clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Can the Falcons win running more than they pass?


Atlanta Falcons v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Falcons in 2022 were somewhat of a rarity: They were a team that ran the ball more often they passed it. If you go all the way back to 2013 on TeamRankings, you’ll count only 14 teams that have done so, which averages out to just over one team per year over the past decade. We are emphatically in the NFL’s passing era, a product of rule changes and exciting quarterbacks and a love for some good old fashioned deep balls.

Whether that will remain a rarity in 2023 and beyond is a question that can’t be answered here in July 2023, but we do know this: The Falcons seem poised to be the even more team that tries doing so two years in a row. A squad that drafted Bijan Robinson and a mauling run-blocking left guard after passing the ball just 44.71% of the time would not appear to be gearing up to become, say, the 2019 Falcons, who led the NFL in passing play percentage. They may come closer to balance, but it will be shocking if they do not run more often than they pass.

That begs a few questions, but an obvious one is this: Is it a good idea to lean so heavily on the run?

Adnan Ikic’s beautiful deep dive into the whys and hows of Atlanta’s ground game revolution should help answer that one, outlining as it does the marriage of personnel and philosophy that the Falcons are wielding in 2023. But it’s also instructive to see how those rare teams who have chosen to lean on the run have actually fared doing so, and whether those franchises and their conscious emphasis on their ground games succeeded or not.

Recent history

In 2022, only three teams ran more often than they passed, with another four teams passing under 52% of the time. Three of those seven teams had winning records and two of them made deep playoff runs; the Eagles at 50.26% pass-to-run went 14-3 and nearly won the Super Bowl.

In 2021, no team ran the ball more often than they passed it, and only four teams came in under our 52% threshold. All four posted winning records that year, with the 49ers making a run to the NFC Conference Championship.

In 2020, only three teams cashed in under 52%, but all three of them ran more than they passed. The Patriots weren’t very good, but the Ravens (44.96% pass-to-run ratio) and Titans (49.72%) were both excellent teams that finished 11-5.

Going back even further yields similar results: There are only a handful of teams every year, if even a small handful, who run more than they pass, and another small handful that achieve something close to an even 50/50 split. Given the number of teams actively trying to run that much, the striking thing is that usually half or more of those teams each year are good teams, teams with winning records and playoff berths and sometimes even deep playoff runs. If you commit to it and do it well, and crucially the rest of your team isn’t shambles, you can make it work.

Here’s what this looks like in chart form:

NFL’s Most Committed Rushing Teams, 2013-2022

Team Run Percentage Wins Playoff Success
Team Run Percentage Wins Playoff Success
2022 Eagles 49.74% 14-3 Lost Super Bowl
2022 Ravens 50.18% 10-7 Lost Wild Card Round
2022 Falcons 55.29% 7-10 N/A
2022 Bears 56.19% 3-14 N/A
2021 Titans 48.78% 12-5 Lost Divisional Round
2021 49ers 48.39% 10-7 Lost NFC Conference Championship
2021 Eagles 49.87% 9-8 Lost Wild Card Round
2021 Saints 48.53% 9-8 N/A
2020 Ravens 55.04% 11-5 Lost Divsional Round
2020 Titans 50.28% 11-5 Lost Wild Card Round
2020 Patriots 51.28% 7-9 N/A
2019 Ravens 54.07% 14-2 Lost Divisional Round
2019 49ers 51.39% 13-3 Lost Super Bowl
2018 Seahawks 52.44% 10-6 Lost Wild Card Round
2018 Titans 48.51% 9-7 N/A
2017 Jaguars 49.49% 10-6 Lost AFC Conference Championship
2016 Cowboys 48.70% 13-3 Lost Divisional Round
2016 Bills 48.62% 7-9 N/A
2015 Panthers 49.84% 15-1 Lost Super Bowl
2015 Vikings 48.88% 11-5 Lost Wild Card Round
2015 Bills 50.10% 8-8 N/A
2014 Seahawks 51.44% 12-4 Lost Super Bowl
2014 Cowboys 49.64% 12-4 Lost Divisional Round
2014 Texans 51.93% 9-7 N/A
2014 Jets 48.19% 4-12 N/A
2013 Seahawks 52.71% 13-3 Won Super Bowl
2013 49ers 52.23% 12-4 Lost NFC Conference Championship
2013 Panthers 48.20% 12-4 Lost Divisional Round
2013 Jets 48.33% 8-8 N/A
2013 Bills 48.92% 6-10 N/A

What you’ll note is that out of the 30 teams that ran the ball 48% of the time or more over the past decade, 19 of them were playoff teams. Of those, five of them actually made it to the Super Bowl, with one winning. If you only include the 14 teams that ran more than they passed, nine of them made the playoffs and three of those teams made the Super Bowl, with one winning.

The teams worth emulating here are the ones who consistently found success with that approach. That would include the Ravens, Titans, 49ers, Seahawks, and more recently the Eagles, all teams with multiple years of playoff berths and a desire and ability to run well and often. The fact that Arthur Smith oversaw those Tennessee attacks for a couple of years is not a coincidence, obviously, but the Seahawks and 49ers—the only teams to make multiple Super Bowl over the past decade running that much—are worth emulating because of their stellar defenses bolstering those ground games.

You should not consider this a scientific, slam dunk case for running that much, obviously. The 52% cutoff is a little arbitrary on my point, and these teams weren’t just winning because they ran the ball a lot and ran it well. The Eagles last year were top 10 in passing yards, points for and against, and were the league’s stingiest pass defense, and it goes without saying that the Seahawks and Ravens of yesteryear were marked as much by their stellar defense as their success on the ground.

But it’s still intriguing that those teams bucking a league-wide trend and daring to run like it’s 1999 have found success more often than they’ve failed, suggesting the Falcons are less truly unique trailblazers than those willing to take a less well-marked trail.

Can the Falcons win by running more than they pass?

Yeah, they can, assuming many pieces fall into place.

One of the lessons of recent history is that you can be a terrific team without following the pass a lot, smother the pass template if you’re excellent at your strengths and pretty well-rounded otherwise. The Falcons can run and win if they have a solid-to-great passing game and quality defense to pair with it; they won seven games a year ago running non-stop without either of those other pieces really being there.

The Falcons can and will run. They were absurdly great at it a year ago with a 30-plus year-old Cordarrelle Patterson, fifth round rookie back in Tyler Allgeier, and a former undrafted free agent in Caleb Huntley. The addition of a potential annual Pro Bowler in Bijan Robinson and upgrades on the offensive line should only make that easier for Atlanta. The question is whether they can be at least an efficient passing attack with Desmond Ridder, Kyle Pitts, Drake London and company (I say yes) and whether they can at least boast a league average defense (shakier on this, but I still say yes). Without those pieces, Atlanta will be one of the league’s most fun rushing attacks, but they may not join the 19 teams on the list above who made playoff pushes.

The upshot? We know the ground game will be one of the league’s best. If Atlanta’s investments in their defense and building up of the passing game bear fruit, god willing, the Falcons will join that shortlist of teams that both dares to run frequently and also wins many games.