Ground & Pound? MJD and how great teams ran the ball

Cold, Hard Football Facts for May 22, 2012



By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts ground crew foreman

 
Maurice Jones-Drew has missed Jacksonville’s spring workouts, in protest over his contract situation.

Jones-Drew was the leading rusher in the NFL last year, fresh off the best season of his career and really the only star of note on a punch-less offensive club. That combination of "big star" vs. "team in need" spells trouble for the Jaguars. Given that predicament, and given the football world's blind faith in the power of a premier back, Jacksonville management will probably feel the need to capitualate to their big star.
 
But should they?
 
Jaguars fans certainly wonder if the team should break the bank for their pint-sized big star. The answer is simple:
 
No. The Jaguars should not break the bank for MJD.
 
Certainly, fantasy football fans and those who peddle in the snake of oil of conventional wisdom are apoplectic: Jones-Drew was a stud last year. He led the NFL with 343 carries and 1,606 yards, with 8 rushing scores. He caught 43 for three more scores through the air.
 
Those numbers certainly equal a great season. But the Cold, Hard Football say, "So what?" The Jaguars went 5-11 and they scored just 15.2 PPG (28th). If a stud running back was the difference between a great offense and  bad offense, or the difference between victory and defeat, the Jaguars would have performed much better offensively and in the win column.
 
The AFC South, meanwhile, has been awash in running backs cranking out empty, insignificant yards in recent years. Chris Johnson (Tennessee), Arian Foster (Houston) and Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing each of the last three years. Not one of those teams had a winning record.

In fact, only two running back led the NFL in rushing on teams that won the Super Bowl: Emmitt Smith (three times), who's only the most prolific rusher of all time and the exception to every rule of the position, and Terrell Davis (1998).

So forgive the Mighty CHFFs if we don't get all ga-ga and starry eyed over guys who lead the NFL in rushing.
 
How the champs ran the ball
You know how we do things around here inside the House That the Facts Built. We start out by looking at great teams in history: where did they great teams excel statistically and where did they struggle?
 
This simple exercise has helped us change the way analysts understand the game of pro football and has wiped away much of the misty-eyed reverie and dusty-old conventional wisdom that clouds and corrupts so much about what people believe about the game today.
 
For example, this exercise – what were great teams great at? – is why we know the mighty Vince Lombardi Packers won via superior passing efficiency on both sides of the ball and not through some perceived but largely non-existent dominance on the ground year after year.
 
So for this stage of the exercise we began at the top: we looked at all 46 Super Bowl champions and simply measured how they ran the football.
  • How often they ran (attempts)
  • How far they ran (yards)
  • How many scores they ran for (TDs)
  • And how effectively they ran (yards per attempt)
What we found was pretty much what we expected: some champs ran quite well. Some ran quite poorly. At the end of the day, almost without exception, running the ball well or running it poorly is largely disconnected to championship capabilities. You can win running well; you can win running poorly.
 
But let’s start with the list of every Super Bowl champ and then dive into the results below. You can copy this chart into excel and search, etc. We have follow-up charts coming on individual leaders, rush defense, etc.

SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS running the ball (1966-2011)
Year Team Games ATT Rank YDS Rank TD Rank YPA Rank YPG
1966 Green Bay Packers 14 475 3 1673 8 18 3 3.52 13 119.5
1967 Green Bay Packers 14 474 4 1915 2 18 2 4.04 4 136.79
1968 New York Jets 14 467 3 1608 8 22 1 3.44 9 114.86
1969 Kansas City Chiefs 14 522 1 2220 1 19 1 4.25 1 158.57
1970 Baltimore Colts 14 411 21 1336 23 9 19 3.25 23 95.43
1971 Dallas Cowboys 14 512 2 2249 3 25 1 4.4 7 160.64
1972 Miami Dolphins 14 613 1 2960 1 26 1 4.83 2 211.43
1973 Miami Dolphins 14 507 12 2521 3 16 6 4.97 2 180.07
1974 Pittsburgh Steelers 14 546 4 2417 2 19 5 4.43 4 172.64
1975 Pittsburgh Steelers 14 581 5 2633 2 22 5 4.53 2 188.07
1976 Oakland Raiders 14 557 8 2285 10 14 14 4.1 14 163.21
1977 Dallas Cowboys 14 564 8 2369 4 21 1 4.2 5 169.21
1978 Pittsburgh Steelers 16 641 3 2297 14 16 12 3.58 23 143.56
1979 Pittsburgh Steelers 16 561 12 2603 2 25 2 4.64 1 162.69
1980 Oakland Raiders 16 541 10 2146 10 14 18 3.97 11 134.13
1981 San Francisco 49ers 16 560 6 1941 19 17 10 3.47 28 121.31
1982 Washington Redskins 9 315 5 1140 10 5 21 3.62 17 126.67
1983 L.A. Raiders 16 542 8 2240 10 18 8 4.13 15 140.00
1984 San Francisco 49ers 16 534 6 2465 3 21 2 4.62 2 154.06
1985 Chicago Bears 16 610 1 2761 1 27 1 4.53 5 172.56
1986 New York Giants 16 558 5 2245 6 18 7 4.02 11 140.31
1987 Washington Redskins 15 500 9 2102 7 18 3 4.2 5 140.13
1988 San Francisco 49ers 16 527 7 2523 2 18 7 4.79 2 157.69
1989 San Francisco 49ers 16 493 13 1966 10 14 12 3.99 13 122.88
1990 New York Giants 16 541 2 2049 8 17 7 3.79 24 128.06
1991 Washington Redskins 16 540 1 2049 7 21 1 3.79 18 128.06
1992 Dallas Cowboys 16 500 4 2121 5 20 2 4.24 9 132.56
1993 Dallas Cowboys 16 490 6 2161 2 20 2 4.41 3 135.06
1994 San Francisco 49ers 16 491 5 1897 6 23 2 3.86 7 118.56
1995 Dallas Cowboys 16 495 4 2201 2 29 1 4.45 4 137.56
1996 Green Bay Packers 16 465 14 1838 11 9 19 3.95 12 114.88
1997 Denver Broncos 16 520 6 2378 4 18 5 4.57 2 148.63
1998 Denver Broncos 16 525 2 2468 2 26 1 4.7 2 154.25
1999 St. Louis Rams 16 431 15 2059 5 13 10 4.78 2 128.69
2000 Baltimore Ravens 16 511 5 2199 5 9 24 4.3 8 137.44
2001 New England Patriots 16 473 8 1793 13 15 7 3.79 24 112.06
2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 16 414 23 1557 27 6 31 3.76 28 97.31
2003 New England Patriots 16 473 12 1607 27 9 24 3.4 30 100.44
2004 New England Patriots 16 524 5 2134 7 15 8 4.07 18 133.38
2005 Pittsburgh Steelers 16 549 1 2223 5 21 5 4.05 12 138.94
2006 Indianapolis Colts 16 439 18 1762 18 17 6 4.01 16 110.13
2007 New York Giants 16 469 8 2148 4 15 7 4.58 4 134.25
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers 16 460 9 1690 23 16 11 3.67 29 105.63
2009 New Orleans Saints 16 468 7 2106 6 21 3 4.5 7 131.63
2010 Green Bay Packers 16 421 20 1606 24 11 18 3.81 25 100.38
2011 New York Giants 16 411 22 1427 32 17 6 3.47 32 89.19
  Averages   504.8 7.7 2089 8.8 17.6 7.9 4.14 11.6 136.5
 
Here are some of the findings. We began publishing them on Twitter Monday (@footballfacts). But we'll be analyzing and expanding on this data and on both sides of the ball throughout the 2012 season and beyond.
 

The 1972 Dolphins and 1985 Bears

Only two teams led the NFL in rushing and won a Super Bowl: the 1972 Miami Dolphins and 1985 Chicago Bears. These are two of the most legendary teams in history: the undefeated 17-0 Dolphins and the mighty 18-1 Bears. Each team led the NFL in rushing attempts, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. They are clear statistical anomalies on our list of largely average rushing teams.
 
Their status as legends would seem to confirm the effectiveness of the alleged old-school devotion to so-called smash-mouth football. But in reality these teams were great in almost every other way, too. They largely benefited from the league’s best defenses and best pass defenses – both were No. 1 in scoring D fielded elite pass defenses, as measured by Defensive Passer Rating.
 
Oh, the 1972 Dolphins also led the NFL in offensive passer rating (86.9).  So they were elite in all aspects of the game, not just running the ball. Hence, 17-0. The 1985 Bears were a respectable No. 5 in passing YPA (7.6) and No. 9 in passer rating (77.3).
 

Middle-of-the-pack rushing skills

The average Super Bowl champ ranked 8th in rushing touchdowns, 9th in rushing yards and 12th in average per rush attempt. There were, on average, 27.5 teams in the NFL since 1966.
 
So those results mean that the average champ barely ranked in the top third in rushing and was merely middle of the pack in rushing effectiveness.
 

Rushing attempts is the key

The Cold, Hard Football Facts, along with other researchers, have often said that you don’t need to run well to win. You just need to attempt to run often to provide some balance on offense. Former NFL coach Bill Parcells has made the same claim.
 
This list provides further confirmation of this belief: of the categories above, Super Bowl champs on average ranked highest in rush attempts (7.7th) and lowest in average per attempt (11.6th).
 
In other words, they largely did not run the ball any better than the average NFL team. But they did run it more often.

A statistical butchery of the Redskins' Hogs

The Hogs helped make the Washington Redskins of the early 1980s one of the most compelling teams in history. In fact, we call them The Last Old School team.

Anyone old enough, or who enjoys NFL Films, can't help but picture mighty John Riggins smashing helpless defenses behind the blocks of Joe Jacoby, Russ Grimm, Jeff Bostic, Mark May and George Starke, while RFK Stadium reverberated with the sounds of diesel horns. If the Cold, Hard Football Facts got misty eyed, those images would do it for us.

But it turns out, week to week, those Super Bowl-champ Redskins were not a particularly skilled rushing team. In the strike-shortened nine-game season, they ran for just 5 TDs (21st) and averaged a meager 3.62 YPA (17th).

Now, Riggins was an absolute horse in the 1982 playoffs. He ran often and ran well. The unusual 16-team playoff tournament of 1982 is where he earned established his legend. But week in and week out, the Diesel and the Hogs were not a particularly adept running team.

The 1983 Redskins were a much better running team, leading the NFL in attempts (629) and touchdowns (30). Their average of 4.17 YPA was not particularly impressive. Of course, that team, despite its rushing productivity, failed to win the Super Bowl, whereas the 1982 Redskins succeeded.

The need, or lack thereof, for 1,000-yard rushers

Nineteen of 46 Super Bowl champs did not have a 1,000-yard rusher, including the last four. But don’t think it’s a modern phenomenon. The first six Super Bowl champs failed to offer us a 1,000-yard rusher, too.
 
The 1,000-yard rusher holds a certain amount of cachet in the football lexicon. But in reality it’s largely irrelevant to on-the-field success.

Norm Bulaich and the 1970 Colts

The 1970s produced a wealth of premier backs, but with the exception of Larry Csonka and Franco Harris, they rarely played for champions.
 
The decade began ignominiously for the ground game, too. The 1970 Colts were the least effective rushing team to win a Super Bowl. They averaged just 3.25 yards per rush attempt.
 
They also fielded the least productive leading rusher: Norm Bulaich carried the ball 139 times for 426 yards a dismal average of 3.06 YPA and just 3 TDs. Still, Johnny Unitas and the Colts were good enough to eke out a Super Bowl championship.
 

Best and worst

The most productive rushing Super Bowl winner was the 1972 Dolphins (211.4 YPG). We saw the least productive team just last season, the 2011 Giants (89.2 YPG).

The efficiency leaders

The 1973 Dolphins (4.97 YPA) and 1972 Dolphins (4.83) ran the ball more effectively than any other Super Bowl champs. But the next two teams on the list may surprise you: the 1988 49ers (4.79) and Greatest Show on Turf 1999 Rams (4.78).
 

No nose for the end zone

The 2002 Super Bowl champ Tampa Bay Buccaneers rushed for just 6 TDs, fewest by any SB champ in a 14- or 16-game season.
 

Myth of the Packers

No myth in football is more enduring than that of the mighty Packers powering their way to one championship after another.
 
The 1962 Packers may have been the greatest rushing team of all time. But the success of Lombardi’s Packers on the ground varied widely from year to year.
 
The 1966 Packers ranked 3rd in attempts, 3rd in touchdowns, 8th in yards and just 13th in average per attempt in a 15-team league.  
 
The Packers jettisoned Hall of Famer Jim Taylor before the start of the 1967 season. Their rankings as a rushing team largely improved across the board, and they did it without a star ball carrier.
 
Jim Grabowski led the 1967 Packers in rushing with 120 carries for 466 yards and 2 TDs. That offense was virtually unstoppable during the postseason, laying waste to the Rams and Raiders and eking out tough yards when they counted most against the Cowboys in the Ice Bowl. And that legendary team did it all with merely servicable guys in the backfield.

Certainly, they didn't possess a single back of the caliber of Maurice Jones-Drew. But who cares, really?

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