Denver's old-blood-and-guts ground game
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Oct 11, 2006
By Cold, Hard Football Facts publisher Kerry J. Byrne
High-powered aerial attacks always excite the "pundits" and you, the pigskin public.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts are not so impressed. After all, you have to go back nearly half a century, to Johnny Unitas in 1959, to find a passing yardage leader who won an NFL title.
We prefer to hold a special place in our icy, passionless hearts for the ground game. There is nobility in knowing that your offense can physically brutalize the 11 other men on the field and bend them to your will. In fact, we'd just as soon ban the forward pass, the facemask and the two-platoon system and bring back the flying wedge. Now that'd be football.
We're not holding our breath.
But we do have one team to hang our leather helmet on here in the pass-happy 21st century.
No team rushes the ball – or crushes the will of its opponents – like Mike Shanahan's Broncos. If history and Cold, Hard Football Facts are any indication, Denver will roll over woeful Oakland Sunday night like Patton's 3rd Army plowing through Avranches.
We spilled the old blood and guts of gridiron history to see how Denver's ground assault stacks up today ... and against the great running games of all time.
The results are fairly impressive.
Shanahan came to Denver in 1995. But to make things nice and tidy, we've looked at his team over the past 10 seasons (1996 to 2005). During that period, the Broncos have run the ball for more yards, more touchdowns and a better average per carry than any team in football.
Only rock-jawed Bill Cowher's Steelers have run the ball more. But they haven't done it as well. Here's what the average season has looked like for the NFL's two best (or at least most persistent) ground games in the 10 seasons from 1996-2005:
- Pittsburgh: 531 attempts, 2,212 yards, 4.16 YPC, 15.7 TDs
- Denver: 511 attempts, 2,304 yards, 4.51 YPC, 18.4 TDs
A better way to draw the comparison might be to look at each team's average game over that 10-year period. The advantage, of course, still goes to Denver:
- Pittsburgh: 33.2 attempts, 138.2 yards, 0.98 TDs
- Denver: 31.9 attempts, 144.0 yards, 1.15 TDs
Only four of 32 teams last year averaged more than 144 rushing yards per game. Denver has kept up that pace for a decade ... and counting. Through their first four games of 2006, the Broncos average:
- 141.5 yards per game (fourth)
- 30.8 attempts per game (seventh)
- 4.6 yards per attempt (fifth)
The punishing ground game has had obvious benefits. Since 1996, the Broncos have the best record in the NFL (109-55; .665).
Denver's ground game is not just dominant by contemporary standards. The truth is that few teams in NFL history have moved the ball on the ground so effectively over such a long period.
We rolled through NFL history in our M1A1 Abrams tank of truth, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, and discovered just one team that clearly outpaces Shanahan's Broncos: the Cleveland Browns of the 1950s and 60s. During that period, they earned the title of pro football's greatest dynasty.
Vince Lombardi's Packers have the reputation as the great ground team of the 1960s. But the Browns actually ran the ball better over the course of the decade.
From 1960 to 1969, the Browns averaged 153 yards per game and a phenomenal 4.8 yards per carry.
The Packers averaged 145 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry.
(For the record, the league-wide average per carry has been a pretty consistent 4.0 for the past several decades.)
Cleveland's period of ground-game dominance actually began a full decade earlier, in 1950, the year that the Browns joined the NFL from the old All-America Football Conference. The Browns averaged an amazing 155 yards over the course of the 258 games they played from 1950 to 1969.
Cleveland, not so coincidentally, won more games than any team in the NFL over this period (180-71-7; .711).
Cleveland did have a secret weapon. Jim Brown, the greatest running back in NFL history, handled the bulk of the work for the Browns in nine of these 20 years. He averaged a phenomenal 6.4 yards per carry in 1963, while the Browns set a single-season NFL record with a team average of 5.7 yards per carry.
Shanahan has not been so lucky. He has pieced together his groundbreaking ground attack with a rotating list of leading ballcarriers, most of them NFL journeymen. Six different backs have led the Broncos in rushing since 1996.
But one thing has remained constant: Denver's ability to impose its will on its opponents ... and its ability to win football games.
Would you believe Denver's sickly Sunday night opponent, Oakland, averages more yards per carry this season than the Broncos?
The Raiders have picked up 474 yards on 93 carries, for a nifty 5.1 yards per attempt. Only Atlanta (6.1 YPC) is better. (The Falcons, by the way, are on pace to set the single-season team rushing record and team average-per-carry record.)
It only goes to prove how deceptive numbers can be when we have just small samples to study. Oakland running back Justin Fargas is largely responsible for his team's impressive average. He has ripped off 9.0 yards per attempt (17 carries, 153 yards). But nearly a third of those yards (48) came on a single carry against Cleveland, a team challenging Oakland as the worst in the NFL.
So why is Oakland winless (0-4)? Its problems begin with a passing game so pathetic it should panhandle on a street corner.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts count passing yards per attempt as one of our key "Quality Stats." These are stats that have a direct correlation to winning football games. Oakland is dead last in the NFL in passing yards per attempt.
Many other outlets measure passing yards per attempt. But they don't do it the right way. Almost all look at passing yards per attempt as a way to measure individual passers. They divide passing yards by passing attempts, telling you how many yards a passer picks up every time he tosses the ball.
This can give a wildy inaccurate picture of a team's success in the passing game.
The reason why is pretty simple: Teams don't always get their passes off.
Sometimes quarterbacks are sacked. Quarterbacks on bad teams (or bad quarterbacks) are sacked more frequently than others. Quarterbacks on good teams (or good quarterbacks) are sacked less often than others.
Fantasy football fans may not care. But these sacks can play a big role in the outcome of a game. They certainly make it harder for a team to move the ball downfield.
So to determine a team's true passing yards per attempt, we divide net passing yards (passing yards minus yards lost on sacks) by passing attempts plus sacks. It looks like this:
Net passing yards/(pass attempts + sacks) = passing YPA
Oakland has picked up 542 passing yards this season on 102 attempts. That's 5.3 yards per attempt, and this is the figure that most people report (542/102).
However, Oakland has been sacked 20 times for a loss of 115 yards. So it has picked up 427 net passing yards. Divide that net (427) by passing attempts (102) and you get 4.2 yards per attempt. Suddenly, we find that the Raiders average more on the ground than they do through the air.
But we're still not done. The Raiders have thrown 102 passes. But they've attempted 122. Remember, Oakland quarterbacks have been sacked 20 times. These plays actually happened. They didn't just disappear into a fantasy football netherworld. And they materially impacted Oakland's ability to move the ball down the field. These aborted pass attempts still need to be counted.
Well, we count 'em for every team in the NFL. And what we find is that Oakland now averages a truly abysmal 3.5 yards per pass attempt (427/122).
That's dead last in the NFL, a full yard less than No. 31 Atlanta, and 1.6 yards less than the Raiders average every time they run the ball.
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