Today’s NFL is all about the passing game. Or so it seems. 12 QBs threw for 4000 yards this season. Over the last 5 seasons, an average of 11.2 QBs per year passed for 4000 yards. Compare that to 2006-2010 where an average of 6.6 QBs threw for 4000 yards per year. Of the all-time passing yards per game leaders, Kurt Warner is the only player in the top 10 who didn’t play in the 2010 decade (he retired in 2009). Over the last 5 seasons, teams have averaged just over 35 pass attempts per game. From 2006-2010, teams averaged just under 33 pass attempts per game. That’s the equivalent to around 108 more pass attempts every season these last 5 seasons compared to 2006-2010 (I’m using that time-frame as a comparison to illustrate that even in a time-frame not that long ago when the passing game was heavily used, today’s game continues to evolve into even more pass attempts and yards). All of these numbers are a way of proving what people should already know- there is more passing in the NFL now than ever before. Some of that is for good reason- NFL defenses are put at a complete disadvantage by today’s rules- can’t hit high, can’t hit low, can’t hit late, can’t hit too hard. Add to that the insane catching ability of today’s receivers, plus the innovative offenses that are so difficult to defend; you can understand why coaches want to pass the ball as much as they do. So what’s the problem? I’m here to argue that some of the more intelligent NFL teams have come to realize the importance of passing less, and many others would be smart to follow their lead. That isn’t limited to teams with a weak QB, either, as both Russell Wilson and Drew Brees have benefitted from their teams passing less.
Let’s start with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. 7 different times Brees has led the NFL in passing yards. You might be surprised to hear that this season, the MVP contender sits 13th at just fewer than 4000 yards. Last season he threw for 4334 yards, good for 4th in the NFL, but he sat just 9th in pass attempts, and his yardage total was his lowest total since 2005 when he was a Charger. Before these last two seasons, Brees had just one other year as a Saint where he passed for under 4400 yards. That was in 2009 when the Saints won their only Super Bowl.
Let’s go back to 2016- The Saints finish the year 7-9, their 3rd straight year with that record. It was also the 3rd straight year Brees led the league in passing yards, this time throwing a career high 673 passing attempts. A couple more important stats to looks at: 2016 was Brees’ 12th straight year throwing at least 11 interceptions, and the Saints ran the ball 404 times in 2016 (they ran the ball a similar amount in the previous 7-9 seasons).
Fast forward to 2017- The Saints win the division at 11-5 and Brees throws just 8 interceptions while throwing the ball 137 less times than the year before. Just as important, they ran the ball 444 times, their most since their Super Bowl winning season. This season it’s been much of the same. They were the best team in the league at 14-2 with Brees throwing just 5 interceptions and attempted only 489 passes while the Saints ran the ball 471 times.
At their disposal New Orleans has one of the greatest QBs in league history. Yet, they’ve been at their best when Brees has been asked to throw the ball less. Why? It means fewer turnovers. It means more possession time. It means wearing down their defense while your defense is getting a break on the sideline. It means a balanced offense. Yes, New Orleans’ improved defense has been one reason for their success, as has the addition of Kamara, a great running back. But if New Orleans was still throwing the ball 600+ times per year, I truly believe they’d be a lesser team. They made an adjustment from 2016 to 2017 to try to run the ball more, and it’s made a huge difference in their team’s success. Seattle made that same adjustment partway through this season, and it’s the biggest reason they’re headed to the playoffs.
The Seahawks looks like dead dogs before this season, and even more-so two games into the year when they started 0-2. Gone were the likes of Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett and Jimmy Graham. There was an article released early in the year about the fall of the Seahawks, mainly discussing how the defense disliked Russell Wilson. In their first two games, Wilson was sacked 12 times as the offense struggled. Most would agree this year’s Seahawks team is less talented than Seattle teams of the recent past. Pete Caroll and company deserve a lot of credit for realizing how they could contend this year- run the ball! Seattle averaged 19 run and 34.5 pass attempts per game over their first two games. In the 14 games since, Seattle has gone 10-4, averaging 35.4 run and 25.6 pass attempts per game. In that time, Wilson has been sacked an average of 2.8 times per game. A year ago, with Seattle missing the playoffs, they threw the ball 555 times compared to 427 runs. This year, they threw the ball 406 times compared to 534 runs. In running the ball more, they’re limiting the interceptions (Wilson threw 11 in each of the last two seasons versus 6 this season), Wilson is being hit less, the defense isn’t on the field as much or put in as many bad situations, and they’re wearing down opposing defenses with their physical running game. While Seattle figured out this key to victory with Wilson remaining as their QB, it took a QB change for Baltimore to key in on how to best run their offense to help them win games.
Baltimore seemed on their way to a wasted season with Joe Flacco as their QB. They were 4-5, including a 12-9 loss to the Browns where Flacco attempted 56 passes. With Flacco hurt, Lamar Jackson was given his opportunity to start and hasn’t looked back, leading Baltimore to a 6-1 record and a playoff spot. Taking a look at the numbers of these two QB’s illustrates the importance of running the ball. Flacco threw the ball just over 42 times per game in his 9 starts, throwing 0.67 interceptions per game. Lamar Jackson has thrown the ball just over 22 times per game in his 7 starts, throwing 0.4 interceptions per game. The Ravens have committed to running the ball early and often since Jackson has become their QB. With Flacco, they ran the ball 25.7 times per game. With Jackson, they’ve run the ball 45.1 times per game. Those numbers are so far from each other, you’d think it was two different teams. With Baltimore’s strong defense, it makes sense to run the ball, keeping the Raven defense fresh while limiting offensive turnovers. It’s somewhat funny that a big reason for this change in offensive philosphy has been the lack of trust in Jackson throwing the ball, but clearly it has worked out. It’s not as if this strategy just came about this season. There are plenty of team that found success running the ball in the past, as well.
Tony Romo was a good QB known for dumb mistakes. All of a sudden in 2014, Romo was looked at an MVP candidate, leading the Cowboys to a 12-4 record and NFC East Division Title. If not for a Dez Bryant questionable no catch call, Dallas very well could’ve ended up in the NFC Championship game that year. So what happened that season? Dallas decided to pass less, and run more. Romo threw the ball 100 times less than the year before, and Dallas ran the ball over 150 more times than the year before, led by Demarco Murray who led the league with over 1800 yards rushing. Romo also had his highest QB rating by far at 113.2. Dallas has actually done a pretty good job understanding the importance of the run game in recent years as well. Prescott is a good QB, but not a dominant one. His rookie year was so impressive because of his lack of interceptions, which happened because they ran the ball a ton with Elliot. Dallas’ choice in 2014 to throw less was a big reason for their success, and many teams would benefit from the same game plan.
The choice to run more and pass less is not complicated. Personally, I feel teams get excited about the chance to show off their fancy pass game, trying to keep up with the times when the reality is that a balanced game plan is the way to go. Of course you need to be able to pass in today’s NFL, but having your starting QB attempt upwards of 40 pass attempts per game is usually a recipe for failure. It can lead to more interceptions, a less balanced attack, less time of possession, more hits on your QB, your defense being put in bad spots, and it won’t wear down their defense as much as running the ball more would. One quick final example to help prove this point: Tim Tebow. He was looked at as a bit of a joke by a lot of fans but with him at QB, Denver controlled the clock, limited the turnovers and kept their great defense fresh. I am not advocating starting Tebow at QB, but if you find a good, solid QB, do your best to keep a balanced attack. That means aiming for 450 run attempts per season. As much fun as it is to play that video game, spread style offense, a balanced attack has shown itself to be the key to success.