Monday, December 15, 2008

The NFL is a rushing league

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It is frequently said that success in the NFL is based on the ability to run the football on offense and to stop the run on defense. To those who follow the NFL this may be obvious. I was curious as to whether the numbers actually bore this out. So I went to the kick-ass website Pro-Football-Reference.com, took the rushing (for and against) stats for each team through week 14 and compiled the differential yards per game for all the teams. (At the time I did this, the Cleveland-Philly Wk14 game was not yet done---but the way the game looked in the third qtr it appears that its stats are going to be in line with our observations here).
Anyway, I compiled differentials for the passing stats too, and threw in (amongst a bunch of other stats) the won-loss record for good measure. Then I sorted the worksheet in different ways to see what, if anything, stood out. Well, one sort did stand out----the one sorted for rushing differential in descending order, and I have shown the table below.


TEAM
RUSHING DIFFERENTIAL YARDS/GAME
PASSING DIFFERENTIAL YARDS/GAME
WIN--LOSS

MINNESOTA VIKINGS
76.4
-25.5
9--5

BALTIMORE RAVENS
63.7
7.2
9--5

NEW YORK GIANTS
58.3
14.8
11--3

TENNESSEE TITANS
49.4
-0.1
12--2

NEW YORK JETS
38.3
-21.8
9--5

WASHINGTON REDSKINS
36.1
24.7
7--7

CAROLINA PANTHERS
34.6
-0.6
11--3

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
29.2
28.8
9--5

ATLANTA FALCONS
28.5
1.5
9--5

PITTSBURGH STEELERS
20.3
42.4
11--3

MIAMI DOLPHINS
17.4
17.5
9--5

DALLAS COWBOYS
17.2
56.3
9--5

CHICAGO BEARS
16.2
-30.5
8--6

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
12.1
71.4
7--5--1

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
0.1
17.6
5--9

BUFFALO BILLS
-0.2
9.5
6--8

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
-1.2
51.9
9--5

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
-4.3
8.1
5--9

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
-6.7
7.5
6--8

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
-8.0
-89.0
3--11

HOUSTON TEXANS
-8.9
65.4
7--7

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
-11.3
82.5
7--7

DENVER BRONCOS
-26.5
43.1
8--6

GREEN BAY PACKERS
-29.0
42.0
5--9

ARIZONA CARDINALS
-33.6
99.6
8--6

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
-40.7
-38.6
2--12

CINCINNATI BENGALS
-44.5
-40.3
2--11--1

CLEVELAND BROWNS
-48.4
-35.2
4--9

OAKLAND RAIDERS
-48.8
-34.0
3--11

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
-52.3
46.0
10--4

ST. LOUIS RAMS
-58.0
-33.2
2--12

DETROIT LIONS
-89.6
-11.1
0--14

Pretty impressive correlation, huh? If you out-rush your opponent you are almost assured of having a winning record. The exceptions to this correlation are Washington (7&7; so at least they don‘t have a losing record) and Jacksonville (5&9). But Jacksonville has a positive differential of only 0.1 rush yard per game, so that is hardly a meaningful advantage and maybe their won-loss record isn‘t necessarily against the trend.

Also noteworthy--- Only four teams with a negative rush differential have winning records. They are Tampa Bay (9&5), Denver (8&6), Arizona (8&6) and Indianapolis (10&4). Of these, Denver and Arizona are the beneficiaries of playing in horrible divisions and thereby playing weak schedules. They do not fare well against good teams; indeed, in both cases, only two of their wins have come against opponents who have a winning record.

Indianapolis is a fascinating outlier. Looking at the stats one would try to explain their won-loss success with one or more of the following speculations:
1) Opponents are moving the ball really well against Indy but not scoring proportionately, i.e. the defense is keeping the team in games by not allowing TDs;
2) Indy is being very efficient with its drives;
3) Indy‘s offense is not doing very well, but shows up when it counts and manages to win close ballgames.
If you have followed the season so far, the above pretty much summarizes Indy’s season. The defense has allowed the third-fewest TDs in the league so far and has kept many games close; indeed, it has pretty much won 2 games for the team. And Peyton Manning has been responsible for some wins in other games by being absolutely clutch in the fourth quarter.

As for Tampa Bay---They had a really anomalous game that skewed their stats. A couple of weeks ago, Carolina ran for 299 yards against them. Now, 200-yd rushing games don't happen frequently and 300-yd rushing games are very rare in the NFL. If Tampa had only allowed a bad 200 as opposed to a horrible 299, they'd have a positive rushing differential (+5 yds/gm or so) for the season---more in keeping with their 9&5 record.

I guess my point is that wins and losses are decided by so many factors, and maybe every team has an anomalous game or two in some regard every season. Ultimately, the points scored vs points allowed decide the games, and important factors like turnovers, average field-position, red-zone offensive/defensive efficiency etc affect the outcome of every game. But given all this, one single stat---the rushing differential---is able to separate the good teams from the bad, for the most part.

All in all, interesting stuff. Run, and stop the run. Pretty simple, huh?


Update: Here's a follow-up article to this post.

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8 comments:

DamnGoodTechnician said...

Enlightening, Stache. It's interesting to note that the Vikes have 73.1 fewer rushing attempts against them than the average NFL team does. Looks like everyone's making the decision to not even try rushing against them (which is wise, because (a) their rush def is suffocating, and (b) their pass def is middling).

scribbler50 said...

Once again, great work, Stache, which proves all the more what we've both been ranting about with regards to (who else?) the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yeah, we have a good record and we fall on the right side of the ledger according to your stat list, but last minute heroics and a smothering defense are the primary reasons we're where we are. Now if we can get that running game going the rest of the way out (it's still not too late) I'm sure we'll prove your theory to be true in spades.
Again, great work,
Scribbler

Anonymoustache said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymoustache said...

DGT, Scrib50,
Thanks.
DGT,
When you look at the attempts differential, the Vikes have a 152 ATT advantage over their opponents this year. That's more than ten rushes a game. Think about what a huge advantage that is wrt ball control and time of poss! If TJack achieves adequacy (like goddamned Eli did last year) the Vikes will be formidable. Of course, TJack could also use a Burress (like Eli did) to whom he could throw jump-balls and get completions.

Scrib50:
The point you make about the Steeler D is a very good one.
There is so much more to the rushing/passing data that I didn't want to go into in that post. But dude, over time, stats do tell a story. The Steelers' absolute offensive #s are not very good (Rank 21st in points and 24th in yards). But their run and pass differentials are both pretty damn good. That tells you how freaking dominant the D has been! I share, once again, in your lament on the running game----Imagine if the Steelers could keep everything else the same but add another 4-5 carries and 15-20 yards rushing per game......

gmerrick said...

Hate to be a dickhole, but the fact that teams turn almost exclusively to the passing game when they're losing by moderate to wide margins while their opponents begin to run a whole lot more has a rather large skew effect on this whole theory. Nearly every week the leading passer was some QB whose team lost while the leading rusher was on a winning team - and typically gained a disporoportionate amount of yards in the 4th quarter from big runs after their opponents broken down defense started to drag ass.

gmerrick said...

The Tampa-Carolina game that you referenced was a good example of that, BTW. I think like 200 of the Panthers 300 yards came in the 4th after they'd taken the game over.

Anonymoustache said...

Whyte Chalklit!!
Where've you been, goatfucker?
Good points, and I'd thought of them.
But consider this---Teams that can run generally don't really give up on it till late---maybe the 4th quarter. And teams that run well do make some hay in the 4th qtr---but only if they have been running a lot earlier, for the most part. Wearing down the defense is part of the damn running game.
And BTW, despite what you may read in the fucking media, no one is lining up to stop Eli Manning when they play the Giants---they try to stop the run. Same with the Ravens, the Titans, the Panthers, the Redskins etc. If any of these teams may get to big advantages in games (which they don't often do), it is largely due to their rushing and rush defense, and to what their rushing game dictates to the other defense.
If a team cannot run, they may win against mediocre defenses but are exposed when they play good Ds (like Denver and Arizona do and are). Chucking the ball in the absense of a legit running game will not get you a huge lead which you can run on---Ever wonder why Mike Martz is such a freaking disaster unless he is superseded by a coach who insists on predicating the offense on the running game?

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