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In defense of running in the NFL in 2018

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

In my line of work, I have dealt with a lot of statistics. They drive day to day decisions. When I was in a position to develop and work with the core statistics of my business, the first thing our head statistician taught me was that it was just as important to learn what we can’t say about a statistic as it was what we could say.

Let me use some of the newest running statistic arguments as an example and explain why I am against the shunning of the run game.

For context, here are quotes from Pete Carroll that are the basis for most of my arguments in support of the run game:

“We don’t go out just to establish the run,” Carroll said in 2015. “We’ve never said that in all of the years. I don’t mind telling our opponent, we don’t do that. We go out and try to win the game. If we play well, then you have your chances in the second half, and particularly in the fourth quarter to run the football and win the game in that manner. We love doing that. That’s all part of it, if we’re capable of that. We’ve been ahead quite a bit here, so we get those extra opportunities in the fourth quarter. That’s why the runs continue to be ahead of it. It can be misleading, if you think, ‘They’re a run-first team and that’s all they do.’ I don’t think that’s what we’re presenting to our opponents at all.

”We have great commitment to the run game. For all of the football gods that have ever spoken of this game and how you’re supposed to play the game, it goes back to the history of it. This game is won on the ground, and won on both sides of the ball. You have to be able to do that if you want to be a long term, consistent, winning team. We’ve been committed that way for a long time. I’m glad the numbers show that, because that’s what we’re trying to demonstrate through our play.”

Multiple Seahawks twitter wars have ensued with individual fights and battles.

Families have been broken and lives ruined, but its the offseason, so why not. In the midst of the “running doesn’t matter”/“Yes it does” back and forth, I merely said that “running allows you to eat the clock with safer plays to hold a lead or rest your defense”. I was told that I was wrong and here are the reasons. If you want to read the full article, it is available, I will stick with the specific tweets that were sent to me.

So this clearly shows that running the ball well doesn’t control time of possession. The problem is that it is answering a question that wasn’t asked. Pete never said he wants to run the ball the whole game and that it will lead to a TOP win. He is merely saying that there are times where you want to control TOP and that running is a great way to do it. So the stat answers a question that was never asked.

Again, clearly the run game doesn’t make your defense better, but nobody really said that. If you have a bad defense and you rest it, they will just be a rested defense. You would have to compare good defenses, or just your defense and see how they do compared to time of possession, not all defenses. So again, the stat answers a question that was never asked.

These statistics show that being good at running doesn’t lower your turnovers. That was never asked though. Fumbles happen on run plays less than interceptions on pass plays. League wide teams turned over passing the ball at a 2.5% rate, but fumbled at a 2% rate and that includes fumbles on special teams and after passes were caught. I don’t have all the fancy PFF signature stats to give the exact number, but it is less.

Running the ball is safer in some situations, like when you are on the one yard line and have plenty of time to kill.

No I don’t think Seattle should be “run first” or needs to “establish the run” but neither do the Seahawks. They need to be good at running because it has inherent value. If you are good at it, it eats up the clock when you are trying to manage TOP in various situations. Since you can use up more time, it can give your defense a rest. Running the ball well, or having a running back capable of eating clock in a variety of ways (run, catch, block), is what helped Seattle do things like win this game against the Baltimore Ravens in 2011, before Russell Wilson ever knew he’d be a Carroll disciple one day:

Seahawks up 22-17 with 5:52 left. Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback. Even after Jackson picks up 34 passing yards (10 of which just to make up for penalties), there’s 4:37 left on the clock, but Marshawn Lynch makes six runs and one catch on the next seven plays and Seattle somehow runs out nearly six minutes to win the game. It didn’t even take that much — these are small but significant gains in many cases — but gains they weren’t getting the last two seasons. The additions of Rashaad Penny, Ed Dickson, Will Dissly, Mike Solari, Brian Schottenheimer would seem to signal an attempt to erase the last couple of seasons that were more designed towards leaning into Wilson’s passing gifts (Jimmy Graham) and back towards finding ways to slow the game down and exploit those passing gifts to a higher degree, but fewer times.

The NFL may still center around passing, but rushing is still a key component in its orbit.

Defenses aren’t gonna be magically better than they inherently are, they will just be rested so they can play up to their actual abilities. Running also is more turnover safe than throwing it and there are times in a game where risk management is important. So I’m not against the new running stats that show passing is better, but neither are the Seahawks; we both just value what running will do when you are trying to win the game.