Run first or pass first? This is the question that has been on the minds of Hawk fans since Shaun Alexander started to decline. Countless articles and advanced stats were quoted and formulations were drawn that in this era, the pass dominates. Well, despite all that I just laid out, I'm not here to argue for either philosophy.
The four teams that hold the distinction of the label dynasty aren't very different when you look to the stats, but when you look to their philosophies, the Redskins and Cowboys were run first and the 49ers and Patriots were pass first. However, when compiling the stats for this piece there was one common thread to all these teams, balance.
When you look at the numbers for play calls run to pass. In the regular season for each of these teams, they ran around 1000 regular season plays on average. In those championship seasons you had about three percent difference between run and pass for most all of those teams. Balance.
However, it doesn't stop there. When you look at all of these teams in terms of yards you have 45 to 50 percent of your offensive yards coming from the running backs; yes, even the 49ers despite all the perception, held true to this stat, leaving 50-55% to the quarterbacks. In order to get this number, I factored in pass receiving yards by the running backs into their own totals since most backs are not running 50 yard streak routes for touchdowns and so almost all of their looks would be on shorter passes and out of the backfield.
Mike Holmgren once laid out what it was like to watch Bill Walsh construct the offense of the 49ers. He talked about the demands of being a quarterbacks coach when Bill would say "Look, I want Joe (Montana) to put that ball two inches in front of Jerry (Rice's) numbers."
Mike talked about Walsh's demanding nature and the execution he got from his team. Another interesting fact about Walsh was that he had a clear view of how positions should perform in his offense. Mike says that Walsh had numbers already mapped of what each position should achieve. For example, the running backs would have 60 catches, tight-ends would have 50 and the number one wideout would have 75 catches.
"Sure," says Mike Holmgren "each game is different and things evolve, but lo and behold, at the end of the year, the numbers were always there and if they weren't, it was time to take a hard look at why."
I wanted to lay that out because I think that's something that is important for an offense and a team to have laid out how things should fundamentally work by position. So, are we ready to take a look at these dynasties? I'm pumped and jacked for this, lets go!
The 49ers Offense:
Joe Montana, redefined the position and really, not by being some model 6'4" god at 225. (He was 6'2" 200). He had one thing that no starter had before him as a defining feature, a quick release. You watch any franchise QB outside of Montana during his era, QB's were like catapults, long windup and longer release. If these guys were cannon arms, Joe was a sharpshooter. Contrary to perception and fan nostalgia, he also did not have the best deep ball.
Runners in the offense were consistent producers, Roger Craig was a great receiver and despite being the second man on the depth chart with 49ers in 1984, had over 1200 offensive yards of production. Roger was the x-factor for that offense in it's biggest wins and was clutch in some key last minute comebacks.
1981: 7th in points and 13th in yards. Yardage splits QB: 51% RBs: 49%
1984: 2nd in points and 2nd in yards. Yardage Splits QB: 46% RBs 54%
1988: 7th in points and 2nd in yards. Yardage Splits: QB: 47% RBs 53%
1989: 1st in points and 1st in yards. Yardage splits: QB: 51% RBs 49%
This offense was of the old school ilk in it's base look, except for one difference, where teams would lineup in a two tight-end jumbo package on the strong side to run the ball against five man fronts, Joe Gibbs instead featured a converted fullback or running back called the "Wing back" or "H-back" on the edge of this look. They could run or throw from this look and it's never really been copied, possibly because the redskins used it more as a way to block Lawrence Taylor and then discovered it's offensive uses by accident.
When Joe Gibbs came back to the redskins in 2004, he featured this look a lot in the redzone and that turned Chris Cooley into a Pro Bowl player. The Redskins used motion more than most teams, though Gibbs is credited with bringing this into the NFL, I don't know how true that is. I do know he liked to do bunch formations and really is said to have developed the trips formation - three wide receivers in a bunch look.
Redskins Offensive Ranks:
1982: 12th in points and 7th in yards. Yardage splits: QB: 54% RBs: 46%
1987: 4th in points and 3rd in yards: Yardage Splits: QB: 53% RBs: 47% (This team started 3 different QBs, Doug Williams was 3rd string and won 3 of his five starts and took his team to a championship)
1991: 1st in points and 4th in yards. Yardage Splits: QB: 57% RBs:43
The Cowboys were a tough, smash mouth offense. It was reported once, that Jimmy Johnson told his offensive coordinator after the first half of their 1992 NFC Championship game. "Listen to me, stick with Emmitt, (Smith)his numbers will be there by the end of the game." Defined really by Smith's hard running, this team's passing game didn't do anything too flashy, but it was also clutch, often featuring some clutch catches by Pro Bowl tight-end Jay Novacek late in the game usually in the redzone. There was no more great example of this than the 8 comeback wins in the final two-minutes in 1995. If I were to boil their offense down, "Do it until it works"
Cowboys Offensive Ranks:
1992: 2nd in points and 4th in yards. Yardage Splits: QB 52% RBs: 48%
1993: 2nd in points and 4th in yards. Yardage Splits: QB 51% RBs 49%
1995: 3rd in points and 5th in yards. Yardage Splits: QB: 54% RBs 46%
"Dink and dunk", was the phrase used to describe Tom Brady's passing prowess in his first two title wins. The patriots didn't take very many deep shots. They constructed an offense in which Tom Brady's untapped physical asset, his quick release could be featured. He was a distributor rather than cannon armed dynamo. David Givens, Troy Brown and Deon Branch were his feature receivers during these years. However, we began 2004 with the blockbuster trade of Corey Dillon to the Patriots. A team that lacked the ability to run the ball all of a sudden added an athletic talent and saw it's playbook completed. Tom Brady started to run playaction and we saw his deep throw potential. It is also worth a note that it was the first time this offense had ranked in the top ten in total yards.
Patriots offensive ranks:
2001: 6th in points and 19th in yards. Yardage Splits: QB: 58% RBs 42%
2003: 12th in points and 17th in yards. Yardage Splits: QB: 59% RBs 41%
2004: 4th in points and 7th in yards. Yardage Splits: QB 53% RBs 47% (Adding Corey Dillon to their backfield clearly shifted them to a more balanced and productive offense. It also allowed Tom Brady to grow his skills as a passer.)
I think, when I finally took a look at these teams, their stats, their designs, it's hard not to see the balance that each showed. All being different in strengths and weakness, but when it's all said and done both the QBs and Running backs must contribute nearly equally in production to help a team reach top-ten in yards and points.
However, it goes a little bit beyond that. There is a dirty word when it comes to offensive football and that's conservative. It's not the first time I've seen this term. Mike Holmgren was considered conservative. 3rd and 13 fullback draws made all the Madden Playmakers pull their hair out. "Give the QB a chance" they whined. Meanwhile, Holmgren's offenses were not flashy or dynamic, they were consistent and disciplined, much like the 49ers in their day or the packers when he coached there, very rarely did you find a team he coached to be in the bottom of the league despite this "conservative" style. I call it, patience.
Great offenses have great players sure, but they also stick to what they know. It's the same for every offense I have listed above. They don't panic, they don't re-invent the wheel every week. The biggest plays they make week one are the biggest plays they seem to make every week. I'll give an example.
When I was 12-years-old, the cowboys were big - I watched every football game I could of them. My favorite player was Jay Novacek. I don't know why really, maybe it was because he was my favorite target in tecmo bowl. (2,500 yards and 42 TDs) However, it seemed every week Jay would make some kinda play and you'd hear this from John Madden and Pat Summerall "I don't know how you don't see that, week in and week out, they look for that throw in these situations. How you let Novacek get loose in that spot is beyond me."
So why does a play like that happen? Commitment. They might run the tight-end flag route 5 times before it works, but eventually, if you stick to it and you execute, it's going to work, maybe with a slight change, but the fundamentals are the same.
I think one of the reasons Jeremy Bates could have been let go was because one week to the next was vastly different schemes and looks and play calls. Now you could argue that that was by necessity, but the only way to ever become good or great at something is continuous repetitions in games. I don't know how many times we saw 93 Blast with Shaun Alexander and Mack Strong, but do you think those two learn as much from each other and the line in front of them if they only run the play once or twice a game? Do you think Matt Hasselbeck and Bobby Engram develop the chemistry over the middle on 3rd downs if they call a bunch of different looks in those situations where Matt doesn't learn how Bobby runs the 15-yard in-route outside of practice? (this being the staple of third down calls for Holmgren) So much of an offense becoming good is repetition not invention.These teams were committed to their offense, not outsmarting the defense.
I'm not arguing that if you call only 5 plays over and over that this is the way you win, but I am saying that if you have a playbook that is 75 plays large, 20 or so plays should be plays that are staples of your identity regardless of opponent, plays that are unique to your identity, be it 93 Blast or X go, y, stick, halfback flat.
I see some of this in the first 7 games with the Seahawks, The offense is trying to grow and learn, but the offensive gameplans aren't drastically different from each other and the play calls are good but designed to play to our talents and keep hammering them home. Look at the running game, they aren't trying to do all kinds of different things, there are about 7 base runs they are trying to get this line to learn. If they become good at some, who knows, they may call more different kinds, but improvement before expansion is a good idea. It'll be tough to watch, but I imagine a day soon, were this line can learn those 7 runs and run them with their eyes closed and hog tied.
This is now why I think Pete 'gets it.' He has said the word balance with the offense much more than pass first or run first. He has described the style he wants to play with and I think now, more than ever, Pete's done his homework and he gets it. This article by Danny Kelly (who has been an immense help at making sure these pieces come out coherent) lays out Carroll's view on QB and how it is influenced by Walsh.
There was another key way Bill Walsh influenced Pete, saying this about the coach on Brock and Salk last year: "Bill talked a lot about getting your formula down as a team. Once you've identified your formula - which will be unique to only your team - that is when you can win consistently."
I think this article shows a key foundation to whatever formula you chose, if you want to win many titles (win forever): balance kids, balance.
Stats provided by http://www.pro-football-reference.com/