Teams shying away from run at record pace
While it's absurd to say that no one runs anymore in the NFL, it is worth noting that teams are abandoning the ground game like never before this year.
Through the first five weeks of the season, there are a staggering 11 teams that are averaging less than 25 carries a game running the ball. If that continues, it would break the league high-water mark of 10 (in 1991) since the league went to 16 games in 1978 (a season in which the fewest amount of average carries was 31.6 per game by the Minnesota Vikings). Conversely, five teams are averaging more than 40 throws a game.
The reduction in running is apparent in the passing stats. Over the previous 32 seasons, only 13 times have teams averaged more than 40 throws a game for an entire season. Only twice ('94 and '95) have more than one team done so in a season. Even more, the once high-powered St. Louis Rams' passing attack known as the Greatest Show on Turf isn't one of the 13 teams.
While some may argue that this trend will cool with the weather once December hits, the reality is that more teams may be throwing like never before and sacrificing the run in the process.
Even when opponents dare them to run.
Last weekend's game Sunday between the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs provides a prime example. In holding the Colts to only one touchdown in a 19-9 loss, the Chiefs played much of the game in an umbrella defense that often featured six defensive backs and only two defensive linemen. Aside from a handful of short-yardage plays, the Chiefs never had more than three defensive linemen on the field.
"Sure, what you should be doing in that situation is pounding away with the running game, but for whatever reason we couldn't do it," Colts center Jeff Saturday(notes) said.
Though the Colts ran effectively (43 carries for 160 yards) against a soft, coverage defense in their Week 2 victory over the New York Giants, they struggled to find much consistency on the ground against Kansas City. Their longest runs of the game were 11 yards.
40-plus passes per game
"Whatever we were doing, it wasn't getting those big runs that scared the defense and made them change," Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne(notes) said.
As a result, the pass-happy Colts (one of the five teams throwing more than 40 times a game despite never doing that before in the Peyton Manning(notes) era) continued to fire away, throwing 42 passes. They ended up with 31 runs, but three came on kneel-downs by Manning at the end and their lone touchdown drive of the game in the fourth quarter was telling. Of 12 plays on the drive, nine were passes by Manning despite the fact that the Colts had the lead.
In other words, the Colts had so little trust in the running game that they threw on that crucial drive, even while playing at home.
"We've talked about having balance around here and that's certainly what I want," Manning said. "Nothing helps the passing game more than an effective running game and vice versa. We have to find it."
Not surprisingly, the Colts are the only over-40 passing team with a winning record. The surprising team in the group is St. Louis with rookie Sam Bradford(notes) starting. The Rams aren't sacrificing the run as much as the other over-40 teams, averaging 27.6 runs per game. Further, the Rams are really using a significant portion of their passing game as a de facto running game. In one game earlier this season, the Rams threw seven "bubble" screens, which is essentially an extended handoff.
The 11 under-25 runs a game group features an array of five teams (Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, Washington Redskins and Arizona Cardinals) with winning records and two 0-5 teams (Buffalo and San Francisco). The Colts aren't among the group – at least not yet. Right now, Indy is right at 25 per game.
What that means is that you can still win if you don't run, a factor that could feed this trend.
25 or less rushes per game
"What you're seeing is the progression of all the spread offenses," Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren said. "It's what you're seeing at the college level and it's filtering up to our game. People just think that's a better way to move the football."
That's a popular reason. But there may be another significant explanation, one that lends itself to thinking this trend may hold up even when the weather turns.
Because so few teams practice regularly with full hitting anymore as coaches desperately try to keep top players healthy, bad blocking habits have developed that have a greater impact on running schemes. Furthermore, the sophistication of the passing game has required that coaches spend more time working on the complex timing it takes to throw effectively.
"The game is about getting the most big plays," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "Big plays do so much to change the momentum of the game. How do you get big plays? Throwing it is going to make that happen more than running it.
"Now trust me, I know the value of the running game. The reason we were so good last year is that we had balance. Maybe not that 50-50 balance that a lot of coaches talk about, but balance from the perspective that we were a threat with the running game. Opponents had to take us seriously."
Of course, that quote came after a long day in which Payton spent far more time practicing passes than runs. And no one hit each other.
"It's not just tackling that's bad, it's the whole way that the game is played inside," Hall of Fame linebacker and former New York Giant Harry Carson said. "Offensive linemen don't work on keeping their blocks long enough and all the synchronization you need for a great running game is really not there.
"There's some trapping and a little pulling, but not like it used to be. Really, it's more about matchups, spreading people out and then slashing through some open area. I hate to say it, but to me, it's a little sad."