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Number Crunch: Run game value as healthy as ever

Posted May 4, 2014

We've heard over and over how running backs are devalued in the draft because it's a passing league. Buffalobills.com uncovered some numbers that effectively refute that contention.

Periodically on buffalobills.com we’ll tackle trends or popular opinions about the NFL game and take a deeper look into the numbers to see whether a generally held contention matches up with the statistics. In this installment of 'Number Crunch' we examine the repetitive comment that running backs are devalued in the draft because it’s a passing league.

One of the most familiar tropes of the 2014 NFL offseason has been how it is now a “passing league” and that the run game has generally been marginalized.

“It has become a pass first league,” NFL Draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “If you look back at the draft 40 years ago, running backs were the most valuable commodity there was. And today, with all the spread offenses and teams throwing the football 60, 70, 80 percent of the time, there's been a completely different emphasis in how you draft offensively.”

While it may be true that we have enjoyed some of the best quarterback play the NFL has ever seen in the last few years, buffalobills.com decided to more deeply examine just how accurate that assumption about the devaluation of the running game is.

You don’t have to look any further than right here in Buffalo to find the counterpoint. Armed with an inexperienced group of quarterbacks and one of the best running back tandems in the league in the backfield, combined with harsh weather conditions, handing the ball off was more appealing for Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett in 2013.

The theory holds true when looking at the numbers. Even though C.J. Spiller struggled at times during the 2013 season, the Bills still attempted to run the ball on 49.01% of their offensive plays (according to profootballreference.com). If we compare that to 10 years ago, when Travis Henry ran for 1,363 yards and 10 touchdowns, the Bills only attempted to run on 39.8% of their offensive plays.

But considering the circumstances, it is possible that 2013 was an anomaly. Even with over 1,000 total offensive plays ran, one season could be too small of a sample size to draw a meaningful conclusion. So next we examined the last three seasons combined, and compared that to the Bills rushing game from 2001-2003.

The results were similar. In the last three years, the Bills have run the ball on 44.6% of their plays. From 2001-2003 the Bills, mostly via the legs of Henry, attempted a running play on just 39.8% of plays.

Maybe even more telling is the success rates of the aforementioned runners. Success rate, a statistic tracked by footballoutsiders.com, attempts to determine how often a running play is successful. A successful rush would be a gain of 40% of the required yards on first down (four yards on 1st-and-10), 60% of required yards on second down, and 100% or required yards on 3rd and 4th down. While not a perfect metric, it is generally a more telling one than yards per carry, while still simple enough to understand – the higher the percentage, the better.

Henry’s runs in the 2001-2003 seasons averaged out to produce a 43.3% success rate (for context, in 2003 the top most productive running backs in the league averaged a 50.2% success rate). With Spiller and Fred Jackson sharing the load during the last three seasons, they have combined to average a 49% success rate on their runs.

So not only has Buffalo run more often during the last three seasons than they have during the same span of time ten years ago, they have been more successful when doing so.

Again, Buffalo could certainly be an exception to the norm across the league. So we looked at the same statistics for two of the more successful teams in the NFL during the last few seasons, the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks.

In 2001-2003, the Patriots ran the ball on 43.6% of their plays, most often via Antowain Smith, although Kevin Faulk also helped carry the load in the 2003 season. Those runners also combined for a 47% success rate. Remember, this is still early in Tom Brady’s career, when he was not expected to carry his offense the same way he is now.

Over the last three seasons the Patriots have run the ball just about the same amount of times, although admittedly a slightly less percentage - 42% of offensive plays. And even though New England had a different leading rusher in each year, Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis (2011), Stevan Ridley (2012) and LeGarrette Blount (2013) had success rates of 54%, 55%, and 54% respectively in the year they lead their team in rushing.

The same trend is seen with the defending Super Bowl champions in Seattle, where Shaun Alexander ran wild in the early 2000s. From 2001-2003 the Seahawks ran the ball on 44.4% of their plays, and Shaun Alexander averaged out to having a 45.3% success rate. In the last three seasons, the Seahawks have run the ball on 50.5% of plays. Over the same span of time, Marshawn Lynch has averaged a 48% success rate.

So clearly, the running game is no less important in today’s NFL than it was in the early 2000s, when the likes of LaDanian Tomlinson, Priest Holmes, Clinton Portis and Edgerrin James were giving defensive coordinators nightmares.

Along with the notion that the running game has been devalued has been the idea that, as a result, running backs are less valuable as draft picks; it is generally accepted that it will be a surprise if a runner is picked in the first round on Thursday night.

“When you look at the running backs, I think it's a pretty good group, and I think there's a lot of depth there,” NFL Network Draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “To me Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill are two big backs that you could make a case that past years, they'd be first-round picks, but now talking about the position being devalued, I just wouldn't put it past a team.”

Despite this notion, seven of the top 10 leading rushers of 2013 were either first- or second-round draft picks. The top rushers of 2003? Exactly seven of the top 10 rushers were a top-64 pick in their draft as well.

The key difference, and the reason why running backs are generally perceived as less important these days, is their relative value. In 2003, the difference between the top rusher’s output (Jamaal Lewis’ 2066 yards) and the 10th-leading rusher (Ricky Williams with 1372) was about 700 yards. In 2013 the difference was less than 500 yards.

Long gone are the days of running backs having 3,200 carries over the course of his careers. Team executives realize that although a first-round talent may be more productive in a three-year sample size, they would rather pick, an offensive lineman who can be a mainstay for ten or more years, for example. That would allow them to pick up a less productive running back - one that may only be 90% as productive as the first rounder - in a later round, knowing that they got better value by way of picking up the RB later in the draft.

The value of the running game is going to be different for each team - the New Orleans Saints only ran the ball 36.2% of the time in 2013, while the Seahawks rushed on over 52% of their offensive plays last season. But in general, the running game is just as healthy now as it was 10 or more years ago.

For football fans, the offseason is long and sometimes torturous. The extra time away from the game can make us overreact to things we may hear in the media and blow them out of proportion. But in general, the game does not change much at the highest level. The brightest minds in the game have figured out what works for them given a reasonable amount of talent to work with, and have generally stuck to it.