While in general we think of the NFL as a “passing league” due to the sheer number of passing attempts, but does that mean you have to throw the ball to succeed? The short answer is no of course not, but may be surprising just how little you need to throw to win.
Last year the top three teams in terms of attempts (Lions, Saints, Cowboys) all missed the playoffs. In fact six of the top 10 teams in passing attempts and 10 of the top 16 saw their season end by the last week of the regular season. Not only did they miss the playoffs, but many missed the playoffs pretty badly. Of those 10 teams six of them (Jags, Raiders, Eagles, Lions, Browns and Cards) finished with 5 or fewer wins and make up the 2nd-7th picks of next April’s draft. On the flip side four (Seahawks, 49ers, Redskins, Vikings) of the bottom five teams in passing attempts went to the playoffs.
Compared to teams leading in rushing attempts it is no contest. The top four rushing attempts leaders (Seahawks, Patriots, Redskins, Texans) all made the playoffs. Seven of the top 10 teams made the playoffs, and another one the Chicago Bears won 10 games (only team to have double digit victories and miss the postseason). Of the top half of the league 10 of the 16 teams leading in rushing attempts advanced to the playoffs. That means 83% of the playoff teams were represented in the top half of the league in rushing. At the bottom of the league all five teams missed the playoffs (Falcons were 6th worst in rushing attempts).
Now some may point to the read-option as the reason for the success for running teams this year, but that is short-sided. The 49ers were a top 10 team in rushing attempts well before they made the move to Collin Kaepernick. Seattle and Washington would have run significantly behind their star running backs even if their quarterbacks were immobile (though they wouldn’t have ranked as high). Also, the Patriots, Texans, Vikings, and Broncos are also in the top 10 and none of them are ever going to be confused for read-option teams.
The fact is running the football can be beneficial to teams even when you aren’t very effective at it. The Broncos, Colts and Packers were all in the top 16 in rushing attempts, despite the fact that all three of them as a team averaged under 4.0 yards per carry. Those are without a doubt passing teams first with better quarterbacks and receivers than running backs, but they still find quite a bit of value in running the football. In general it helps eat the clock and secure victories. Also it forces teams to at least recognize and respect the ground attack as part of the overall offense.
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For the Redskins the ground game was a huge advantage for them. It opened up huge holes in the defense that Robert Griffin III took advantage with in the play action passing game. It also played to the strength of their players, as their run blocking is better than their pass blocking, and many of their receivers/tight ends are accomplished down field blockers.
This is why it is okay for the Redskins to be such a run centric team, and why even if RGIII isn’t scrambling, we should expect the Redskins to continue to focus on the run. It’s also why it is so important to focus on adding running back depth behind Alfred Morris and blockers along the line and at tight end. Washington may expand their passing attack some, but the resources and focus should be on strengthening the running game.