How Important Is The Run Game?

The Value of a Run Game in the NFL

The number of “elite” quarterbacks in the NFL is probably in the “count-on-one-hand” spectrum, with a small group of next tier QB’s behind them.  This means that most teams need to have an effective, efficient run game, preferably of the “power” variety. Every team, in fact, would prefer to have a power run game. Consider:

  • The cost to build a power run game is much lower than trying to build a high-powered pass game. You don’t necessarily need the high-priced QB, several wide receivers, and an elite left tackle.
  • A good run game keeps the defense honest, forcing them to account for all of the gaps along the line, and not just speed rush the QB.
  • A teams running scheme doesn’t need major changes from week to week during the season; they are all fairly basic compared to today’s complex passing schemes.

Why the Time Is Now to Run the Ball

Not every team runs the ball effectively, so what can your team do to improve their run game? First, let’s look at some reasons why teams should be seriously concentrating on their running game as critical to their offense’s success:

  • Starting with Jimmy Johnson when he was coaching in college, defenses have gotten smaller and speedier. This became even more pronounced as more and more colleges began utilizing spread offenses, demanding faster DBs in that game, and is also as a reaction to the increased amount of pass plays in the NFL. Speedier and smaller also means not as equipped to tackle big running backs.
  • Tackling technique is just not as good as it once was, for whatever reason. Defenders are focused more on dealing with complex passing systems rather than old-fashioned tackling, and NFL defenders are having trouble bringing down big running backs.
  • The latest CBA has decreased practices in the off-season, and one casualty has been the ability to correct deficient tackling, which includes getting into position to tackle, and making tackles when you are not fully squared up with a running back.
  • An offense that can consistently put a defense in a Run-Pass Dilemma is poised for success.

Putting a Defense in the “Run-Pass Dilemma”

The Run-Pass Dilemma is like the nirvana for an offensive coordinator.  Teams will have short experiences with it, when everything is clicking and everyone is healthy, but rarely can sustain it for long periods of the season.  This is when you put the defense in a perpetual state of confusion regarding how to call plays that concentrate more on defending the pass or defending the run.

There are even defenses that seem to avoid this conflict by going into a rigid zone scheme with little change of formations throughout a game.  This tends to fall apart as offenses discover the weaker defenders on the field and simply attack them.

For the most part, defenses and offenses are constantly trying to deceive and outsmart each other by moving pieces all over the board.  When an offense has a strong run game, it forces the defense to do things like not always use speed to pass rush, it can greatly help control the time of possession, it takes coverage away from wide receivers, and it can flat out exhaust defenders.

How a Play-Action Pass Uses the Threat of Run to Open Up Passing Plays

Fixing an Ineffective Run Game

So you watched your team and you hear about what they need and that they are looking to fix their run game. The good news is that there are a lot of ways to quickly fix a run game and, unlike the issue with quarterbacks and the spread in college, most recent changes favor running backs’ transition to the NFL.

Improving a team’s running attack is not theoretical; we can easily look back and see the primary reasons why a team gets better from one year to the next:

  • Rookie improvement. Count how many rookies you have first. Rookie offensive linemen have a lot to learn, and the jump from year one to year two is generally dramatic.  For left tackles, it could take 3-4 years to really find their rhythm.  If your o-line featured a rookie or two, count on improvement the next year.
  • O-Line Continuity. One stat you will often see about bad offensive lines later in the year is how many offensive line combinations they have had throughout the year. The higher the number, the less chance of success.  If your team juggled players on the o-line throughout the year, but found continuity later in the year, and looked better, that is a very good sign for the next year.
  • New coaches. Good offensive line coaches, offensive coordinators, and head coaches more often than not bring predictable results to certain aspects of the game, and the run game is one of those.  Have a new head coach? How many different 1,000 yard rushers has he coached? How many rushing TD’s? This even applies just to an offensive line coach… look at what they did with different running backs.  When you see big numbers for running backs that then did very little without the coach, you should expect big results.  This is very trackable, and a great indicator of future success.
  • Second Year Jumps. Did your team just put in a new scheme or have a rookie QB? Year 1 for a quarterback and for a new scheme generally mean that the playbook was shortened and predictable. Year 2+ of either QB or scheme generally brings more balance to the pass/rush ratio, benefiting both. If your QB and scheme have been in for years and nothing else is changing, that is not a good sign for increased production.

New, Shiny Players Can Help – To Some Extent

Personnel is obviously a major part of this; no matter what scheme or coaches you have, you need good players to win. However, rookie offensive lineman are more of a boost for the future; it take time to get them into the system and developed.  The Cowboys have perhaps the best offensive line in the NFL today, but they were added a piece at a time to where they now function as a cohesive unit.

That brings us to the running backs themselves. The first thing that you might want to brace yourself for is whomever you draft… don’t get too used to them.  Between the rookie wage scale and how the salary cap is structured, running backs are lucky to see a second big contract.  The three contract running backs are out there, but they are a dying breed.  The older a back gets, the more banged up they get.  The analytics on how many times a guy gets tackled in the NFL is surprisingly reliable- with each tackle you can check off one step to his retirement.  When running backs carry the ball 300 times in a year, for example, they almost always start to decline in production the next year.

The good news is that with the spread so prevalent in college, backs are far more proficient in both the pass game and in pass protection.  While they might not see a lot of exotic blitzes in college, many college backs are experienced in pass blocking.  Also, there isn’t the large learning curve at running back like there is with many other positions.  Most backs are out of the box ready for the NFL. That being said, there are still a lot of variables to consider:

  • RB’s are generally either a front-side or a cutback runner. That is, they pound the ball straight ahead or they can put their foot in the ground, make a cut and take off.  The more they can do of both, the better.
  • There are three aspects of the game that every evaluator is looking at: running skills, pass protection, and pass catching. When you see a gifted college back that isn’t expected to go that high in the draft, count on the fact that they are bad at one of those things. Coaches that can fix the weakness can find steals later in the draft.
  • “Fumble-itis” is not easy to cure. Generally, you want fumbling issues to have occurred early in a college career, and not lingering throughout. If they fumbled a lot when they started to play in college, but cleaned it up the last year or two, it is much less of a concern.  Like QB’s, you want big hands on running backs, especially if your team plays in the cold.
  • How many carries did they have in college? Yes, there are freaks that are the exception, but number of carries is a very good predictor of how long a running back will last as an effective back in the NFL.
  • Acceleration out of cuts and when in the open field. Running backs that can make fancy cuts are a dime a dozen; what you want to see is how quickly a back can get into high gear after making a cut. Furthermore, did you see him get caught from behind a lot?  Top end speed is overrated, but backs that seem to always be getting caught after making a great cut are leaving lots of yards of offense on the field.

An Effective, Efficient NFL Run Game Is Really Just a Lot of Parts in Place

We know that there are a few superstar running backs in the league, and some teams that rack up a lot of yards in the run game, but how do the teams that win most often use the run game to win games?  Two major pieces to this puzzle are not often mentioned because they don’t translate well to buzzwords and catchy vernacular, but the best teams know them as Gospel:

  1. It is not about the actual act of running the ball effectively that makes defenses have to adjust, it is the THREAT of an effective run game, at any time in the game, that makes the run-pass dilemma work, and opens up everything for the offense.  It is, in effect, reputation building.  You build this year to year, week to week, and game to game… a “reputation” for having an effective run game.  It is like a movie about high school, and teams want to be one of the cool girls.  Once defenses respect your run game, because you have proven to do it effectively, it opens up the whole offensive playbook.
  2. To some effect, we can even modify the word “run” to say “close to the line of scrimmage offensive plays,” of which running the ball is 75%. The primary benefit of the run game is to make the defense adjust, and do things like not purely speed rush, to account for running lanes, etc.  NFL teams have picked up on concepts of the spread offense and use a short, controlled passing game that has the same effect on the defense as standard run plays do. The Patriots did it a few years ago when their personnel was optimized for it. The bubble screen has become one of the most popular plays over the last 5-10 years for a reason- it makes the defense adjust.

With all of the talk about the spread offense in college, NFL teams are simply trying to do the same thing by building a reputation for a good run game- make the defense spread out and have to be concerned about the whole field. It works the same in reverse as well; if you can’t prove to the other team that you can pass the ball effectively, and commit to a power run game, defenses are going to catch on and eventually just stack the box on every play.

Fixing a running game is not about trying to have X amount of 100 yard rushers in a year, or rushing TD stats, or 1,500 yard rushing seasons.  It is simply about making defenses defend the whole field.  If defenses are constantly worried about your stud RB breaking out for a 30 yard game, and you end up passing all over them because they have to respect the run, congratulations, your running game is working.  Of course, he actually needs to do that every now and then to justify it.