-minded head coaches in the league that simply want to play it close to the vest whenever possible and even the outgrowth of the tandem running backs approach that has become so popular.

In the past three season only one team - the Jacksonville Jaguars - has called more running plays than passing plays. Jacksonville boasted a 31-17 record during that span. But the Jaguars are not alone with a run-to-pass ratio that favors the run. Last year six other teams - the Vikings, Steelers, Raiders, Bills, Tennessee, and Chargers - all ran more running plays than passing plays.

Seven teams in 2006 ran the ball more than they passed. You would think that those 14 teams over a two-year span would have been successful because we all watch enough football to see teams on every Sunday bail on the runinng game when they are losing. Of those 14 teams, half had winning records and made the playoffs.

That brings to light some of the reasons coaches pointed out as to why teams are running the ball more like protecting a young QB, and defensive minded head coaches had some validity. 10 of the 14 teams had a head coach who was a defensive coordinator before he was a head coach, and 7 of the teams were playing inexperienced quarterbacks who weren't ready for the complete passing attack.

Since 2000 only 41 teams have run the ball 500 or more times in a season, which averages out to five teams a year. In the same time period, 21 teams a season have averaged over 500 pass attempts a season so the run is not going to overtake the pass as the most popular method of playing offense; but there is no doubt the ground attack is on the way back.

The Broncos are an interesting team to look at when it comes to run/pass ratio. From 2003 to 2005 they ran the ball more than they passed it all three seasons and had a 33-15 record with playoff appearances in all three years. In the past two seasons the pass has overtaken the run in Denver and its record is 16-16 with no playoff appearances. Some would say it was a poor defense that forced the passing, some would say the QB skills favored the pass. Both may be true but Denver needs to get back to what made it successful.

Ten teams ran the ball more than they passed it in 2005. Here's how they finished.
Team Record
Denver* 13-3
Seattle* 13-3
Jacksonville* 12-4
Pittsburgh* 11-5
Chicago* 11-5
Carolina* 11-5
Kansas City 10-6
Washington* 10-6
Dallas 9-7
Atlanta 8-8
*Made the playoffs

In looking at the run/pass ratio the best 'run', if you will, for the NFL was 2003-2005. Over that time an average of nine teams a season ran the ball more than they passed it and 18 of the 26 teams that stayed on the ground more than in the air made the playoffs. 24 of the 26 teams had a winning record!

So will 2008 resemble 2005 when 10 teams kept it on the ground? All indications are that the perfect storm is here for the season. I could see 11-12 teams running the ball more than they pass it this season. Here is a quick look back at 2005 before I speculate on 2008.

The teams that look poised to run it more than throw it in 2008:

1. Pittsburgh: A defensive-minded head coach, a two headed monster in the backfield, and a long history.
2. Jacksonville: Running the ball is always the Jags' plan; why not make it four years in a row?
3. Tennessee: Jeff Fisher has the two backs, the offensive line, and the need to protect his QB.
4. San Diego: LaDainian Tomlinson is the only reason the Chargers need.
5. Kansas City: Larry Johnson is back, the QB can't handle a big passing attack and Herm Edwards is defensive-minded head coach.
6. Oakland: The Raiders did it last year and now they have inexperienced JaMarcus Russell under center with Darren McFadden joining Justin Fargas and Michael Bush in the backfield.
7. New York Jets: When newly acquired guard Alan Faneca was in Pittsburgh 75 percent of the running attack ran through him. The same will be true with the Jets.
8. Baltimore: An inexperienced QB will probably start, the great pass blocking left tackle (Jonathan Ogden) is gone and they now have a defensive-minded young head coach.
9. Buffalo: Trent Edwards is entering his first full season as a starter, the Bills ran it more than passed it last year and head coach Dick Jauron comes from the defensive world.
10. Houston: Alex Gibbs was hired to establish the run game and whereever he goes (Denver, Atlanta) they run the ball more than throw it.
11. Miami: Bill Parcells and Tony Sporano know this team isn't ready to stick its neck out and throw the ball. The Fish have a two-headed monster in the backfield (Ronnie Brown/Ricky Williams) a young tackle in Jake Long, who is a mauler as a run blocker, and they brought in tight ends who run block.
12. Minnesota: Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor vs. letting Tarvaris Jackson try and beat you. Not yet.
13. Detroit: Rod Marinelli let former offensive coordinator Mike Martz go in the offseason and vows to stick with the run this year. His offensive line coach is calling the plays and he will pound it with the running game.
14. Atlanta: The Falcons have little choice but to play conservatively until the team is built and newly acquired RB Michael Turner is their best weapon.

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