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Reloaded: The real value of rushing yards in the NFL

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I wrote this on January 9th, 2015, shortly before the Seahawks beat the Panthers in their Divisional Round Playoff matchup, which set up an NFC Championship game against the Packers. That game, like every Seattle-Carolina tilt, featured two teams whose philosophies meshed closely. Those philosophies centered around punch-you-in-the-mouth running on offense. That hasn't changed.

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The Panthers and Seahawks, NFL Divisional round opponents, have a lot in common. Both teams espouse the same ideals of playing tough, physical defense and both favor a ball-control, option-based and run-heavy offensive game plan. Over the final six weeks of the season, the Seahawks (1,052 yards) and Panthers (975 yards) outpaced all other teams in rushing while surrendering the fewest points league-wide (39 for Seattle, 74 for Carolina).

The modern NFL is trending away from run-based, low-volume offenses, and while there are certainly true disciples to the "old school" sprinkled in here and there, suffice to say it goes against current conventional thinking that the best way to win is to throw the ball less and run the ball a ton. So, funny enough, Carroll and his Seahawks now have to go through a team with a similarly archaic philosophy for running the ball.

When Pete Carroll was asked about the Seahawks' commitment to the run and to being a truly balanced team last November, he offered probably the best summation of his overall philosophy:

"It's the most consistent, proven championship formula in the history of this game," he declared confidently.

He followed that up by winning the Super Bowl.

A commitment to running the ball

The Seahawks led the NFL in rushing by a country mile this year -- their 2,762 yards on the ground was over 400 yards better than the next best team in Dallas and nearly 500 yards more than the third place Jets. Seattle's run game this year was the NFL's most prolific since the 2006 Falcons ran for 2,939 yards.

Seattle had 71 more rushes than pass attempts -- and while not all of those rushes were called runs, per se -- some were scrambles by Russell Wilson and he did take 42 sacks -- it's clear that there is a real dedication to that balanced style.

"It's a commitment," said Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell on Tuesday. "It's something that we're totally committed to. I know Tom [Cable]'s always been committed where he's been*. I've been committed to it where I've been. You can look at the numbers where we've been. I mean it's our commitment -- something we believe in. The cool part is that Coach Carroll believes in it also. So it blends our philosophies -- all three of us together."

*(Cable was offensive line coach for that 2006 Falcons team, by the way).

When Carroll talks about "the most consistent, proven championship formula in the history of this game," to me it's clear that he's referencing a few of the major influencers on his philosophy, and it's a philosophy that likely became more clear to him in the 1990's, which were Pete Carroll's formative years as a coordinator and then as a head coach for the first time.

During that decade -- the Bills went to the Super Bowl four straight years from 1990 to 1993 (that run inspired Carroll's "Win Forever" motto), leading the NFL in rushing in '91 and '92, and they were seventh and eighth in '90 and '93, respectively. The Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl in '92, were fifth in rushing, and in '93 won it again after finishing second in the NFL in rushing. The 49ers won it in '94 and were sixth in rushing. The Cowboys won it again in '95 and were second in rushing. The Broncos won it in '97 and '98 and were fourth and second in rushing, respectively. The Rams won it in '99, were fourth in rushing, and the 2000 Ravens won it after coming in fifth in rushing. A strong run game and balance were huge factors for all those teams.

Meanwhile, in the college game, Nebraska was busy becoming a dynasty -- and from 1993-1997, they went 60-3 under Tom Osborne, had three undefeated seasons, won three national championships, and did it largely with a dominant defense and option-based rush offense.

In 2001, Carroll went back to college as he took the job at USC, but not before sitting down to figure out and define his philosophy in very specific terms. The foundation was competition and the motto was "Win Forever," which was based in part on some of the mini-dynastic teams of the 90's, including the Bills (even though they lost four Super Bowls), the Cowboys, Broncos, and the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Back in 2006, Carroll mentioned that at some point in the early days at USC, he had read Osborne's book, Faith in the Game: Lessons on Football, Work, and Life. And "there was some stuff in there that I found interesting and wanted to ask him about it, so I called him and we had a lot of fun talking. I have great regard for him. I knew his whole thing from way back when ... He did such a remarkable job and he was on top for so long and I talked to him about that.

"I don't know if anybody will ever recapture the style that they had, very unique and most extraordinary," Carroll said. "The way they were able to run the ball, the way coach Osborne developed over all those years, and I don't think it is going to be copied."

Many of the tenets that Osborne developed and described in his book, though, closely mirror the way that Carroll not only turned his USC program into one of the most dominant dynasties of the 2000's, but align philosophically in how he's built the Seahawks into the team they are today.

A proven championship formula

"We believed that a highly productive running game was of primary importance," Osborne wrote in 2000. "The emphasis on the running game paid off for us. We led the nation in rushing eleven times between 1980 and 1997, and ranked second five other times. In 18 seasons, we never finished lower than fourth."

One main reason Osborne developed this philosophy of running the ball is that Nebraska's winters -- the time of year that football is being played -- are extremely harsh; windy, cold, snowy, and miserable.

"Wind blows passes off course and makes it difficult to throw the ball accurately," he said. "We play in a part of the country where wind is a major factor perhaps three or four games a year. Therefore, a strong running game was imperative if we were to have a chance to win all of our games, as heavy reliance on the passing game would make a loss highly probable on those windy days."

Carroll shares that point of view. He's long said that he doesn't want his offense to be too reliant on the quarterback, whether that's because of inclement weather, injury, or a lack of talent at that spot. "When you tie it all together," said Carroll last year, "It's not just that we want to run it, it's about 'we want to take care of the football', it's 'we want to own the football,' and that's the biggest determining factor for winning and losing."

"So, when you start tying it all together," he said, "a balanced offense gives you a better chance of taking care of those issues, better than just going to the throwing game. The throwing game is a great way to go, but it's most reliant on a quarterback that's got to be there for you. We have an offense that if Tarvaris [Jackson] plays in it, we're ok. We'll be fine, and we won't lose the momentum of how we play. It'll be different, but we'll be able to cope."

And, that's saying the same thing that Osborne believed -- in some games, you may need to take the quarterback out of the equation a little bit, or a lot -- and you still need to be able to win with consistency.

One year ago this week, the Seahawks faced off against the New Orleans Saints in divisional round action and as is wont to happen in Seattle's waterfront stadium district, the winds were howling off of Elliott Bay in excess of 20 miles per hour. Rain was part of the equation as well. Seattle relied heavily on that Osborne-esque methodology, rushing the ball 35 times for 174 yards and two touchdowns on their way to a 23-15 win to move to the NFC Championship Game. Russell Wilson completed just nine passes.

But, that's not to say that Osborne and Carroll didn't/don't believe in a passing game.

"We generally had a very efficient passing game," said the Nebraska great after he retired, "because teams were more concerned with our running game. Opponents' defensive backs were very conscious of stopping the run, which created many excellent opportunities for us to throw the football."

The Seahawks threw the ball fewer than any other NFL team this year, but finished sixth in yards per pass attempt (7.7) while only throwing seven interceptions - a number bested only by the Packers and Chiefs. During Seattle's six-game win streak to end the season, Russell Wilson averaged an absurd 9.02 yards per attempt - best among all quarterbacks during that stretch. The Seahawks don't put up gaudy numbers in the pass game, but "efficient" would be an accurate way to describe it.

Explosive plays

Seattle led the NFL in rushing but it's worth pointing out that they got 849 ground yards out of their quarterback. They, like the Nebraska option teams of yesteryear, make Russell Wilson a viable run option on a high percentage of their plays. This helped Seattle lead the NFL with 135 "explosive" offensive plays -- runs of 12 or more yards and passes of 16 or more. 61 of those (also an NFL-high) explosives came on the ground. This was a huge part of Seattle's success offensively, where they finished 10th in the NFL in scoring and 5th in Football Outsiders' weighted offensive DVOA.

"Explosive plays within a drive significantly change your opportunity to score," Pete Carroll explained at his press conference this week. "So it's really important to try and create those plays."

How big of a deal is it? According to a study of one timeframe that Carroll did while he was at USC, if you hit either a 12-yard run or 16-yard pass in any drive, you will score points on that drive 75 percent of the time. Whether that number holds true in the NFL, I don't know, but as Carroll mentioned this week, they "significantly change your opportunity to score."

"We're very fortunate," he continued, "And the quarterback really has a lot to do with that. Russell has made so many plays with his legs, as well as throwing the football."

So, why does Seattle count an explosive run as 12 yards and an explosive pass as 16? For a program deeply rooted in studying statistical trends and patterns, you'd think those two numbers had significant meaning, i.e., that a rushing yard is worth more than a passing yard.

It's what Tom Osborne believed before Carroll adopted some of his philosophies, anyway.

"We believed that a rushing yard was more valuable than a passing yard when it came to winning football games," Osborne wrote. "If one team threw for the ball for 300 yards and had no rushing yards and its opponent rushed for 300 yards and had no passing yards (assuming that all other factors in the game were equal), the rushing team would win a vast majority of the time."

The logic?

"The running game enables a team to control the ball, convert short-yardage and goal-line situations, and wear down the opposition."

A lot of it, too, came down to protecting the ball and avoiding turnovers, which is Pete Carroll's top priority as well. "If you throw it 50 times and you throw for 250 yards and you have one touchdown and three interceptions," Osborne said, "you'd have been better off letting the air out of the ball."

Bucking conventional wisdom

Recent NFL trends and many statistical analyses like those done by Advanced Football Analytics point to the idea that passing is better, more efficient, and lucrative than rushing. Why then would a coach believe that a single rushing yard is worth more than a passing yard when most believe the opposite to be true?

"There was a continuous clamor from many sportswriters and fans for us to eliminate our heavy emphasis on the running game and adopt a passing attack like Miami and Florida State," wrote Osborne in 2000. "As a coaching staff, however, we believed that our offensive philosophy was sound and we were confident that we could beat teams like Florida State or Miami with the offensive attack we'd been using. We ran the football three-fourths of the time, with option football being a basic part of our running game."

Perhaps the real value in a dominating run game, apart from the weather factor, the controlling turnovers factor, and the finite-number-of-good-quarterbacks factor, is the psychological. The value of a punishing run game, perhaps, comes in what stats cannot capture -
- it's physically intimidating, it has the ability to gradually wear down
 opponents and can be very demoralizing
, and it can foster a feeling of camaraderie and esprit de corps because it takes all 11 players on the field at any given time to do their jobs as one.

"[It's] the way we want to play," said Carroll. "We want to be physical, we want to be tough, we want to attack you, we want to get after you, we want to make sure you know you've played a very hard football game; when you play our team, we're going to beat the hell out of you if we can. You don't get that feeling when you're a throwing team. You can't get that."

For defensive football players, getting knocked down by a single opponent is embarrassing. It's frustrating. It's worse than almost anything on the field, other than being beat for a touchdown. And it was a specific goal that Tom Osborne implemented with his team.

The goal Osborne set forth for his team was to "knock opponents off their feet an average of one and half times or more per play. This may not sound like an astounding figure; however, good defensive teams are drilled to stay on their feet. We found that if we averaged putting one and half players on the ground on each offensive play, we would be highly successful. This meant that our offensive line put great emphasis on trying to knock down, or 'pancake,' opponents.

"Our backs took great pride in blocking so aggressively that they knocked defenders down," he wrote. "Our receivers blocked downfield on every play in an effort to knock down as many defensive backs as possible. If we ran 70 offensive plays in a game, we expected to knock opponents down at least 105 times to meet our goal. In some games, we had as many as 130 or 140 "knockdowns. On those days, we were very productive offensively."

Or, to sum it up, as Carroll said, "when you play our team, we're going to beat the hell out of you if we can."

The quarterback as a runner

Russell Wilson and Cam Newton are relatively unique as quarterbacks. You can't just decide to run the Seahawks or Panthers' offensive systems with any quarterback under center. Having a quarterback with the ability to run changes the numbers game for an opposing defense, not only asking them to defend one more player -- in normal run defenses, the quarterback is largely ignored, making it 11 vs. 10 -- but it also asks them to think instead of simply react.

Even seasoned defenses like the Cardinals, who face option teams like the Seahawks and 49ers four times a year, weren't immune to Carolina's option game.

"I just know from a defensive standpoint," said Osborne, "I would have a hard time, I think, coaching without some elements of the option, I really do. And I would have a very hard time coaching without a quarterback who could run."

The Panthers use Newton frequently in the red zone as well, effectively running power-O concepts with one extra blocker leading the way, as Cam doesn't have to hand off to anyone. In Carolina's NFC South clinching win over the Falcons, they got a touchdown out of this.

Russell Wilson, in particular, is unique though in that he's done a remarkable job in protecting himself the past three seasons on both scrambles and designed runs. You rarely see him get hit. He slides or gets out of bounds almost every time -- and unlike other "running quarterbacks" that have emerged over the years -- he has an innate, natural ability to protect himself.

That's why, back in November, when Pete Carroll was asked if he would rather Wilson not be the NFL's top rusher as a quarterback, he replied, "Absolutely not. No, no, absolutely not."

Why?

"He got hit one time last week. As long as he continues to run and find space and get out of bounds and get down. That's our style of the way we play. He's brought that uniqueness to us so there's no reason to discourage him from doing that."

Part of the reason the Seahawks have actually encouraged Wilson to run is that the combination of Wilson's running ability with Marshawn Lynch has been devastatingly effective. "It's our style to play off of the running game and there's a lot of play pass and a lot of movement by the quarterback," said Carroll. "We encourage Russell to play the way he plays and to get out and create problems for our opponents.

"Marshawn has been making tremendous yardage," said Carroll, "and has a terrific average too. The combined yardage is really special when [Wilson's] running.

"With the threats that we pose, people adjust their schemes sometimes and they change so we have to wait and see what's going on. Sometimes it's different and sometimes it isn't. So again, the whole plan was fit together."

Again, it's a number's game. When you have a defense that's dedicating a defender to take heed of Wilson, that's one less person in the box to defend Lynch. What it's resulted in is that the Seahawks led the NFL in yards per carry off left end, up the middle, and off the right end. Much of that is thanks to this simple read-option look:

"The running quarterbacks always have a big effect in the passing game," said Carroll in November, "but when you're able to incorporate it, and have the opportunities to include it in the run game, it then it adds a totally different dimension to your defense, and you saw Russell execute the game plan really well of attacking the perimeter. They allowed it to happen so we just kept taking it."

"Some of that was off the hard downhill running game and some of it was off the read game and it all just fit really well. He was really on his reads and with Marshawn running like his hair was on fire it made for a great match"."

Bottom line

There are many ways to win in the NFL and teams hang their hat on a lot of different things. The defining characteristic for both the Seahawks and Panthers offenses are their run games, an both will be on display on Saturday night. Carolina will look to give Seattle a piece of their own medicine and Carroll and company will look to continue moving on the in Playoffs using "the most consistent, proven championship formula in the history of this game," as they see it.