I understand I understand… people keep emphasizing that the NFL prioritizes passing (whatever that entails).
However, after observing another week of teams’ performance in the standings, something stands out.
The leading teams aren’t solely reliant on their passing game. In fact, recent instances of high passing yardage in the NFL haven’t shown a robust correlation with winning.
This doesn’t suggest that excelling in passing negatively impacts your team or any far-fetched conclusions like that.
It’s simply to point out that it doesn’t appear to guarantee much more than a 50-50 chance (below).
Conversely, if your team has a standout performance on the ground, there’s a very high likelihood that you’ll also be celebrating with a joyful post-game locker room speech.
During my time with the Patriots, one of Bill Belichick’s distinctive approaches was taking a step back during the season to assess our team’s overall position compared to our competitors.
Coach’s primary focus on both sides of the ball revolved around points, 3rd down efficiency, turnover margin, and red zone scoring.
Understanding your team’s strengths and weaknesses guides practice schedules and, ultimately, game planning.
The crucial aspect here isn’t fixating on achieving a specific numerical target on paper but rather determining the level of proficiency in these areas that will likely be necessary to defeat specific opponents you’re expected to face.
Then, incorporating plays into the game plan can lead you to that level.
Your team’s ranking among the 32 teams isn’t as significant as the quality (or style) of performance required to take on a particular adversary.
Suppose you’re winning despite low red zone efficiency or getting by with an even or negative turnover differential. In that case, there’s a strong likelihood that this may not hold true when it truly matters against particular (and better) teams.
It’s not just about who you’ll need to beat but how you’ll need to play to beat them.
Once you establish where you need to reach, you must devise a strategy for getting there.
What I find intriguing when observing teams around the league making these same self-assessments is that, on average, they’ve opted to pass the ball less and run it more.
The table below illustrates two things: pass attempt frequencies (left) and total rushing yardage (right) for NFL-winning teams this past weekend.
Like all statistics, these tables don’t provide absolute truths.
There’s always more context, and it’s still possible to win by throwing the ball over 50 times – as demonstrated by Indianapolis, with Andrew Luck as the lone winner with over 50 pass attempts in Week 14.
However, when we look at that specific game, the Colts also fell into the category of teams with less than 100 rushing yards (as shown in the right table).
In other words, there must have been another factor that helped them stay competitive – in this case, it was an underperforming Cleveland offense that struggled in various aspects of the game.
If you lean heavily towards passing and minimize running, as Indy did last weekend, you’ll likely need assistance from an external factor like an opponent’s poor performance.
In the playoffs, against teams like New England, Denver, or Baltimore, who are less likely to make such mistakes, this kind of game plan could lead to a quick exit.
The most effective game plan, on average, in Week 14 involves throwing the ball around 25-35 times and committing to rushing for well over 100 yards.
Can you win without following this formula? Certainly, but it’s a risky approach, and those who deviate significantly from this tend to face challenges.
Here are a few cases to monitor as the season approaches the playoffs:
1) New England Patriots
The Patriots have been the exception, occasionally securing wins despite many pass attempts and modest overall rushing output.
They can make it work, but one has to wonder when this strategy will reach its limit without more excellent balance, particularly in the red zone.
2) Denver Broncos
The Broncos have emerged as a catalyst for change in the NFL, demonstrating a steadfast commitment to being a more well-rounded team and not overly reliant on passing.
The resounding defeat by the Patriots in November, where they could not establish a running game, likely served as a turning point.
It has proven to be a wise decision for them, but when faced with adversity, will they be tempted by the allure of heavy passing? Only time will tell…
3) Pittsburgh Steelers
While it was certainly entertaining to witness Big Ben throw 6 touchdowns in a game earlier this season, the emergence of star running back Le’Veon Bell has proven far more crucial for the Steelers.
This is especially true given their uncertain defense and the need for a balanced approach that suits their roster.
When the curtain isn’t made of steel, a solid running game becomes essential for controlling the clock, wearing down opponents, and preventing Ben from making costly mistakes.
4) Detroit Lions
Without a formidable rushing attack to support it, opponents can effectively neutralize their critical passing threats.
While it’s rare to see Joique Bell receive over 20 touches, when it does occur, it tends to yield positive outcomes for the Lions.
This is a team that would be prudent to observe the changes Denver is making to fortify themselves for the playoffs.
If the Lions insist on relying solely on their passing game, it’s safe to say they may be setting themselves up for an early exit.
5) Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys exemplify a balanced run-pass distribution, with DeMarco Murray leading the charge.
In their prime form, play-action conversions to Jason Witten and explosive plays to Dez Bryant come together seamlessly. It’s a football enthusiast’s dream.
Yet, given the team’s history, there’s a lingering feeling that we’ll have to hold our breath and see how it unfolds.
6) Philadelphia Eagles
The Mark Sanchez comeback narrative is heartwarming, no doubt.
However, it’s important to remember that this is ultimately Chip Kelly’s offensive system.
The Eagles thrive when their diverse run schemes open up opportunities for the passing game rather than relying solely on the quarterback’s performance.
To increase their chances of a successful playoff run, Philadelphia should stick to their true identity and not deviate from it.