Media giants like ESPN and the analysts at the NFL network have been telling us for years that the passing game is taking over football and the running game has a diminishing importance what teams do. Looking at the astronomical numbers put up by teams in scoring and total yardage, you might believe them about the explosion in passing offense. However, taking a closer look with a trained lens, you will see that the running game is still important as far as success at the end of the season is considered. Out of all the teams to make the playoffs only 4 of them sit outside the bottom half of teams in rushing yards per game, 6 of the top 10 teams made the playoffs including all of the top 4 teams. As much as the media and the fans want teams to pass the ball more to put up more scoring and more prolific passing statistics, having a strong running game is still a must for the success of a football team, this is something that under head coach Jason Garrett the Cowboys have neglected more and more during his coaching tenure.
The NFL playoffs allow 6 teams from both conferences for a total of 12 teams. In 2012, only Green Bay, Indianapolis and Atlanta finished with a rushing yards per game average that ranked in the 20’s. Cincinnati finished with a ranking of 18. Those four teams all finished below the half way point of the 32 teams. Denver finished at 16 exactly half way, and Baltimore finished just outside the top 10 at number 11. Houston and New England finished numbers 8 and 7 respectively. San Francisco, Seattle, Minnesota and Washington were the top 4 rushing teams in the league. These numbers show that even as the total accumulation of yardage via the run has gone down, the importance on having a decent running game still exists.
The Dallas Cowboys have struggled to run the ball over Jason Garrett’s entire career as a play caller, not just as head coach but in his days as the offensive coordinator as well. The Cowboys have gone through a litany of running backs during his tenure (Julius Jones, Marion Barber, Felix Jones and now DeMarco Murray). No matter who is in the backfield, the head coach seems to be allergic to allowing his team to run the ball. There is no greater example of that than the Cowboys dismal 31 ranking in terms of rushing yards per game at 79.1ypg. Where the Cowboys really hurt themselves (sorry for the pun) was in the games in which starting running back DeMarco Murray was out with injury. In those 3 games he missed, the Cowboys did not have a ball carrier handle the ball more than 15 times in each game.
The media loves to talk about the play of the quarterback and shine a spotlight on the passing statistics, when as is true in almost all forms of life, but increasingly more important in the NFL is balance. There is no greater show of balance than in New England where a 4th ranked passing attack and a 7th ranked rushing attack made the Patriots the number 1 offense in all of football. Proof of the media blackout around the running game is in 2011, when passing records were shattered, ESPN went out of their way to declare the year of the QB. This past season Adrian Peterson was the NFL MVP as a running back and he finished a mere 9 yards shy of the NFL rushing record, but there have not been any media coverage of what he will do for an encore and he has actually been mocked by media members for talking about having a better season next year.
The increase in passing statistics makes it even more important for teams to work on the running game out of passing sets on offense. As the passing numbers rise, defenses are reacting with more defensive backs on the field in their base defense. The more defensive backs on the field create greater holes for a good running attack to take advantage of. The increase in the athletic quarterback has also opened a new wrinkle for defense to worry about in the running game to create an 11 on 11 scenario rather than the traditional 10 on 11 when the quarterback was handing the ball off and taking himself out of the play.
The truth is that the media loves the passing game because they love to glorify the quarterback position. They like to see the ball sailing down the field and players making athletic, acrobatic catches and running after the catch in open field. The casual fans like to see passing numbers high because high passing numbers create high scores, which draw eyeballs to the television sets. Smash mouth football is trying to be legislated out of the league with new rules to prevent concussions and discouraging offensive players from protecting themselves against oncoming defenders.
Despite the increase in the statistical data in the passing game, when it comes to what is most important; WINNING, the running game is as equally important to an NFL team. The amount of successful teams to make the playoffs from the top 10 in rushing offense proves beyond a doubt that a well rounded ground game is important for the team. The Dallas Cowboys have been boarder line allergic to running the ball under head coach Jason Garrett, so much so that they actually hired Bill Callahan as an offensive coordinator to boost the interest in the running game. Hopefully in 2013 the Cowboys starter, Murray, can do something he has yet to do in his brief career, finishing the season without missing a game due to injury. If the Cowboys focus more on the running game they expose their quarterback to less hits and less pressure, while also providing him with less chances to make the big mistake that has plagued this team during his tenure under center. Balance is so important and the Cowboys need to have the ability to take advantage when defenses go smaller and try to take away the passing offense. As is usually the case in the NFL the passing game will be an attraction while the running game will provide the substance when it comes to winning on the field.