Chris Brown, author of ‘The Essential Smart Football” and a contributor at ESPN’s Grantland, wrote “it’s understandable that most fans (and even many coaches) think of football plays in terms of the strict run-pass dichotomy.”
To that point, teams usually only do one or the other well. One-dimensional franchises with predictable offenses aren’t consistently competing for or winning championships as much as they’re jockeying for lottery position in the annual NFL draft.
Oakland, for example, has appeared in exactly one Super Bowl (XXXVII) since their reign of lawless-inspired championships in the mid-1970s and early 1980s and has struggled to finish with a winning record for most of the last two decades. Dallas has won just a single playoff game since they earned three titles in the 1990s. The Dallas Morning News constantly skewers Jerry Jones for his inabilities as both an owner and general manager and frequently chronicle the failures of quarterback Tony Romo.
For both franchises, the element of offensive balance simply hasn’t existed in order to consistently be successful over the long run. While this may seem like an elementary concept, it has some truth.
We know this: the NFL has increasingly become a passing league. The recent passing trend has seen red-hot quarterbacks win the title. Aaron Rodgers was elevated to elite status with a victory in Super Bowl XLV in 2010 following an incredible statistical run that saw him throw nine touchdowns in four games. And there’s Joe Flacco who capped his recent Super Bowl XLVII championship run with the Ravens by tossing 11 scores during the postseason.
Consequently, as the league has evolved through the air, more traditional “run heavy” teams have seemingly taken a back seat in the pecking order. According to Pro Football Reference, nine teams in 2012 averaged less than 100 total yards rushing per game. Arizona finished 32nd with a paltry 75.3 yards per contest. Dallas, much to the chagrin of Jerry Jones and despite featuring talented back DeMarco Murray, ended up 31st with 79.1 yards per game. Jacksonville, a typically strong running team, was without running back Maurice Jones-Drew for most of the season and subsequently netted just 85.6 yards every Sunday to finish 30th in the NFL.
These four teams averaged a combined 3.6 yards per rush. With the exception of the Falcons, eight of the nine teams (Arizona, Dallas, Jacksonville, Oakland, San Diego, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Cleveland) missed the playoffs in 2012.
In comparison, teams that have a strong running game tend to have success in making the postseason. Pro Football Reference shows that the Washington Redskins were the best running team in the league in 2012, averaging 169.3 yards per game. Collectively, the Redskins backfield netted 5.2 yards per carry. They qualified for the playoffs and lost to the upstart Seattle Seahawks in last year’s NFC Wild Card game. Dual-threat quarterback Robert Griffin III was hampered by a Seahawks defense that keyed to stop him. Ultimately he suffered an injury, relagating the team to one-dimensional status.
The Minnesota Vikings, who feature an elite Adrian Peterson, ranked second in the NFL by logging 164.6 rushing yards per game. The issue here is that Peterson also happens to co-exist in a one-dimensional offense which lacks a legitimate threat at quarterback. Minnesota drew a road matchup in a frigid Lambeau Field in the other 2012 NFC Wild Card game. The Vikings were quickly eliminated when Green Bay stacked eight or more defenders in the box or close to the line of scrimmage and limited their running game.
Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder was a non-factor. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers committed to a game plan designed to contain the Vikings rushing attack, in part because Ponder led a passing game that averaged 170 yards per game, good for 31st in the NFL. This is a prime example of how a team that cannot successfully run the football, especially in cold weather on the road, are at a severe disadvantage.
According to Pro Football Reference, since Mike McCarthy took over as head coach in 2006, Green Bay has ranked in the top 15 in the NFL in yards per rushing attempt twice (2007 and 2009, at 12th and 13th, respectively) which is a major indicator of the Packers’ reliance upon Rodgers’ arm and their subsquent inability to dictate the run. We’ve all heard McCarthy talk about how he’d like to be able to do this. He knows toughness and a good ground game are important predecessor to controlling, closing out and winning games. Power running is critical in that it’s a catalyst to a team developing an attitude of toughness and becoming more physical – both elements that McCarthy has said Green Bay has lacked in recent years.
When you think of the historically tough teams over the history of the NFL you envision John Riggins of the Redskins in the 1980s. You think of Larry Csonka of the Dolphins and Franco Harris of the Steelers in the 1970s. You think of Jim Taylor wearing Green and Gold, running the power sweep up the alley, in the 1960s. These Hall of Fame power runners, not conincidentally, each won Super Bowl titles. However, they also operated within the parameters of well-balanced offenses. Washington featured quarterback Joe Theismann. Miami had Bob Griese. Pittsburgh lined up Terry Bradshaw behind center. Green Bay had Bart Starr. All four signal callers also are immortalized in Canton, Ohio. Defenses that lined up against these All-Time teams had the uneviable task of picking their gridiron poison.
For a variety of reasons, Green Bay has utilized a “pass to set up the pass” offensive philosophy. Personnel issues, injuries, blocking schemes and ever-changing assignments on a patchwork offensive line have necessitated this approach. Also consider the fact that the Packers feature the league’s best player behind center and it’s even easier to understand the strategy of putting the football in Rodgers’ hands on a vast majority of plays.
It’s no different than the approach Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula took with Dan Marino in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Dolphins essentially had no running game during Marino’s career. Everything went through Marino. Seasons lived and died on his arm. Consequently, Miami made only one appearance in a Super Bowl (XIX) and never returned during his tenure. In hindsight, the Dolphins’ lack of offensive balance was a clear catalyst in that title drought.
Despite Green Bay’s aerial prowess, when their offense stalls or fails to get into rhythm they are prone to enduring long stretches without generating points. Lack of offensive rhythm and the inability to run the football or turn to the running game to help the offense settle down were both major factors in each of the last two playoff losses to the 49ers and Giants. How many times in those defeats did we see Rodgers flip down his chin strap in disgust and trudge to the sidelines after yet another failed third down conversion attempt?
In Rodgers’ 2011 MVP season he completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 45 touchdowns and six interceptions. At times it looked easy for the Packers as they coasted to a 15-0 start that year. Reality showed that eventually they would regress to the mean, in this case generating offense had to come through other avenues than the pass. In week 16 that season, Kansas City continuously blitzed Rodgers and the Chiefs controlled the clock on the ground. Green Bay’s winning streak came to an end.
In 2012, the Packers saw defenses adapt to their vaunted passing game by dropping a surplus of defenders into coverage. Defensive linemen ran stunts and linebackers and cornerbacks regularly showed blitz as Rodgers made his pre-snap reads, only to have them fall back into the secondary once the play began. This srategy of flooding the underneath and zone passing lanes literally took away entire sections of the field. In previous seasons these pockets were ripe for the picking by the rocket-armed ex-Cal Berkeley alum.
Take away the running game – or in Green Bay’s case, the threat of one – and eventually defenses will adjust. Last season, Rodgers made his progressions while improvising behind a shaky offensive line. He was forced to rush throws into tighter windows or if receivers couldn’t shake coverage, he’d have to throw the football away, if he wasn’t already sacked. Predictably, the result was an excess of empty three-and-out possessions for Green Bay. For an offense that is built around the big play through the passing game, inability to dictate tempo by turning to a capable ground game often spelled disaster.
A team that can call a running play depending on the game situation and then execute that run effectively has a distinct advantge over the Arizonas,
Oaklands and Jacksonvilles of the NFL. Undeniably, the mere presence of Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin presumably upgrades the Green Bay ground game and theoretically would take some of the pressure off of Rodgers.
However, for the Packers it’s not really about Lacy, Franklin or even possibly Angelo Pease becoming the next John Riggins, Larry Csonka or Jim Taylor. It’s about their ability to convert third downs, protect the football, pass block and operate within the constraints of a pass-oriented offense. Green Bay runners need to run with less finesse and more agression. They need to punish linebackers and safeties at the second and third levels with the football in their hands or as a decoy. That being said, it’s still not likely to envision a Packers box score with 35-plus rushing attempts. The additions of these three rookie rushers and an improved running game isn’t going to drastically change the dynamic of the Green Bay offense. McCarthy knows this. The rest of the NFL knows this. Fans know this.
Ideally, Green Bay will utilize their new backfield acquisitions to improve on their 20th-rated 2012 rushing offense. The goal is to demonstrate improved running between the tackles and turn in a higher yard-per-carry average. If they can do that it’ll be easier for McCarthy to continue to implement heavy play-action utilizing an array of swing passes, short crossing routes and curl patterns that will augment the emergence of a genuine power running game.
In Green Bay, the threat of a run is just as valuable as the ability to run. Offensive balance would help impove their chances of controlling and winning games in the postseason by being able grind out yardage and eat up valuable clock.
For the Packers, balance is the key to another championship.