|Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press|
|The Colts are undefeated, despite being one of the NFL's lowest-rated rushing teams.|
I'm a fairly simple dude. Meat and potatoes. Dinner and a movie. Shot and a beer.
And, when it comes to football: Run the ball and stop the run. Do that, and you'll find yourself in pretty good shape when all is said and done in the NFL. Right?
Well, this season, not so much. In fact, not really at all. I sat down this week to start breaking down some stats on running the ball, and stopping it. It's no newsflash that the league has become increasingly pass-friendly, with tough rules for defensive backs, strict enforcement of quarterback contact, and more teams willing to spread the field in four- to five-wide sets.
But what I found still surprised me. Stuffing the run and churning up yards are no longer a precursor to winning. In fact, this season it's pretty much the opposite. However, one tenet of old-school football stands the test of time: The teams that run the ball the most -- not necessarily the best -- are still crushing it in the standings.
Okay, let's start by looking at the five best teams in the NFL in terms of yards per carry (when it comes to these stats, I prefer this standard; yards per game has too much to do with how many rushes a team makes, and other game situations. Give me yards per carry as a true barometer of rushing acumen). And I'll list the record next to each team.
Now, here are the bottom five teams in the NFL in terms of yards per carry:
Hmm. Pretty strange. So, then I took a look at how important it was to stop the run this season. While the bottom five teams in the NFL in terms of rushing average/carry against are in trouble -- Buffalo, Carolina, Houston, Cleveland and Tampa Bay (a combined 8-21), the top five weren't exactly all world beaters, as Arizona, San Francisco, Denver, Miami and Tennessee are a combined 14-13.
So, thus far this season, the top five teams running the ball and the top five teams stopping the run are a combined 25-30. Not what I expected. I ran it by a few personnel people, and they weren't quite as surprised, at least not that yards per carry didn't translate so directly to success.
I had also begun testing my theory that running ball the most, in sheer number of carries, not so much average per carry, mattered. I've been tracking this one for a few seasons and it always seemed to be strongly correlated to winning. This time, I ended up looking at the top six teams (not sure why, math and science were never my thing; always an English and history guy. Anywho ...)
Here are the top five teams this season in terms of rushing attempts:
Obviously, that's pretty rare air right there. So, then I decided to look back at past seasons to see if rushing success (average per carry) or rushing attempts was more directly linked to winning football.
Last year, the top six rushing attempt teams (Baltimore, Atlanta, Minnesota, New England, Tennessee and Carolina) were 68-28, while the top six rushing average teams (New York Giants, Carolina, Denver, Kansas City, New York Jets and Minnesota) went 53-43.
In 2007, the top six in rushing attempts (Tennessee, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Washington and Minnesota) were 52-44, while the top six in average (Minnesota, Philadelphia, Denver, Jacksonville, New York Giants and Cleveland) were 54-42. So the rush average teams "won," but barely. And still that season the rushing attempts teams accounted for four playoff teams, to just two for the rushing average teams.
In 2006, the rushing attempt leaders (Atlanta, San Diego, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Chicago and New England) went 63-33, while the rushing average leaders (Atlanta, Jacksonville, San Diego, San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York Giants) went 54-42.
In 2005, the rushing attempt leaders (Pittsburgh, Denver, Atlanta, Washington, Dallas and Kansas City) went 61-35, while the rushing average leaders (Atlanta, Denver, New York Giants, Seattle, Kansas City and San Diego), went 64-32. So again, they essentially “pushed,” while both sets of teams accounted for three playoff clubs.
In 2004, the top six teams in rushing attempts (Pittsburgh, Denver, New York Jets, San Diego, Atlanta and New England) were 72-24, while the top six in rushing average (Atlanta, Minnesota, Kansas City, New York Giants, New York Jets, Seattle and Tennessee) were 56-55.
Then I took a look at a random historical season, in this case, 1985. In that year the top six rushing attempt teams went 61-35, while the rushing average leaders went 53-43. In 1975, the rushing attempt leaders went 63-21, while the rushing average leaders went 54-30.
If nothing else, rushing attempts seems a better predicator of success than sheer rushing success. Of the 42 top rushing attempt teams in the study, 30 made the playoffs and just three finished below .500. Of the 42 top rushing average teams, 20 made the playoffs and nine finished below .500.
So in that regard, what we've seen this season is on par with the past. However, the top five rushing average teams being well below .500 is out of character for this study. And, furthermore, for the bottom five rushing teams in 2009 to be 15-12 looks like an anomaly, too.
In 2008, the five worst teams in rushing average on defense went 37-42. In 2004, it was 25-55. In 1985, the five worst went 37-42 and in 1975 they went 26-44. Clearly something has changed.
This is where I think years of rules changes, and what appears to be a golden era of quarterbacks (more guys have ratings around 100 than we almost ever see), is changing the way games are won. You can thrive with an elite passing game and anemic run game (think Colts), or at the very least stay in the playoff hunt. In 2004, for example, of the five worst running clubs, not one won more than seven games. And, if you lack any vertical element or pass threat -- like the Titans -- even being second best in average per carry and fifth-best in average per carry against is good enough only for 0-6.
Trouble in our nation's capital
After speaking to some coaches and execs around the league about the situation in Washington with Jim Zorn, many share the opinion that, to them, it appears the Redskins are trying to force Zorn out without having to fire him.
The weekly, and sometimes daily, attempts to usurp his authority or responsibility, are well documented by now. When Zorn's long-time friend and teammate Steve Largent expressed his opinion on the matter this week, defending Zorn, management was not pleased, according to team sources, with vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato expressing that displeasure in Zorn's office.
Zorn isn't allowed to call plays anymore -- recent retiree and Bingo caller Sherm Lewis is, despite having a greatly limited knowledge of the team's personnel and schemes -- and there have been suggestions from some pundits that Zorn simply step down. It's cute to talk of such principles, chiding Zorn for letting himself be “embarrassed” as the theory goes, but I wonder how many of those same self-righteous voices would walk away from $4.5 million, and what was the greatest challenge of their professional career, on such alleged high moral ground?
As I reported earlier this week, Zorn is not going to walk away from this mess. Sure, it's pretty obvious by now he's going to have weeks, and not years, to fix it, but if he's no longer wanted at Redskins Park (as what most observers would seem to think is the case), then go ahead and fire him. Because Zorn has not left the building, and he won't be doing so.
“I have never considered quitting,” Zorn said during a brief phone conversation Thursday. “That's not in my nature. That's not something I would ever consider.”
Zorn said he is looking at the challenge in Washington the same way he did when he was hired, and will continue working as hard as he can to try to fix his offense.
Zorn, who has proven to be thick skinned and candid as a head coach, said he is unconcerned with any outside criticism (“I'm a strong individual,” he said), and has been willing to go along with the changes made to his duties out of his desire and hope that it triggers better production on offense, and more victories. Say what you want about his coaching and play calling, but the man has been nothing but decent and forthright in the face of all swirling around him.
At this point, there isn't much more that can be done to strip him of power (ban him from the practice field?), and the saga is certainly not presenting this once-proud organization in the best light possible. Two years ago the top coaching candidates were not interested in this job for various reasons, which led to Zorn being miscast in the role of head coach/play caller/quarterback coach and de facto offensive coordinator. That, coupled with the vast personnel issues on offense, made him destined to fail.
And given the treatment of Zorn this season, and the unusual decisions made with bringing in Lewis, it would seem the job has only been de-valued further in the eyes of those who can pick and choose their next move.
Not surprisingly, rumors of owner Daniel Snyder turning back to Joe Gibbs to help guide the franchise out of this void emerged. Snyder's faith in Gibbs and utter respect for him is well documented. And, In the right scenario, some who know Gibbs well could see the possible allure.
A source close to Gibbs, connected to his NASCAR team, said he would be shocked if the doting grandfather, already spread thin with several business ventures and a ministry, would even consider returning to the Redskins in an official capacity.
But others who know Gibbs say they couldn't entirely rule out a hypothetical where Gibbs served as the team president, getting a piece of the franchise (he had to divest himself of his share of the Falcons when he came back as Washington‘s coach in 2004), allowed to spend most of his time at home in Carolina, helping select the next coach, overseeing a change in personnel (during his last stint with the Redskins, Gibbs twice came close to trying to hire Bobby DePaul, Chicago's senior director of pro personnel, according to Redskins sources). In this conceptual role, Gibbs would serve as a buffer between Snyder and those who manage and coach the club on a daily basis, and he would also be a much-needed conduit to a fan base that is turning understandably angry.
There's no easy solution to the plight of the Redskins. But if the Sherm Lewis experiment goes as poorly as some expect, the worst may be yet to come.
Browns dogged by flu
No team has had to use the swine flu exemption to this point, and the Cleveland Browns hope they won't be the first this weekend. The team has been extra zealous in trying to fight the flu outbreak that led to 12 players sitting out a midweek practice, and they expect to be much closer to full health Sunday.
Coach Eric Mangini sent home players who exhibited flu-like symptoms (a source close to one player said even coughing repeatedly was enough in some cases), but, for the franchise that has been dogged by staph infections in the past, taking this health issue seriously makes sense. Two Browns tested positive for Influenza A (presumably H1N1), but as of Thursday night the number had not grown and more players were getting healthy.
The Browns sent out internal memos urging all employees who were pregnant or had small children, and who could work from home, to do so. Practices were truncated, walkthroughs extended and some meetings curtailed to allow players to get home sooner (Mangini has faced plenty of criticism for not being player-friendly, but you can't knock him in this instance).
Ultimately, Cleveland seems poised to have enough healthy players to avoid needing to bring up reinforcements from the practice squad. The limited prep time in some instances isn't going to help their chances of beating the Packers, but this was a no-win situation that has been managed well.
» Cedric Benson faces a 4-3 defense for just the second time this season, and the Bengals' guards will get a nice test against Chicago. Benson opened up with five games against 3-4 teams and averaged 4.4 per carry, with two 100-yard games and racing to the league's rushing lead. Last week, a poor Houston rush defense shut him down on 2.8 yards per carry. The guards were forced into one-on-one battles in this scheme, and the Bears have been stout against the run this season. Benson thrived early on against some tough defenses, like Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Denver, but monitoring the offensive line and the running game against all schemes bears monitoring. ...
» These are Kyle Orton's fourth-quarter stats this season: 29-for-42 (69 percent) for 511 yards, four touchdown, no interceptions and a 142.1 passer rating. I wouldn't call that game managing. Orton is another guy who could end up being only a restricted free agent rather than an unrestricted, based on whether or not there is a CBA extension by March (very unlikely at this point), but regardless it makes sense for both sides to explore an extension. Getting Orton signed at a manageable figure won't preclude drafting and developing a young quarterback at some point, and the Broncos might not be poised to pick too high for at least this year, anyway. All the guy has done is win football games, and, if I recall correctly, that's pretty much what this whole thing is about.