Like death and taxes, football also seemed to have two truths. The first — teams must use running plays to set up the passing game. The second — successful offenses have a balanced attack with rushing and passing plays split evenly. The rushing game seems to be an afterthought for some teams, particularly the Dallas Cowboys with Jason Garrett at the helm. I believe with Bill Callahan calling the offensive plays, the rushing attack will increase, bringing balance to the Cowboys’ offense.
Truth one is getting dispelled because a fair number of teams are no longer using the running game to set up the passing game. The NFL’s rules regarding pass interference and the ever increasing salaries and value of NFL quarterbacks, has helped the league become pass friendly. Those reasons have helped create teams with offenses that step onto the field looking to pass first and pass often. Are pass heavy teams successful and just how important is offensive balance?
Teams with the top five passing attempts per game in 2012 are (ranking, attempts): Detroit Lions (1, 46.2), New Orleans Saints (2, 41.9), Dallas Cowboys (3, 41.1), New England Patriots (4, 40.8), Indianapolis Colts (5, 40.1). The Patriots and Colts were the only teams in this list to enter the post season. If the list were expanded to 10, only two more playoff teams would be added — the Atlanta Falcons (8, 38.4) and Denver Broncos (10, 37.1). The Falcons and Broncos were the top seeded playoff teams in their respective conference.
Looking at the bottom ten teams of this category, the three teams with the fewest number of passing attempts per game were playoff teams. The Seattle Seahawks (32, 25.9) followed by the San Francisco 49′ers (31, 27.1) and Washington Redskins (30, 27.7). The 49′ers competed in the 2012 Super Bowl. The Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens ranked 18th with 34.4 passing attempts per game.
Searching for balance, I found five playoff teams ranked in the top ten of the most rushing attempts per game include (ranking position, attempts): Seattle Seahawks (1, 33.4), New England Patriots (2, 31.9), Washington Redskins (3, 31.9), San Francisco 49′ers (5, 31.3) and the Denver Broncos (8, 30.7). The Baltimore Ravens again ranked in the middle third, placing 12th with 28.8 rushing attempts per game.
The teams that surprised me most is the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos. Few would have guessed the Patriots had the fourth most passing attempts per game as well as the league’s second most rushing attempts per game. This leads to the disposal of the second truth. I have found that teams no longer need an even split of passing and rushing plays per game. When teams play to their strength, they are more likely to have success.
The Patriots had a pass/run percentage split of 57/43. The Super Bowl winning Ravens had a 56/44 split. The Broncos’ pass/run balance was 56/44, while the Dallas Cowboys’ pass/run split percentage was 66/34, the second worst in the league. The Detroit Lions ranked last with the highest percentage of passing plays and the lowest percentage of rushing plays — a 66/34 split which is identical to the Cowboys when rounded. The playoff team with the worst balance was the Atlanta Falcons with a 63/37 split.
Balance is ideal, but you still need talented, healthy players and a bit of luck. Four of the NFL’s most balanced teams reached the playoffs. The Kansas City Chiefs had the NFL’s worst win/loss record but had a 51/49 split. Amongst playoff teams, the 49′ers and Redskins had a 49/51 split and the Seahawks had a 46/54 split. The Minnesota Vikings reached the playoffs with running back, Adrian Peterson becoming the NFL’s leading rusher with 2097 yards, yet his team had a pass favored 51/49 split.
While this era of NFL football is a pass heavy league, balance is still important and shouldn’t be quickly dismissed. The extra second a defensive player uses to determine if his opponent is rushing or passing helps create an offensive advantage. Defensive indecisiveness makes play action passes and the draw rushing play, both staples of the Cowboys’ offense, more effective.
A balanced offensive attack is a powerful offensive weapon that the Cowboys must utilize for success. The offense needs more than multiple, talented, playmaking weapons like Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Miles Austin, Dwayne Harris and DeMarco Murray to attack defenses. The offense needs to be in down and distance situations that allows for either a rushing or passing play to be called. Staying away from pure passing situations like 3rd and 15, helps keep a defense guessing.
That requires a reduction in penalties along the offensive line, especially those that occur pre-snap like a false start. A holding penalty during a play might get missed, but an offensive lineman moving before the snap will get called every time. Overall, the Cowboys were penalized 117 times, third most in the league. The Cowboys had 48 second down plays where they needed 11 or more yards for a first down indicating either a penalty, sack or negative rushing play occurred.
Many of us wished the Cowboys had found more offensive line help during the off-season but moves were made to indicate that the running game was not forgotten. Wide receiver Terrance Williams and tight end Gavin Escobar are viewed as more toys for the passing game, but the additions of center Travis Frederick and running back Joseph Randle will prove to be Romo’s best friend.
An improved rushing attack that defenses must respect will slow down a pass rush and make Romo’s job much easier. A balanced offensive attack gives the offense a slight edge by keeping defenses honest and guessing. Teams may no longer need to run the ball to set up the pass, but it remains an important element of the game.
With the talent the Cowboys’ possess on both sides of the football, the post-season is easily within reach if the Cowboys’ offense finishes with a passing play percentage between 55 – 59%. Add a little luck and I’m confident Jerry Jones, Tony Romo and the Cowboys will be adding a sixth Lombardi trophy to the collection.