With three quarterbacks on pace to break the single-season mark for passing yards, the perception is that teams have no regard for the running game in today's NFL. When you dig a little deeper into what is really going on, the pass-happy sentiment might not be a reality.
There's no doubt that passing attempts are up for some teams, but when you use Dan Marino's 1984 season -- the year he threw for a record 5,084 yards -- as the benchmark, it reveals a few things.
Marino attempted 35.3 passes a game that season. Right now, there are 10 quarterbacks attempting more per game, led by Kyle Orton (43.8) and Peyton Manning (43).
Marino averaged 317.8 yards a game in 1984. At this point, Orton (354.8), Manning (341.2) and Philip Rivers (332) are ahead of his pace. Orton projects to have 137 more attempts than Marino's 564 from 1984, Manning 124 more and Rivers the same amount of passes. If they can keep it up, the single-season passing yards record will be challenged.
However, does all this represent the deterioration of the running game across the league?
Before comparing 2010 run-pass ratios, I examined 2000 through 2009. Overall, run-pass ratios for all down and distances didn't change much over those 10 seasons. Teams ran the ball 44 percent of the time and threw it 56 percent. If you look at just playoff teams, running the ball is slightly higher at 47 percent and passing falls to 53 percent.
If you had to guess how many teams run the ball more than they throw it over the course of a season, you might be surprised. Since 2000, the NFL averaged about five teams a year that were dominated by run calls. In 2002, only two teams actually did it. This season, the Steelers (58 percent), Titans (54 percent) and Jets (54 percent) are running more. The Jaguars are right at 50-50.
Considering that the 10-year average is to run 44 percent of the time, it's simple to look for good teams that are significantly under that number. Nine teams run the ball fewer than 40 percent of the time. From that group, it's easy to get rid of the poor teams that are constantly playing catch up like Detroit, San Francisco and Seattle. That leaves Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Philadelphia as the good teams that simply prefer to pass more than run.
To really understand how much the percentages mean you really have to look at two other areas. What are the run-pass ratios on first down, which is a telltale sign of how pass-happy teams can be? And how much are running backs used as receivers as a substitute for the run game?
Over the last 10 years, teams run 52 percent and pass 48 percent on first down. Most teams really want to present a balanced look in this situation, and this season is actually ahead of the 10-year average at 54 percent run and 46 percent pass. There are currently nine teams that are over 60 percent run in this situation (Ravens, Panthers, Chiefs, Vikings, Jets, Steelers, Chargers, Buccaneers, and Titans).
Interestingly enough, the Colts are a pass-happy team that is more balanced on first down with 51 percent run calls. Peyton Manning understands the value of balance. The other pass-happy teams also try to do the same on first down. Only Dallas was under 40 percent (31 runs and 51 passes) on the "balanced down," as one NFL scout likes to call it. New Orleans, Denver, Chicago, and Philadelphia are all in the mid 40s and attempt to work towards balance in the calls. Don't be surprised to see the Saints get very close to the NFL average by the end of the season after averaging 29 runs a game last year.
Although many think the Patriots belong in the pass-first group, they are 54 percent run on first downs and 47 percent run overall. The perception of the Patriots always seems to be Tom Brady to Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Even last year, they finished tied for seventh in the league with 29.2 running plays a game.
A growing trend is getting the ball to the running back in the short-passing attack in space and away from the heavy pounding of the inside running game. Adrian Peterson is a good example of how it works in today's game. He already has 13 receptions and is on pace for 69 catches, which is significantly higher than his previous best of 43 grabs. In fact, Peterson has moved steadily up from 19 receptions as a rookie to 21 to 43 and now possibly 70.
There are 18 running backs with at least 10 receptions. By the end of the season, there will be more than 35 backs with at least 25 catches. LeSean McCoy (23), Pierre Thomas (17), Matt Forte (16), Addai (13) and Correll Buckhalter (11) are all running backs on good teams that love to pass, and their run game is in these completions.
Scoring points is what drives offenses and when you look at that dimension of the game it tells us that more teams should be throwing the ball. Over the last 10 years, the 32 teams have a combined average of 423 rushing touchdowns and 672 passing touchdowns a season. That equates to about 25 rushing touchdowns and 40 passing touchdowns every week. After four weeks of action, there are 85 rushing touchdowns and 174 passing touchdowns, which is a slight change of the 10-year average with 21 rushing touchdowns and 43 passing scores per week.
Field position is a factor in run-pass ratios. For example, in the goal-to-go area, it would be reasonable to think that rushing touchdowns are more prevalent. That's the case over the last 10 years, with an average of 291 rushing touchdowns and 247 passing touchdowns inside the 10-yard line.
This year, however, passing touchdowns lead rushing touchdowns 64 to 57 inside the 10-yard line. Only once in 10 years did passing touchdowns exceed rushing scores in that situation. This is a trend to keep an eye on for the remainder of the season.
Adding to the idea of a pass-happy league, every coach is looking for explosive plays because it is so darn hard to grind out a score the way teams play defense. It's difficult to stick with the run if you are driven to find explosive plays. Through four weeks, there have been 361 passing plays over 20 yards and 64 touchdowns as compared to 87 runs over 20 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Perception vs. reality for 2010
1. Which team has run the ball the most on first down?
B. San Diego
2. Which team has thrown the most passes?
C. St. Louis
3. Which team has thrown the fewest passes?
D. N.Y. Jets
4. Which team has run the ball the most in the first half?
C. NY Jets
D. San Diego
5. Which team has thrown the most in the first half?
D. New Orleans
6. Which winning team that has played four games has run the ball the least?
C. Green Bay
D. New Orleans
The correct answer to every question is B.