Trends in the NFL: The Running Game

We had some interesting comments last week from Coach Pat Hill, describing the offensive line and their run blocking abilities. From this, we sparked some conversation about how the NFL is shifting to a Quarterback-centric league, decreasing the value of running backs.

Obviously for the Falcons, the running game has largely been overlooked with the Front Office building around Matt Ryan's passing. However, that same neglect seems to be hurting his ability to perform at previous year levels. With this in mind, I decided to pull as much information as I could on running statistics for the past 5 years and 2013 so far in order to see what's been changing in the NFL. There's plenty more information to go through...I won't post everything at once. Instead, I'll focus on the more basic looks at running in the NFL and for the Falcons. If something pops in your head that you want to see, just ask and you shall receive!

High Level Look at Running vs. Passing

Play Calling Mix

To keep things simple, let's first look at the mix of play-calling. To calculate the number of passing plays, I'm using the number of drop backs from PFF since it includes sacks and QB scrambles; For running plays, I took the rushing attempts and subtracted the QB scrambles. This should represent the actual play-calling pretty well. See below:


Over the past 6 years (including 2013 pace), the percentage of passing plays called has increased each year, starting from 57.6% in 2008 up to 61.2% in 2013 so far. Compare that to the Falcons, rising from 46.7% to 70.9%. The Falcons now have to most lopsided play-calling in football. Let's not argue the cause-and-effect. It could be the O-line, it could be playing from behind, etc., but one thing's for sure: it's not good.

Play Result Mix

Just to show the play results instead of the original play call, the chart below moves the QB scrambles back to the running play counts:


You'll notice a generally similar looking graph, though the discrepancy between the Falcon's and the NFL is greater. Without getting into the passing numbers too much, this shows that (SPOILER!) Matt Ryan scrambles far less than the league average...and far less than the he did the previous 5 years. I'll describe this in more detail in a subsequent post looking at the passing game.

Total Plays

It's interesting to note that, factoring in scrambles, the number of rushing plays has been relatively equal over that period of time. But with the steep rise in passing, the total number of plays has been steadily increasing each year. To interpret the graph below, the play count bars go with the left-side numbers, and the black line pairs with the right-side percentages.


There were 14,119 running plays in 2008, and the NFL is on pace for 13,763 in 2013. This yields only a 2.5% drop over the 6 year period. Passing plays have skyrocketed, on the other hand, in stride for 20,620 in 2013, up from 17,600 in 2008 - a 17.2% increase. The black line represents the percentage increase in plays compared to the previous year. Anything above zero is positive growth, with the 2013 anticipated growth coming close to 5%.

Running Success & Averages

Yards Per Carry

Now that we know the volume trends in play calling, let's look at how the running game has faired. First, let's just look at a nice, simple Yards per Carry (YpC):


Surprisingly, the average has been about the same for the first 5 years. However, this year's average thus far is 4.12 yards per carry, the only time below 4.20 during this period. It represents a 2.9% decrease over the 5-year average prior to 2013.

Our beloved Falcons have struggled much worse than average, showing a very negative trend, from 4.4 YpC in 2008 to 3.5 this year, or -19.6%. Surprisingly, this decrease from 2008 to 2013 is only the 5th worst in the league behind the Broncos (-23%), Ravens (-30%), Jaguars (-33%), and Giants (-36%). A majority of the shift for the Falcons has obviously been the past 2 years, accounting for 70% of the decline. This could be a result of the line, a shift with Matt Ryan at the helm, or a combination of many other things. What it shows and what we all know, however, is that we cannot be a successful football team when our average running gain is more than half a yard below the NFL.

YpC Comparison

To show our comparison year to year, here's a chart to show the growing discrepancy between us and the League:


While the Falcons had an impressive record last year, the details of the record are not very pretty. Most of the wins were close and ugly, and the season could have easily been much worse.

Who's Running the Ball?

Looking at rushing averages doesn't tell the entire story. With the rise of mobile quarterbacks, the YpC is inflated by QB running plays and scrambles. So, how do Running Back and Quarterback averages compare? Below is a chart showing average YpC by position, and the share of running plays by the QBs. The lines go with the left-side numbers, and the bar with the right-side percentages.


From 2008 - 2012, RBs averaged close to 4.3 yards. So far this year, that number is barely over 4, almost a 6% reduction in average performance. Quarterbacks have been taking and increasing number of running snaps and, for the first time, have a higher average than RBs.

With this in mind, the Falcon's decreasing numbers don't look quite as bad...still bad, though. Including the QBs, Atlanta is ranked 4th worst in yards per carry. Take QBs out of the equation, and Atlanta is ranked 6th. Make you feel better? I didn't thinks so...

To add a certain level of consistency to grade the Falcons, let's take a look at Jacquizz Rogers. Rogers averaged 3.9 YpC last year, down to 3.6 in 2013. He's young and should, in theory, be growing into the NFL and performing better. I understand that's not always true, but I don't hear many people on this forum argue about his abilities as a play-maker. A 10% decrease in production does not bode well for our offensive line, something we already knew was an issue.

On a positive note, Snelling has improved compared to last year, though with limited snap counts. Last year, he ran 63 yards on 18 attempts for a 3.5 yard average; this year, he has 132 yards on 36 attempts, an average of 3.7. Can we write the Coaches and ask that he get more playing time? In all honesty, the limited exposure could greatly skew the numbers, especially since he received a majority of snaps against the Wake-less Miami Defense, generating 53 yards on 11 carries. I still would love to get him more involved in the offense. He's proven to be a reliable player when we need him.

Mobile QB's vs. Others

With this rise in quarterback runs, let's look at teams with "Running" Quarterbacks, and those teams' Running Back performance. For this information, I took teams that had at least 30 Quarterback rushes, and compared the Year-over-Year Running Back YpC average. This is what I got:


While the RB rushing average has dropped just over 1% for teams with Mobile QBs, that numbers sinks to -6.5% for other teams. Also, the comparison of the actual YpC for those RBs is pretty stunning: 4.33 for Mobile QB led teams, 3.86 for others. That's over a 10% performance boost to running backs by having an additional running threat at the QB position.

Running Back YpC and Play Calling Mix

Moving on, the Falcons' run game averages are decreasing, but the proportion of passing plays is far above the rest of the NFL. Is there a relationship between the two? I think so...cause-and-effect aside, see the plot below of every NFL team's Passing Play Percentage compared to their RB's YpC:


The Falcons, shown in red, are really an outlier of the group, similar to San Francisco and Seattle on the opposite side of the graph. However, the trend line would essentially be the same, and Atlanta is right on it. Of course, the increased passing is most likely a product of the offensive line's run-blocking failures. Also, Atlanta has especially seemed to run more screen passes to compensate. A pass? Technically, but I consider it more of a shifted running play.

Running Backs in the Passing Game

In order to gauge the effect of Running Backs in the passing game, let's look at the total number of times running backs have been targeted by year across the NFL. It's not solely representative of screen plays, but will show the importance of catching while included those screen passes in the numbers:


Though 2012 seems to be a nonconformist year, the general trend is increasing quickly. From 2008 to the 2013 pace, we can expect roughly a 4% increase. This minimally alters the passing play percentages, but still shows the significance of RBs and their catching ability.

Here's a graph showing only Atlanta for the same period:


In 2008, the number of RB targets was 74. This year, we already have 93, or on pace for 165. That's a 123% increase over 6 years.

Take Away

For the NFL, passing is inarguably becoming the lop-sided play call. The running game, however, still has significance. It makes sense that teams with QB mobility also have strong running games. Both could feed each other, but I think it really boils down to having balanced attacks and a risk of more running plays. So while the utility of running backs seems to be decreasing in the running game, they are still as important to offensive scheming as ever. RBs are now expected to be even more dynamic, having good hands to catch the ball and extend passing play options.

While the Falcon's don't need to change QBs, they do need to focus on the running game, and by extension, the offensive line - that's not a surprising fact. As long as our play-calling remains so heavily in favor of passing, Matt Ryan is going to be under an unbearable amount of pressure. The screen passes worked for a while, but have failed us recently. As history suggests, one-dimensional teams have trouble performing, even if that dimension is their strong suit. Predictability kills offenses, and Atlanta essentially plays poker with an open hand - Matt Ryan is going to pass, and if not, our running game won't get anywhere. That allows defenses to cheat a bit. Until the running game improved, especially in run-blocking, we're doomed. That's why we have generated such a large increase in RB passing plays, because we have talent at that position that cannot be deployed behind our O-line.

Just some other interesting notes. Why is the NFL favoring passing? My guess is higher scoring games, which will typically fill more seats. Here's how the total points scored has trended alongside the passing play percentages:


And, while the running game has become less prominent, this year especially, it's still important. Among teams that have Running Back YpC above average, their combined record is 75-54 (58% Wins); the flip side - 72 - 93 (44%).

So, for the Falcons, this off-season should address not only offensive line personnel, but also run block performance, play development, and balanced play calling.

Again, I have put a ton of information together and am ready to supplement this information with anything you may like to see. Post what you think is relevant, and I'll do my best to tack on the information.

<em>This FanPost was written by one of The Falcoholic's talented readers. It does not necessarily reflect the views of The Falcoholic.</em>

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