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Is A Power Running Game by the Steelers a Winning Formula for Success in the NFL?

The two quotes that follow are comments made in response to my Wednesday post defending the coaching staff and specifically Bruce Arians.

Screw BA. He is a pass-happy idiot. I can’t believe that Tomlin keeps that sorry excuse around. When his contract is up I hope I never even hear his name again. BYE BYE BRUCE.

what the steelers need-BADLY-is a 250-260lb. "bus"! i don’t get why a tough running team has resorted to 210lb. scatbacks, steeler running backs are the ones who when you need 2 yds, they get 6, when you need 5yds, they get 12! NO dancing around in the backfield, hand the ball off, and run straight through the line, and over the defense! until we get this, we are not going to win superbowls in shootouts! ball and clock control has been a steeler hallmark, and many teams used to pattern off this offense, some successful, and superbowl winners! a great running scheme sets your passing game up, and is so much more successful! i’m not an expert, but i’ve followed the steelers for close to 50 years! defense wins games, but the offense needs to score points, and allow the defense time to catch their breath! runners like rocky, franco, bam, jerome all straight ahead backs, and made the steelers the best in the nfl!!!!

This particular post begins, as so many of my posts do, as a reply to these gentlemen. In my reply I didn't want to make assertions that weren't backed up by actual facts, something that is hard to always do considering the rapid-fire nature of conversations on sites like ours. But I've gathered the facts, at least what I believe are the facts, and here is my reply:

During the course of Super Bowl 45, the Steelers' offense scored 25 points and held the ball for 34 minutes.  They won the time of possession battle, despite the turnovers.  I keep hearing remarks such as "we need a fullback, we need a power back" and so on, but there are plenty of teams with fullbacks and power backs that weren't in the Super Bowl this year.  In fact, Green Bay does have a fullback, but they certainly don't have a power back - they barely had a running game at all until their rookie back broke out in the playoffs. 

I understand that lots of people, the above commenters included, love football that is characterized by powerful running.  I understand that the current manifestation of the Steelers does not fit their description of a power running team.  That's a reasonable assessment, since the Steelers were #11 in the league in total rushing yards during the season - not embarrassing, but hardly leaders.  But the Steelers have been to the Super Bowl three times in the past six years, and in only one of those Super Bowls did they have one of the admired power backs - Jerome Bettis in 2005.

If the Steelers had not made the playoffs this year (an outcome that most of the pundits in the league expected) I would understand why so many people were up in arms, as Steeler Nation has very high expectations.  But they did.

If the Steelers had lost the Divisional Round, or the AFC Championship game, I would have understood the disappointment of the fans like yourself, but it starts to be hard to see what you're complaining about.  By the time the team gets into the playoffs, they are facing the best teams in the conference, and apparently they are one of them.  Given the current league structure that is designed to prevent the sort of 'dynasty' teams like the Steelers of the 1970s, it is impressive - and difficult - to field a winning team every year.  Between 2000 and 2010, here are the teams that made it to the playoffs, and how many times they did so, how many times they made it to the Super Bowl, and how many Super Bowls they won:





SBs SB Wins Team Playoffs SBs SB Wins
IND 10 2 1 PHI 9 1 0
NE 8 4 3 GB 7 1 1
PIT 7 3 2 SEA 6 1 0
BAL 7 1 1 NYG 6 2 1
NYJ 6 0 0 TB 5 1 1
TEN 5 0 0 ATL 4 0 0
SD 5 0 0 NO 4 1 1
DEN 4 0 0 STL 4 1 0
OAK 3 1 0 CHI 4 1 0
MIA 3 0 0 MIN 4 0 0
CIN 2 0 0 DAL 4 0 0
JAC 2 0 0 CAR 3 1 0
CLE 1 0 0 SF 2 0 0
WAS 2 0 0
AZ 2 1 0


As you can see, all but one of the NFC teams and all but three of the AFC teams have made it to the playoffs at least once.  That's as good an indication that parity works as any I've seen.  On the other hand, you have the perennial contenders - I would think that 7 playoff appearances in 11 seasons (2000-2010) would qualify for that, as that would mean that getting on for 2/3 of the time your team makes the playoffs.  The field narrows considerably at that point - only 25% of the AFC teams and 12.5% of the NFC teams have managed that.  Of those, only 1 of the NFC teams has won a Super Bowl - Green Bay.  The 4 top AFC teams combine for all 7 of the Super Bowls that have been won by the AFC.  Apparently the AFC does 'dynasties' better than the NFC. 

Interestingly to me, the team that made the playoffs the most, the Colts, who blew everyone else out of the water with playoff appearances every year except 2001, has only made it to the Super Bowl twice, and only won it once. 

But back to my progressions. If the Steelers had won the Super Bowl, I would guess that you guys would say that they won despite having an idiot for an offensive play caller and a risible running back. So please consider this.  Of the four playoff runs in seven years with the Offensive Coordinator everybody seems to pine for, Ken Whisenhunt, the "smash-mouth run the football" coach, Bill Cowher, and the power running back, Jerome Bettis, only once did the team even make it as far as the Super Bowl.  Jerome Bettis, "The Bus," was on the team during all six of those years.  The Steelers made it to the playoffs in 2005, and went on to win the Superbowl.  What was different that time?  They drafted a good quarterback in 2004. That quarterback didn't win the Super Bowl for them, but he got them there.

On the other hand the Steelers have gone to the playoffs three times in the four years since the Mike Tomlin/Bruce Arians/scatback running backs era began.  They made it to the Super Bowl twice, and won once. Interesting.

I think that the most telling statement in the second comment to which I'm responding is this:

i’m not an expert, but i’ve followed the steelers for close to 50 years!

Well, during those 50 years, the game of football has changed a great deal. You may not be happy about that, but that's a fact.  The rules have changed to favor passers and receivers, and teams without a good quarterback and good receivers are going nowhere.  Was there a single team in the playoffs this year, in either conference, without an above-average quarterback?  (And don't give me the Flacco Sucks, Cutler Sucks etc. business - they aren't elite quarterbacks in most people's eyes, but they are a great deal better than journeymen.) In nine of the eleven games in this postseason, the team whose quarterback was having a better day won.  That may sound like "well, duh," but since the question is whether a good running game or a good passing game is more important to winning football games, it's a reasonable point to make.  I'm not trying to say that having a good running game isn't useful, but I am trying to make the case that you aren't going to win most of the time, given the way the league is now, with a great defense, a great running game, and a poor passing game.  Here is a telling illustration from this year's playoffs:

New England isn't known for their running game, but they have two good backs, Danny Woodhead and The Law Firm, and in the Divisional Round they actually got one more first down from rushing than the Jets. The Jets ended up with 120 total rushing yards, and the Patriots - the Air Assault team - had 113 yards rushing.  They had one less rushing attempt than the Jets, and had 4.0 YPC vs. 4.1 for the Jets. New England won the time of possession battle, holding the ball for just under 35 minutes.  But Tom Brady was having an off day, and threw an interception, breaking his streak of 340 pass attempts without one.  Mark Sanchez did not throw an interception. Mark Sanchez had a 127.3 QB rating, Tom Brady had an 89.0 rating in that game.

Here are some stats for all of the playoff games - by "TOs" I mean turnovers that the offense gave up:

Winning Team Losing Team W QB Rating L QB Rating W Rushing YDs L Rushing YDs W Passing YDs L Passing YDs W TOs L TOs
SEA NO 113 95.4 150 77 265 397 1 1
NYJ IND 62.4 108.5 169 93 184 219 1 0
BAL KC 115.4 20.4 142 108 248 53 2 5
GB PHI 122.5 79.9 138 81 171 271 2 1
CHI SEA 113 94.3 176 34 261 242 0 1
NYJ NE 127.3 89 120 113 194 259 0 1
PIT BAL 101.8 61.1 71 35 192 91 2 3
GB ATL 136.8 69 96 45 346 149 0 2
GB CHI 55.4 50+* 120 83 236 218 2 3
PIT BAL 35.5 102.2 166 70 121 219 1 2
GB PIT 111.5 77.4 50 126 288 261 0 3


[*there were 3 QBs - highest rating was the 3rd stringer with 65.2, other 2 under 40 - Hanie had 33 attempts as compared to 24 for Cutler/Collins, so I averaged it out]

Out of the 11 playoff games, including the Super Bowl, only 2 winning teams had a lower QB rating than the losing team.  Only 2 winning teams turned the ball over more times than the losing team.  In only one case did those coincide - the NYJ/IND game in the Wild Card round. 

In the 11 playoff games, there was only one game in which the winning team had less rushing yards than the losing team - the Super Bowl.  Green Bay had less than half as many rushing yards as Pittsburgh, despite the fact that the Steelers gave up on the run game as time was running out.  Pittsburgh had 2 passing touchdowns and 1 running touchdown.  Green Bay had 3 passing touchdowns, 0 running touchdowns, and a defensive touchdown.

During the regular season, the top three rushing teams were Kansas City, Oakland, and Jacksonville.  Kansas City blew the competition out of the water with 131 yards more than the next closest team.  They were the only one of the three teams that made the playoffs, and they were one and done.

The top three passing teams were Indianapolis, San Diego, and New Orleans.  Two of those teams made the playoffs, and both were one and done.

There is no overlap at all between the top five rushing teams and the top five passing teams.  Only three teams even appear on both lists of the top 10 - Houston, Philadelphia, and the New York Giants.  Of those three, the "best" was Houston - #4 in passing yards, #7 in rushing yards.  Houston didn't make the playoffs.  Philadelphia was next best, at #9 passing yards and #5 rushing yards.  (676 of their 2324 total rushing yards were earned by Michael Vick, the QB.) The Giants were #10 in passing yards and #6 in rushing yards. The Eagles and the Giants were both one and done in the playoffs.

What does any of this prove?  It doesn't prove anything, other than that football is way too complicated to be overwhelmingly effected by any one factor. The only thing you could absolutely prove with these stats is that the team that gets the most points wins.  You could, however, also say that the team that is putting up a reasonable amount of offense and winning the turnover battle is very likely to win.  But it would be pretty hard to make a case, at least this season, that a dominant running game is necessary to win championships.  The two teams in the Super Bowl were 11th and 24th in the league in rushing yards.  The team with the running game just barely above the bottom quarter of the league won it.

And here's a thought about getting a "mauler" - type running back.  I suspect that part of the reason that the power running game isn't so popular any more is that defensive linemen are so much bigger.  Since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, the average defensive lineman is 34 pounds heavier than his 1970 counterpart.  The average running back is 17 pounds heavier.  You do the math.  Guys are bigger, stronger, and faster on the D line, and I suspect that unless this trend changes it's going to be seldom that we see running backs smashing right through the line.  If you have a great run-blocking O line opening things up for you, it helps, but the disadvantage the back has is distinctly greater than it was 40 years ago.  In the meantime, Mendenhall was our #1 draft pick 3 years ago. He's not going anywhere just yet...

Having a good running game obviously serves a purpose, and I'm not at all denigrating its value.  It helps with time of possession, it sets up play-action passes, it gives the quarterback a break from the pass rush, keeps the defense honest, and for all you Fantasy Football fans out there, it pads fantasy stats. Having a balanced offense is clearly preferable than having one that is heavily skewed in either direction, and perhaps explains why none of the top three teams in either passing or rushing yards made it to the Super Bowl.

I wonder, though, if we're ever going to see again a team that wins a Super Bowl with a dominating run game and an anemic passing game overall.  (There were certainly teams with good quarterbacks that had bad games, including our own Ben Roethlisberger - I'm talking about over the course of a season.)  It would surprise me if someone managed to do it.  It seems to me that you can't effectively compete in this league without a good quarterback, and when you've invested that kind of money in a quarterback you aren't going to send them into the game to hand off the ball 8 times out of 10.  That's just how it is now.  You may not like it, but you can't fault the coaching staff for being realists.