After week 15 of the NFL regular season I had written about how important the running game was to success in the NFL. The measure I used was rushing differential (the difference between running yards gained and running yards allowed to opponents by a team)---teams with a positive rush differential almost invariably had winning records while teams with negative rush differentials had losing records. At the time, there were four teams that were outliers to this trend i.e. that had negative rushing differentials but had winning records. They were Tampa Bay, Denver, Arizona and Indianapolis.
As it turned out, it was more a case of foreshadowing than anomaly with Tampa Bay and Denver. While neither team ended up with a losing record (TB 9-7; Denver 8-8), both teams ended the season badly, ended the regular season with negative average rush differentials (TB -4; Denver -29.7) and both missed the playoffs. Interestingly, the team that came charging from behind to win the AFC West and knock Denver out of the playoffs was San Diego, which improved its average rush differential from -6.7 in week 15 to +5.3 by the end of the regular season.
So at the end, only two playoff-bound teams had negative average rush differential for the regular season---Arizona and Indianapolis (AZ, -36.7; Indy, -43.3). As we know now, Indianapolis was bounced in the first round of the playoffs by San Diego and not coincidentally ended up being out-rushed in that game 167-64 by the Chargers.
As we also know now, the Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl. A team that had an average rush differential of -36.7 for the regular season ended up in the Super Bowl---so this running game theory is full of shit, right? To borrow a phrase from an ex-IU coach, not so fast my friend. The team that couldn’t run the ball or stop the run during the regular season ended up with a +26 rush differential in the first playoff game against the Falcons, a +70 rush differential against the Panthers in the second playoff game and a +5 rush differential against the Eagles in the conference championship game.
This last edge against the Eagles may not seem like much but I cannot stress enough how key that was to the Eagles loss. And so, with a view not to rub salt in CPP’s wounds but rather to see what the Steelers should watch out for against the Cardinals in the Super Bowl, let’s revisit a couple of key stats from the NFC conf championship game. The Eagles had a total of 67 offensive plays in that game; they rushed the ball 18 times and dropped back to pass 49 times. Before I go any further--- I would guess that in the entire history of the NFL, QBs who attempt more than 45 passes in a game end up losing those games 90% of the time. Nothing good happens when you chuck the pill that many times. But getting back to the game, Philly gained 97 yards from their 18 rush attempts! When you are gaining at 5.4 yards a carry, in the playoffs no less, why would you not run the ball 35 freaking times?! Even when it looked like Philly was getting blown out, they were only down 21-6 in the first half---that’s just two scores and far from time to panic and start flinging the ball around, especially with another half of play to go. And as good as Warner and LFitz looked, it was even more important that Philly should have run the ball and bled the clock. Instead, Philly ended up with 49 pass attempts, and with McNabb going 28 of 47 with 2 sacks.
Most importantly, when McNabb got the ball down 7 with about 3 minutes to go, he had already dropped back to pass 41 times in that game. I don’t care how versatile your offense is---if a defense has seen you attempt a pass play 41 times, there is little it cannot anticipate. Throw in the fact that the Arizona D had not been physically worn down by a sustained running game and that the Philly O-line had been on their heels 41 times in that game, the Arizona D had a distinct mental and physical advantage at the end of the game when McNabb was trying to throw the Eagles into the Super Bowl.
McNabb had 19 incompletions. If half of those plays had been running plays, Philly could have milked 5 more minutes off the game clock. And shown the Arizona D about ten fewer passing plays---one of which may have come in handy if needed late. And seeing that Philly averaged 6.8 yards per pass play versus 5.4 yards per running play, there is no reason to believe their offense would have been significantly less effective, even ignoring all the unmeasurable advantages the running game brings.
Arizona, conversely, had 29 rushing plays and 30 passing plays. Even if you remove the 3 “trying to run out the clock” rushes at the end of the game, Arizona still had a 26-30 run-pass balance. I know it looked like Warner and Fitzgerald killed the Eagles (and they did) but just as key was Arizona’s running game, especially in the first half. I am worried about Arizona in the Super Bowl for precisely this reason--their running game has come alive. Add that fact that their talented D is playing with confidence and they have a lethal passing game, and it makes for some unsettled nerves (or should I say some ‘Yoicks!’) amongst the Steeler faithful.
One last thing about the Arizona-Philly game. In 67 offensive plays, Philly got the ball to Westbrook only 14 times. That was unconscionable. That was probably the reason Philly lost.
I liked the fact that the Steelers ran the ball 26 times against Baltimore even though they got only 54 yards out of it. I hope they run the ball in the Super Bowl too---but more of all that in the next post.
Sunday, January 25, 2009