NFL Today: The Golden Age Of The Ground Game

Cold, Hard Football Facts for May 09, 2013



Even casual football fans know that pass defenses in the NFL have been overrun in recent years like Saddam Hussein's third-world fighter jet force in the first Gulf War.

Quarterbacks rule the skies, and there's not much defense ministers or defensive coordinators can do about it anymore. Modern passing strategy has been put in the hands of quarterbacks culled since high school to execute pro-style offenses, who enjoy the luxury of facing defenses legislatively neutered by the NFL itself. These forces have all combined to make it easier than ever to pass the football.

The result is that passing stats have hit all-time highs in recent years, whether measured by attempts, yards, touchdowns, TD-INT ratio or passer rating.

But those same rules that have made it so easy to pass the ball have also opened up things underneath for running backs, too. Much like air superiority allowed Allied infantry in World War II or the Gulf War to dominate the battlefield below, passing superiority has given running backs a chance to overrun defenses like never before.

In fact, it’s never been easier to run the football than it is today. Conversely, it's never been tougher to play run defense.

The past two years were the most explosive seasons in NFL history for running backs, who for the first time averaged more than 4.25 yards per carry. That’s right, give the ball to any Ordinary Joe Ball Carrier, and he’s going to bang out an average of nearly 13 feet of God’s green fake grass.

We’ve also seen a recent glut of the greatest rushing teams in NFL history, including the 2012 Vikings and Redskins; and in 2011 the Panthers, Vikings and Eagles. All five teams averaged more than 5.0 YPA, putting them on the short list of most powerful rushing attacks ever. (See a list of the greatest rushing teams in NFL history here.)

We've seen the most explosive individual ball carrier in NFL history in recent years, too: Kansas City's Jamaal Charles has averaged an incredible 5.79 YPA in his five-year career, putting him on pace to shatter by more than a half-yard per tote the nearly 50-year-old record set by no less a legend than Jim Brown himself (5.22 YPA). (Official NFL records require min. 750 rush attempts.)

Put another way, you live in the Golden Age of the Ground Game. Sure, teams pass the ball more often and run it less often than ever before. But when they do run, they do it better than ever.

Here’s a look at the 12 greatest seasons in NFL history for running the football: 2011 and 2012 top the list, while 8 of the 12 most explosive rushing seasons in history have come since 2002.   

(Cap tip Pro Football Reference.com for data).

RankYearAttYardsYPA
1201113971599784.293
2201213925593494.262
3200914088597394.240
419584805203384.233
519594901206894.221
619616106257664.220
7200214102594594.216
8201013920586074.210
9200814119593704.205
10200314508603414.159
11200614447600614.157
1219505793240754.156



One other factor has aided the recent cluster of great rushing attacks: the current crop of dual-purpose quarterbacks, like Michael Vick, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, among others.

Quarterbacks have an unfair advantage on NFL stat sheets: if they're a tackled behind the line of scrimmage, it counts as a sack against their pass yardage, not as a rush attempt against their rush yardage.

This factor is one reason Vick, Newton and Griffin led teams that are members of the elite 5.0 Club; in Vick's case, he's responsible for several teams on the list.

Conversely, it’s tougher than ever to stop the run, as defenses focus their attention on stopping the pass. Hey, there’s a reason we saw a rare run on defensive tackles in the 2013 draft. Somebody’s gotta start plugging up the middle a little better or defenses will continue to be embarrassed at the point of attack.

The recent glut of great rushing offenses in NFL history has naturally been accompanied by a glut of worst run defenses in NFL history. (See a list of the worst run defenses in NFL history here).  

The 2012 Saints and Colts each ended up on the short list of defenses in NFL history gashed for more than 5.0 YPA. The Raiders, Buccaneers and Lions made the list in 2011.

The Saints nearly made the list two years in a row, surrendering 4.95 YPA in 2011. We reported on the historic defensive woes for the New Orleans Saints earlier this week, including history's first 7,000-yard defense.

So, yes, it’s easier than ever to run the football, yet teams run that ball less than ever. But don’t expect a change in the pass-run balance in the NFL anytime soon.

Quite frankly, for most teams, there’s no reason to run the ball more often. Sure, you need some semblance of balance in your attack. Teams that pass TOO often typically struggle. Note the 2012 Lions, among many other examples.

But at the end of the day, passing is still the most effective way to matriculate the ball down the field.

Look at it this way: NFL teams over the past two seasons averaged a record 4.28 YPA on the ground.But they still averaged more than 7.0 yards per pass attempt, or about 6.25 Real Passing YPA – our CHFF Quality Stat based up on total drop backs, and not just actual pass attempts.

So, yes, we live in the Golden Age of the Ground Game, the best time ever to admire the handiwork of ball carriers, exploding through defenses like never before. But quarterbacks still shine brighter than running backs. The NFL is, was and always will be a league in which air superiority rules the battlefield.


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