The Great (Troll) War

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Oct 24, 2007



Ed. Note: This is Round 4 in a continuing Troll Fight between mutant Cold, Hard Football Facts readers (are there any other kind) Mike Stickles and Mark Wald, two apparently non-functioning members of society who seem to have nothing better to do than to pummel each other with gridiron haymakers of Cold, Hard Football Facts in an effort to settle an online debate: does "establishing the run" matter in the NFL? Here's a quick summary of the first few rounds:
 
October 1 ("The Great Ground Attacks") - Like a pigskin Princip of 1914, the Cold, Hard Football Facts unintentionally launch a bloodbath by assassinating the Austrian archduke of gridiron analysis, which insists that you need to "establish the run" to win football games.
 
October 13 ("More bad news for Merril Hoge & Co.") - CHFF reader Mike Stickles confirms our findings that "establishing the run" is overated with a look at total rushing yards and rushing YPA
 
October 16 ("Troll slams CHFF over "establish the run" findings") - CHFF reader Mark Wald says we and Stickles are missing the point and that rushing attempts, not yards or YPA, are very important
 
October 19 ("Troll fight!") - Stickles responds to Wald with exhaustive analysis that shows that teams build leads via the pass in the first half, and preserve their leads by running the ball in the second half
 
TODAY - Wald is back with an even more exhaustive analysis that seems to prove that, merely by running the ball, no matter how effectively, teams are able to open up the passing attack. He re-confirms what we've said all along, that Passing Yards Per Attempt is the single-most accurate offensive indicator of team-wide success. But he also finds that the best teams are those that keep pounding away on the ground, opening up the passing lanes in the process. See Wald's accompanying spreadsheet here. A lot of great stuff.
 
By Mark Wald
Cold, Hard Football Facts stat-crunching social leper
 
I feel like Ali in Zaire, 1974. Using a rope-a-dope strategy, I let Mike Stickles pepper me with small, harmless, girlish punches. I took the best he's got. A couple of the punches even hurt. But now it's the fourth round. He and his glass jaw are going down!
 
***
Look at any NFL box score. There are four Cold, Hard Football Facts you can pretty much bank on will favor the winner:
  • Turnover Margin
  • Yards Per Pass Attempt
  • Time of Possession
  • Number of Rushing Attempts
Lately there's been a lot of talk here that "establishing the run" is meaningless. Statistics seem to indicate that rushing doesn't have the same correlation to winning as throwing the ball effectively.
 
And yes, it doesn't require statistical analysis to conclude that teams that are ahead in the second half run more. 
 
But ... meaningless
 
The intent here is not to prove that rushing the ball is more correlative to winning football games than passing the ball well.  Rather, I'll prove that running the football is complementary to having an effective passing game, and, far from meaningless, it plays a very important role in team success. 
 
Where you find very successful teams, you'll usually find effective passing and consistent running. 
 
The first problem is defining what it means to "establish the run."
 
Is it running for a high average? Cold, Hard Football Facts thinks it is. CHFF established that most of the great running teams, based upon yards per attempt, were not great teams. Stickles look at total rushing yards.  
 
But why should "establishing the run" be exclusively defined by averages or yards?
 
Let me put this into terms the average CHFF reader can comprehend: If I make 10 pathetic, drunken, attempts to pull hot chicks out of a bar, only to land three fatties, have I not established my intent?
 
By the same token, if I take 10 running charges at CHFF Troll Mike Stickles only to have him kick me to the curb, have I not established that my intent is to take him down on the ground, leaving him open for a well planned aerial assault later? 
 
A direct correlation between running often and winning
In the NFL, there is a direct correlation between running often and winning.
 
Cold, Hard Football Facts recently said that teams with big leads often crank up their rushing attempts to sit on a lead and that it's not rushing that gets them that lead (from "Troll Slams CHFF over establish the run" findings" on October 16). Mike Stickles, like the brown-noser we remember from high school who agreed with everything the teacher said just to win favor, seconded the motion. More on that later. 
 
First, let's illustrate the correlation between rushing attempts and winning games with some Cold, Hard, Football Facts.
 
I researched the top 50 teams of the Super Bowl Era (sourcedatabasefootball.com) in the following categories:   
  • Yards Per Passing Attempt (YPPA)
  • Rushing Attempts Per Game (Rush APG)
  • Yards Per Rushing Attempt (YPRA) 
  • Total Rushing Yards
  • Total Passing Yards
  • Rush Plays as a % of Total Plays
  • Pass Plays as a % of Total Plays
Since CHFF did such an excellent job illustrating the evolution of the passing game ("A Myth-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius"), and since our aim is to determine what drives modern day success, I analyzed all teams in the Super Bowl Era (1966 – 2006) and then again in the Live Ball Era (1978 – 2006). (See Spreadsheet, Sheet 1 for details.)
 
Super Bowl Era (1966 – 2006)
Top 50 Teams in:
# Playoff Teams
% Playoffs
# SB Teams
% SB Teams
YPPA
35
70%
19
38%
Rush APG
35
70%
9
18%
Total Rushing Yards
33
66%
7
14%
Total Passing Yards
31
62%
5
10%
Rush Plays, % of Total Plays
30
60%
7
14%
YPRA
28
56%
8
16%
Pass Plays, % of Total Plays
9
18%
0
0%
 
 
Live Ball Era (1978 – 2006)
Top 50 Teams in:
# Playoff Teams
% Playoffs
 
# SB Teams
% SB Teams
YPPA
38
76%
14
28%
Total Passing Yards
31
62%
5
10%
Rushing APG
30
60%
6
12%
Rush Plays, % of Total Plays
29
58%
8
16%
Total Rushing Yards
29
58%
6
12%
YPRA
28
56%
6
12%
Pass Plays, % of Total Plays
9
18%
0
0%
 
 
Breaking down the charts
Clearly, Yards Per Passing Attempt has the strongest correlation to winning football games. There is little dispute there from anyone. In the Super Bowl Era, 35 of the top 50 teams in terms of YPPA were playoff teams, and 19 were Super Bowl teams. 
 
In the Live Ball Era, the correlation is strong, too, with 38 playoff teams and 14 Super Bowl teams. 
 
But Rushing Attempts Per Game is the second strongest winning indicator. In the Super Bowl era, 70 percent of the top 50 teams with the highest average number of rushing attempts per game made the playoffs, and nine went to the Super Bowl.
 
In the Live Ball era, Total Passing Yards produced the second highest percentage of playoff teams, but fewer Super Bowl teams than any of the rushing-related categories. 
 
Teams that threw the most passes, as percentage of overall plays (in other words, teams that ran the ball the least), had the least amount of success among these indicators. They also had the lowest rushing average per attempt of any group (you can see expanded data in the spreadsheet). Perhaps they had the lowest rushing average because they don't make rushing the football a priority. But perhaps having a balanced offense has something to do with having an effective passing game. 
 
What does this all mean? Well, for one thing, teams that pass well go on to fame and fortune. Teams that run often also go on to good things.
 
It appears that balance is the key (as the Cold, Hard Football Facts have shown in many other areas).
 
I looked at great passing teams (those who averaged 7.2 yards or more per passing attempt) and categorized them by their percentage of rush plays to total plays. I don't know why I used 7.2 as the YPPA threshold. Roll with it.
 
All Teams, Super Bowl Era (1966-present)
Criteria:
# Teams
Playoffs
% Playoffs
SB Teams
YPPA > 7.2 ,  Rush Plays > 60%
43
31
72%
11
YPPA > 7.2 , Rush Plays 55 - 60%
55
35
64%
15
YPPA > 7.2 , Rush Plays 50 - 55%
106
72
68%
23
YPPA > 7.2, Rush Plays 45 - 50%
95
50
53%
8
YPPA > 7.2, Rush Plays 40 - 45%
51
29
57%
5
 
All Teams, Live Ball Era (1978-present)
Criteria:
# Teams
Playoffs
% Playoffs
SB teams
YPPA > 7.2 ,  Rush Plays > 60%
5
4
80%
1
YPPA > 7.2 , Rush Plays 55 - 60%
32
22
69%
8
YPPA > 7.2 , Rush Plays 50 - 55%
81
59
73%
20
YPPA > 7.2, Rush Plays 45 - 50%
86
48
56%
6
YPPA > 7.2, Rush Plays 40 - 45%
47
29
62%
5
 
In both eras, the most successful teams rushed the ball 50 to 55 percent of the time. Surprisingly, the Live Ball Era produced a higher percentage of playoff teams in the 50 to 55 percetn Rush Plays category than the overall Super Bowl Era. 
 
Looking at teams not as successful passing (YPPA <7.2), the success rate plummets.
 
All Teams, Super Bowl Era (1966-present)
Criteria:
# Teams
Playoffs
% Playoffs
SB Teams
YPPA < 7.2 , Rush Plays > 60%
48
18
38%
1
YPPA < 7.2 , Rush Plays 55 - 60%
119
38
32%
4
YPPA < 7.2, Rush Plays 50 - 55%
178
57
32%
6
YPPA < 7.2, Rush Plays 45 - 50%
249
56
22%
9
YPPA < 7.2 , Rush Plays 40 - 45%
170
26
15%
2
 
 
All Teams, Live Ball Era (1978-present)
Criteria:
# Teams
Playoffs
% Playoffs
Super Bowl Teams
YPPA < 7.2 , Rush Plays > 60%
16
7
44%
0
YPPA < 7.2 , Rush Plays 55 - 60%
45
19
42%
2
YPPA < 7.2, Rush Plays 50 - 55%
122
55
45%
5
YPPA < 7.2, Rush Plays 45 - 50%
201
53
26%
9
YPPA < 7.2 , Rush Plays 40 - 45%
163
26
16%
2
 
Passing well is difficult
Comparing the results of both eras, the first thing that hit me (other than the ineffective, glancing blows from Mike Stickles) was the degree to which less successful passing teams outnumber successful passing teams. In the Super Bowl Era, 350 teams generated 7.2 YPPA or higher, and 764 teams produced fewer than 7.2 YPPA. These numbers indicate that teams tend to be successful when they pass well, but that passing well is not easy.
 
I also noticed that less successful passing teams (those with YPPA < 7.2) achieved the most success running the ball 45-50% of the time. The most successful passing teams (those with YPPA > 7.2) ran the ball 50-55% of the time. 
 
Well, the reason why successful passing teams also ran the ball more often than they passed must be because successful teams get the lead then run the ball later, right? 
 
Let's find out.
 
Rushing: Whole Game vs. First Half
I looked at statistics from 2006 and through the first 6 weeks of 2007 (see spreadsheet, sheet 2). I feel a bit sheepish trying to draw conclusions on such a small sample, but dammit, if it's good enough for Mike Stickles, it's good enough for me. Besides, my knuckles are starting to hurt.
  • Teams with more rushing attempts than opponents (full game) – .800 win percentage
  • Teams with equal or more rushing attempts than opponents (full game) – .820 win percentage
There is also a decided winning advantage to teams that rush more than their opponent in the first half.
  • Teams with more rushing attempts than opponents (first half) – .550 win percentage
  • Teams with equal or more rushing attempts than opponents (first half) – .610 win percentage
Mike Stickles produced data that suggested that it's not running more often that's important in the first half, but simply having more plays, period, regardless of whether you run it or throw it. 
 
That's true. In the sample I studied, teams that ran more plays in the first half won 61 percent of the time. 
 
Stickles also asserted that the rushing that correlates with winning occurs in the second half, not the first. Well, we've already acknowledged that teams with leads will pile on more rushing attempts in the second half. 
 
But no rushing correlation to winning in the first half? Not so fast ...
 
More runs = more wins
Of the 354 games I analyzed, teams that ran more plays in the first half won 217 of them (.610 win percentage). Of the 217 wins, rushing plays averaged 47% of the total plays run in the first half. 
 
But the number of wins increased as the percentage of rush plays increased (see Spreadsheet, Sheet 2).
 
Among the 217 winners in the 354 games analyzed (in the first half):
  • Rush plays were < 30% of total plays – 8 wins
  • Rush plays were 30 – 35 % of total plays – 16 wins
  • Rush plays were 35 – 40% of total plays – 30 wins
  • Rush plays were 40 – 45 % of total plays – 42 wins
  • Rush plays were 45 – 50 % of total plays – 42 wins
  • Rush plays were > 50% of total plays – 79 wins
Gee Wally, do you see a trend there?
 
POW!  UPPERCUT TO THE JAW!
 
The chicken or the egg?
Does the running game help the passing game, or does a great passing game help the running game?  Evidence supports both theories.
 
For example, the undefeated 1972 Dolphins:
  • Rushing Attempts per Game – 43.8
  • % Running Plays out of Total Plays – 70.3%
  • YPPA – 8.63
  • YPRA – 4.83
Running the ball on more than 7 out of every 10 plays (the seventh highest rush-play percentage of all time) probably helped the Dolphins produce a superior YPPA of 8.63 that year. As they Cold, Hard Football Facts showed ("Slingshot bikinis and the great passing offfenses"), the 1972 Dolphins were one of the most successful passing teams of all time. But they were also one of the most consistent running teams of all time (70.3 percent rushes).
 
But that was the Dead Ball Era. 
 
Ok, let's look at someone similar but more recent, the 2004 Steelers, who went 15-1 before losing in the AFC title game.
  • Rushing Attempts per Game – 38.6
  • % Running Plays out of Total Plays – 63.3%
  • YPPA – 8.3
  • YPRA – 3.99
Pittsburgh's YPRA was nothing spectacular. But the impressive YPPA of 8.3 could not have been hurt by running the ball more than 63 percent of the time.
 
What's that? I've deliberately selected teams that focused on the run?  Alright, look at the Greatest Show on Turf St. Louis Rams.
 
Greatest Show on Turf Play Selection, Results
Team
Rush Per Game
% Run Plays
% Pass Plays
YPPA
YPRA
1999 Rams
26.9
45%
55%
8.64
4.78
2000 Rams
23.9
39%
61%
9.36
4.81
2001 Rams
26.0
43%
57%
8.90
4.87
 
The Rams clearly passed more often than the ran. But they also ran the ball incredibily effectively.
 
We can conclude that it was probably the dominant passing game that helped them achieve an average yards per rush of greater than 4.7 each year.  
 
The Rams reached the Super Bowl in 1999 and 2001. Is it a coincidence that in 2000, the year they went one-and-out in the playoffs, they achieved the highest YPPA of the three years but ran the ball significantly less than the two years they reached the Super Bowl? 
 
Yeah, their defense sucked that year. I'm sure running just 39 percent of the time really helped
 
Now, look at the Colts teams of 2003-2006. The Colts won at least 12 games each year, but lost in the playoffs each year until they finally won the Super Bowl in 2006.    
 
Indianapolis Colts, Postseason 2003-2006
Year
Playoff Games
Avg PF
Avg PA
% Rushing Plays
2003
3
31
22
43%
2004
2
26
22
34%
2005
1
18
21
27%
2006
4
26
16
49%
 
The big difference between 2006 and the other years is that they gave up fewer points, but they also ran the ball more often.
 
Well, you might say: they ran the ball more often because their defense played so much better, they got off to big leads, and then ran the ball to sit on their leads, right? 
 
Wrong. 
 
In the 2006 playoffs, the Colts never established big leads in the first half.  Their halftime leads in the playoffs last year were 9, 6 and 2, while they trailed by 15 at the half against New England. They outscored their opposition by a net 2 points in the first half of their playoff games last year.  In fact, the Colts scored more points in the second half of their playoff games last year than they did in the first half, 65 points to 40. 
 
Breaking it down further...I looked at each game individually to determine which half they scored the most points (2nd half vs. KC, 1st half vs. Balt, 2nd half vs. NE, 1st half vs. Chic).  In those halfs, the Colts ran 159 total plays, with 80 rushing plays.  In the halves that the Colts did the most damage, they ran the ball 50.3% of the time—and they weren't sitting on big leads.
 
The Colts finest moment in the 2006 playoffs came in the second half against New England.  In the first half, when the Colts were outscored by 15 points, they rushed the ball 27% of the time.  In the second half, when they scored 32 points, coming from behind, when it was put up or shut up, 48% of their total plays were running plays. 
 
For a team whose bread and butter is their great passing game, the Colts did not attain the ultimate postseason success until they achieved a balanced offense.  They ran the ball more often in the playoffs last year, when it counted, than they had the previous three postseasons...and won the Super Bowl.
 
***
 
The examples above of the Dolphins, Steelers, Rams and Colts are just observations.  You could probably come up with examples to prove the opposite.  I'm sure Mike Stickles will get right on that. That is, after they peel him off the mat. 
 
In the meantime, let's get down to what we're really talking about here:  the real value of the running game. 
           
Running Game Myth: There's No Statistical Correlation to Winning Football Games
As Jaws likes to say, points come out of the passing game. There's evidence to support it.  That is not up for debate here. A team without an effective passing game will not be successful in today's NFL.    
 
But what would happen if a team decided not to run the ball? Not just reduce the number of attempts. Just stopped; passed 100 percent of the time. It'd be suicide, right? No passing game would ever be successful passing every single down, every single game. 
 
So, if you can't eliminate the running game, then there must be some value in the running game.
 
The reason it is easy to dismiss the importance of the running game is because its value (in terms of winning correlation) is less apt to be represented in statistics. Solid statistics exist that correlate effective passing with winning. Similar statistics exist to measure defensive success. 
 
Naturally, one assumes that if the running game had a similar correlation to winning, it would also be reflected in statistics. The problem is we use the same measuring sticks to evaluate running that we do to evaluate the passing game.  
 
The running game is a different animal. The value in the running game is not measured in yards, in averages, or points.  
 
At its core elements, the object of a football game is to score points, control the ball as much as possible, and prevent the other team from controlling the ball. That's it. Teams that achieve all these goals, more often than not, will win.  
 
A few weeks back, CHFF offered an explanation why effective passing has a stronger impact on winning than great (defined by running for a lot of yards or a high average) running.  If I recall correctly, the answer offered was that the difference between an average passing attack and a great one is large enough to make a significant impact. 
 
The difference between an average rushing attack and a dominant attack is nowhere near as great.  It's an excellent observation. But it's an observation that underscores the non-importance of rushing yards and rushing average. 
 
The real value of the running game is ball control and balance. The real value of the running game is the role it plays in time of possession, the success of the passing game and how it helps a team's defense. This value is not measured by yards or averages. In this regard, in its contribution to team success and winning, a below average running game is just as effective as a dominant running game.
 
To illustrate....the average yards per rush in the NFL is about 4.0 YPA. Some of the great running teams have averaged more than 5.0 YPA
 
However, a poor average of 3.5 yards a carry is effective. On average, 3.5 yards three times will still get you a first down, will still move the chains, will still keep the clock going, will still keep the other team's offense off the field, will still require the defense to defend the run, and will still take pressure off your passing game, aiding in your effort to pass effectively and score points. 
 
That's why you won't see a significant increase in winning correlation when looking at rushing statistics that focus on yards or average.  Provided a team has at least a serviceable rushing attack, the value in the running game is in repetition. And this is measured by attempts.
 
Once teams start running less, the other parts of the machine don't work as well.
 
Oh....and one last word for Mike Stickles:  there ain't gonna be no rematch.
 
Go home and get your f*#&in' shinebox!

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