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Answering an Age Old Question about Football

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It has been asked:

"Why do coaches emphasize establishing the run though the NFL is clearly a passing league?"

And that question is usually followed up by questions regarding whether coaches are stupid or not. Some seem stupid when you put a microphone in front of them. Jon Gruden can hardly speak without undermining my confidence in his peers. But, well spoken or not, NFL coaches are competent when it comes to matters of coaching a professional football team. They possess a broad array of skills one only learns through actual coaching. Teaching skills. Management skills. Interpersonal skills. Even strategic skills. So why would they purposely rely on a losing strategy?

I think we all do this to some extent, and when you step away from it, it doesn't seem strange at all.

Ok, consider this: My job at SB Nation is to generate page views. Now, there are some meaningful limitations, but those limitations in large part are towards the purpose of long-term ability to generate page views. So, no profanity in the headlines, because though that might cause an incidental bump in views, it turns off people long term and scares off advertisers. I can't post nudes, for obvious reasons. I can't post copyrighted material, for obvious reasons. Apart from common sense limitations, it is my duty to generate page views however possible.

The simplest and easiest way to generate page views is volume. It is almost sickening how easy it is to build an audience with reams of link dumps and shallow commentary. The single most successful football blog on the internet, Pro Football Talk, does little else but link and comment. Mike Florio is not out interviewing players, establishing sources and transcribing audio. He compiles, but at a feverish pace.

I understand the above. It works. It would work for Field Gulls. In fact, I think I have to cave and just do it. I think, if I want to succeed at this, I need to swallow my pride and play ball.

But for over three years, I have been deeply resistant to this practice. I want Field Gulls to be a home for original content, not some shallow compilation of links. I'm too proud and my pride has probably hurt my performance.

Modern NFL playbooks are built off the run. Even a team like the 2009 Minnesota Vikings, that produced a hugely disproportionate amount of their value through the pass, built their offense off the run. I think for many head coaches, the running game is the platonic ideal of what good football is. It's tough and exacting, and everyone plays a part. The passing game is comparatively loose and unpredictable and often enough, one player just makes something happen. Moreover, coaches believe in balance. They want to establish the run, but they also want to split plays evenly between run and pass. They want balance at all costs, and it does cost them. A balanced offense cheats an offense out of more, more-valuable passing attempts.

Consider the 2007 Seahawks. Mike Holmgren became so fed up with the running game he abandoned it and built his offense around the pass. You could tell it was a last resort. That offense, certainly not one of the more talented offenses Holmgren ever orchestrated, was one of the most effective offenses Holmgren ever orchestrated. By DVOA, the 2007 offense trails only the 2002, 2003 and 2005 offenses, and its ability to be effective with less meant Seattle could invest more into the defense. 2007 was the second most successful season of Holmgren's tenure in Seattle. And I think Holmgren hated every moment of it.

It's an artistic temperament or something. A misguided notion that one's own standard is the only standard that matters. An offensive coordinator is a choreographer and a choreographer is an artist. They create sequences of motion that have no purpose outside their very narrow field. It is esoteric to the extreme. Holmgren understood a particular derivation of the Bill Walsh offense in way most of us will never understand anything, but outside of football, that knowledge is meaningless. It is easy enough to say, throw in a trick play, use shotgun formation, pass more, but asking Holmgren to construct an offense with more shotgun formation because shotgun formation is more effective is like asking Vincent Van Gogh to embrace Impressionism because he could sell more paintings.

Sometimes we do not do what we know is best because we are proud or stubborn. Sometimes we do not do what we know is best because it is not what we are best at. And sometimes we do not do what we know is best because we just can't. We know it's best, but it's not what we are best at, and we do not have the time or will or ability to learn all over again.

And that's why, a philosophy of establishing the run is not terribly strange at all.