There's no question that the NFL's offenses are more aerial and prolific now than at any other time in league history. The 2011 regular season saw all-time highs in several offensive categories — points per game (22.2), yards per game (346.8), yards per play (5.5), first downs per game (19.5), and net yards per passing attempt (6.3). Two playoff teams — the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints — are using the running game as a near afterthought from a reps perspective, though the Saints have a four-headed running back rotation that rivals any other in the league. These are the types of teams and offenses that have met recent trends, and the Saints are perhaps most reflective of the switch to a more pass-happy NFL.
When quarterback Drew Brees obliterated Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record (breaking it with a game left in the season), the narrative was set: Teams are passing more than ever before, and thus, passing teams are more successful than ever before.
That said, there are teams coming up from the NFL's schematic underbrush espousing an old-school approach that could pay mighty dividends in the playoffs.
The three top teams in run/pass ratio in 2011 — the Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans — are all division winners with a decidedly physical approach. Each team has quarterback issues that are being managed by a more ground-based approach, though to tag these teams as "conservative" might be missing the point. The 49ers in particular operate a series of schemes in their run game that set enemy defenses on their heels, the Texans can do whatever they want behind the best run-blocking line in the NFL, and the Broncos are re-introducing several of the elements that made the Wildcat package so successful for the Miami Dolphins in 2008.
How are these teams swimming against the tide with such success?
Denver Broncos — 546 runs/429 passes/1.27 ratio
For obvious reasons, the Broncos are more reliant on the run than any other playoff team. Quarterback Tim Tebow is still finding his feet as a pure passer in the NFL (to put it kindly), and that makes Tebow the only quarterback in the league right now whose fortunes are tightly aligned with those of his defense. As long as the Broncos can keep the other team from scoring in the 30s, Tebow has proven the ability to make serious comebacks with a run-first offensive game plan. The Broncos are dominant in their read-option plays, and they use most every other ground-based concept you could ask for — iso blasts up the middle, counters, traps and guard pulls with power.
It's an effective methodology until the other team kicks its offense into gear and Tebow is forced to rely on a quarterback acumen that is growing but severely underdeveloped in comparison to most other playoff quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has done a masterful job adapting the Denver offense to Tebow's strengths, but more and more, we're seeing the expiration date on an offense in which consistent passing at any level simply doesn't exist. The Broncos have lost three straight games, and Tebow's limitations have been exposed.
"Like we've said from the first week he was out there, there were going to be some growing pains," McCoy said of Tebow in late December. "Tim's big thing is to just get better every day at practice and do whatever he can. I think he took a big step forward last week. He sat in the pocket and made some great throws. That's what you're going to see from Tim. Every week he's gotten better, and that's all we can ask from him."
It might be too little, too late this season. Give Tebow an offseason as the starter, and we'll see.
Houston Texans -- 546 runs/467 passes/1.17 ratio
When quarterback Matt Schaub was healthy, the Texans may have been the most well-balanced team in the NFL. They possessed an above-average aerial attack, the best overall rushing game in the league, and a suddenly dominant defense. They still have the last two factors in play, but since Schaub was lost for the season to a foot injury in mid-November, the offensive game plan has been more and more about risk management. Rookie quarterback T.J. Yates — the first NFL starting quarterback in North Carolina history — is playing decently, but Houston's offense now revolves around an absolutely dominant offensive line and the dual efforts of backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate.
Like the Broncos and 49ers, the Texans now must play around their quarterback to a large degree and insert him into the overall scheme on a case-by-case basis. One advantage Yates has this upcoming weekend when the Texans face the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round is that he faced this same team in December and engineered the winning touchdown drive. Yates suffered a shoulder injury in the regular-season finale against the Tennessee Titans, but he should be ready to go for the playoffs.
Head coach Gary Kubiak believes that this game is not too big for his rookie quarterback.
"He's the best guy for our football team and if he is able to go and do the things that we need him to do in practice, then we will turn him loose and let him go," Kubiak said after the Titans game. "Just watching him prepare with a game plan, sit down the night before a game, answer questions, go through a game plan, his reads, all those things. He's a very quick thinker on the field. He's very sharp as [far as] what we are trying to get done on game day. Even though he is young, he can still help everybody out and seems to be getting better every time he goes out there. So, he is building confidence within the group and with us."
San Francisco 49ers -- 497 runs/452 passes/1.10 ratio
When it comes to the hidden advantages of run game complexity, the 49ers are a perfect example — they are heavy in the run game, but that doesn't mean they're just throwing stodgy power gap concepts at their opponents — they also have multiple tight end blocking looks, fullbacks will line up in different places, and they've employed sweep concepts with receiver Ted Ginn. Add in a quarterback in Alex Smith who had finally learned to at least not lose games, and you have an approach very much like the ones used by the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers on their way to Super Bowl titles.
Can that work against the more high-powered passing teams in the NFC? It would seem that the margin for error is much smaller for the "pick-'em-away" teams than for the offenses that can cover an entire football field in two plays. Even with a "managed" quarterback like Alex Smith, head coach Jim Harbaugh recently said that there's more to the role Smith plays than meets the eye.
"I think people that understand football understand that there's a lot more that goes into the job of a quarterback than those statistics," Harbaugh told Yahoo! Sports in mid-December. "Whenever a player is just thinking about statistics, whether it be sacks or yardage, those kind of agendas, interceptions, it can often hurt the team. We'll see. I believe there are three that go to the Pro Bowl, right? Aaron Rogers, Drew Brees, Alex Smith. I think those are the top three in the NFC, in my humble opinion."
Harbaugh may be alone in that humble opinion right now, but if he gambles right in his approach, he'll gain more converts over time.
Can this approach really work against high-octane teams? Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, whose team just missed the playoffs in 2011, believes that the ability to adjust to one's personnel is more important than adherence to one system or another.
"I remember one year at Green Bay, we broke the team-record for rushing, and then the very next year we broke the team-record for passing," Bevell told Yahoo! Sports. "I think it's important as a coordinator to see what you have and your pieces and have a system to be able to fit the players to what they do best. You don't say, 'OK, this system is all we're going to do.' We need to find out what they do best and go from there."
And in the ever-competitive hunt to build the better mousetrap, that might be the most important philosophy of all.