We stomp on another gridiron cliché

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 17, 2006



Admit it: You've stood around the water cooler at your depressing job talking football and have, at least several dozen times in your life, told somebody that (insert your favorite football team here) "must stop the run to win."
 
We've all done it. No less an authority than the Cold, Hard Football Facts, which stomp on gridiron clichés like cockroaches in our cardboard box, have been guilty. We, too, in other words, have long held that teams will be successful if they stop the run.
 
There's only one problem with this theory:
 
It's not true.
 
Exhibit A is the 2006 Vikings. Minnesota cut the legs off the Jets ground game yesterday, holding New York to 68 yards on 29 attempts – an average of 2.3 yards per rush.
 
 
The Jets are just the most recent in a long line of teams incapable of running the ball on the New Purple People Eaters. In fact, with Sunday's performance, Minnesota jumped past the 2000 Ravens and 1998 Chargers and is on pace to become the single greatest run defense of the Super Bowl Era: The Vikings have allowed just 2.68 yards per rush attempt this season.
 
It's a remarkable figure. As we mentioned last week, you have to go all the way back to the NFL Stone Age, to the 1951 Giants, to find a team that was tougher against the run. (The Giants that year surrendered just 2.3 yards per rush attempt.)
 
It has meant little: The Vikings are 6-8. They remain alive in the playoff hunt, if only because of the utter overall ineptitude of the NFC. But they're not a very good team – no matter how effective they've been against the run.
 
The truth, it turns out, is that they're not that unusual. Take a look, for example, at the 12 toughest run defenses of the Super Bowl Era.
 
BEST RUN DEFENSES of the SUPER BOWL ERA
Team
Att.
Yards
YPA
Record (Result)
2006 Vikings
288
771
2.68
6-8 (TBD)
2000 Ravens
361
970
2.69
12-4 (won Super Bowl)
1998 Chargers
422
1,140
2.70
5-11
1991 Eagles
383
1,136
2.97
10-6
2000 Chargers
470
1,422
3.03
1-15
1995 49ers
348
1,061
3.04
11-5 (lost div. playoffs)
1966 Bills (AFL)
344
1,051
3.06
9-4-1 (lost AFL title game)
1999 Chargers
432
1,321
3.06
8-8
1994 Vikings
355
1,090
3.07
10-6 (lost wild-card game)
1966 Patriots (AFL)
369
1,135
3.08
8-4-2
1967 Rams
361
1,119
3.10
11-1-2 (lost div. playoffs)
2004 Redskins
419
1,304
3.11
6-10
 
These 12 teams represent the mighty mastodons of NFL run stoppers, the proverbial immovable objects. These teams should, by popular acclaim of pigskin cliché, have been across-the-board winners – teams that, at the very least, should have been a threat to win it all. 
 
In most cases, they were not.
 
A few things jump out from this list:
  • Just 7 of the Top 12 run defenses were part of winning teams.
  • Just 5 of the Top 12 run defenses even  made the playoffs.
  • Just 1 of the Top 12 run defenses won a championship (2000 Ravens).
  • Just 1 of the Top 12 run defenses won a single playoff game. Beside the Ravens, the other four playoff teams on our list were one-and-done in the postseason.
You'll notice one franchise that appears on the list three different times: San Diego.
 
The Chargers from 1998 to 2000 fielded some of the greatest run defenses of all time. Over this remarkable three-year period, the San Diego defense allowed just 2.9 yards per carry (1,324 attempts for 3,883 yards).
 
The result? They never had a winning team and they posted an overall record of 14-34 (.292). Only four teams in modern history fielded a better run defense than the 2000 Chargers. But that 2000 Chargers team went just 1-15 and stands among the very worst teams ever to run onto an NFL field.
 
Does it help to have a great run defense?
 
Certainly, it helps. We would not argue otherwise.
 
But as the Cold, Hard Football Facts have proven time and again, it does not pay to be dominant in one area if you have flaws in many others. The greatest offenses of all time? Only those who could play defense were great teams. The greatest defenses of all time? Likewise, only those that could play offense were great teams.
 
The "pundits" are near universal in their proclamation: You must stop the run to win. Right now, the Vikings stop the run better than any team in the modern history of professional football. The Vikings are 6-8 and, like most of the great run defenses in history, are going nowhere fast.
 
The truth is that there is no one magic key to success in the NFL. The truth is that it does not pay to do any one thing well. The truth is that it pays to do many things well. 

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