Has running the ball become passe in NFL?
By Scott Brown, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, February 7, 2010
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Just as the confetti that will fall after New Orleans tosses that last shovel of dirt on the "Aints," or Peyton Manning becomes the 11th quarterback to win multiple Super Bowls, footballs are sure to fill the South Florida air tonight.
The last two NFL teams standing also happen to be pass-happy ones. And they are expected to stage one of the highest-scoring games in Super Bowl history tonight at Sun Lite Stadium.
As exceptional at the Indianapolis Colts and Saints have been this season their approach has been anything but that. The two, in fact, may simply reflect a shift that has taken place in the NFL given the success other teams have had with a pass-first mentality.
"As we've watched the evolution of the NFL there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it is a passing league," said ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, who played quarterback in the NFL from 1973-89. "What's going to give you your best chance of winning a world championship? Right now, I believe that it is with the passing game and we're seeing that play out."
Indeed, this season offers something of a rebuttal to the argument that winning is directly proportional to teams' ability to run the ball.
What once bordered on dogma may not be the case when considering the following:
» All of the teams that finished in the top 10 in passing this season had winning records; of the teams that were in the top 10 in rushing only five finished better than .500.
» Eight of the teams in the top 10 in passing made the playoffs; only five of the 10 best rushing teams qualified for postseason play.
» The combined winning percentage of the top 10 passing teams was .706; for the top 10 rushing teams it was .544.
"Times are changing," former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach turned TV analyst Jon Gruden said. "Spread formations, open style that's what's happening now in football and we better get used to it because more of it's coming."
More of it is coming because the spread offense has done just that in college football.
What was once seen as almost a gimmick and a way for schools with inferior talent to match up with powerhouse programs has been embraced by top teams as well.
Florida won national championships in 2006 and 2008 running a spread offense. Even Penn State, which had long been as conservative as coach Joe Paterno's politics, has embraced the spread.
The Nittany Lions have won a pair of Big Ten titles (2005 and 200 since regularly using three-wide receiver sets and de-emphasizing the role of the traditional fullback in their offense.
How much what is happening in the college game has influenced the NFL is impossible to quantify. But several players said the game has changed significantly during their time in the NFL.
"When I came into the league most of the teams ran your typical, pro-style offense," said Minnesota Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson, a nine-year NFL veteran. "Versions of the spread and a lot of similarities of the spread offense has worked its way into the league."
The reason for that is NFL coaches, like college ones, try to exploit matchups.
New York Jets All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis said San Diego tight end Antonio Gates is a prime example of this strategy.
Gates, a perennial Pro Bowler, creates mismatches because the 6-4, 260-pounder has a significant size advantage over safeties. The former Division I basketball player is also too fast and athletic for most linebacker to cover.
The way the Chargers use Gates is indicative of how NFL offensive coordinators will spread the field so they can get a favorable match up.
"(Gates) has a package where they might have split him out and he's doing wide receiver things," said Revis, the former Aliquippa and Pitt star, "so it's coaches getting more into their players and finding the best way to get them the ball."
That is not to say NFL teams have by and large forsaken the run even though the Colts were last in the league in rushing offense this season.
The Jets' ground attack powered them to within one win of the Super Bowl, and they led the Colts 17-6 late in the second quarter before Manning took over the AFC title game.
But the Jets, who led the NFL in rushing this season (172.2 yards per game), almost had the look of a throwback team compared to the Colts, Saints and Vikings.
The three teams that rounded out the NFL's final four this season averaged a combined 271.4 passing yards a game.
"There's teams that are running the ball but there aren't as many teams as dedicated to running the ball that stick with it and continue to go that route," said Jets and former Steelers guard Alan Faneca. "Those types of teams are far and few. (Passing) is the pretty thing to do and it's nice when you've got a guy who can fling it and get 20 yards in one chunk."
A Monday Night Football game in the second week of the season portended the success passing teams would have in 2009.
On Sept. 21, the Miami Dolphins outrushed the Colts by almost 180 yards. They also held the ball for 30-plus minutes longer than Indianapolis in the same stadium where the Colts will play for their second Super Bowl title in four years.
Yet the Colts beat the Dolphins, 27-23, as Manning threw touchdown passes of 80 and 48 yards.
"They did everything they should have," Hutchinson said of the Dolphins, "and when you've got a team that can score points like Indy you're penalized for doing almost how you were taught to play the game.
"I think a lot of teams, although they would like to be a primarily running team, you almost can't play catch up against a lot of teams when you're a running team."