Thursday, August 18, 2011

Running Game, Who Needs It?

After the first preseason game, many of Lions fans' fears have been directed towards the running game.  Lion running backs could only muster 70 yards on 33 carries (2.1 a carry) against the Bengals, and their most successful runner (Aaron Brown) will not likely contribute to the team this year.  

This struggle led author Latif Masud of to write an excellent article detailing the Lions running game and what the Lions need to do to improve it.  He concludes:
"Running behind Right Guard side is one of the most critical parts of a running game in the NFL since most backs are right handed and the Lions only ran 14 times to the right the entire season. That tells me that the Lions are in need of a new right guard unless [Stephen] Peterman is fully healthy from his injury."
The Lions recently brought in guard Leonard Davis for a visit to perhaps replace Peterman.  However, Jim Schwartz and Scott Linehan say they aren't panicking yet.  Schwartz recently claimed:
"I don't want to sit here and sound any more alarms on the running game. I think we've turned that into more than it is. Talked about it, and we're going to do our very best there. Each game's going to be a little bit different focus and things like that, but we're certainly not in any kind of red alert when it comes to the run game."
At first, I brushed this off as coach-speech, but then I started to think...why panic?  Do we really need a running game any better than last year to be successful?  We've all been hammered to death by NFL cliches like "You need a running game to keep the defense honest" and "The game is won in the trenches", but do these ideologies still hold true in the era of the quarterback?

I decided to take a look at 2010's data of NFL teams and how their running success related to overall success.  Before I jump into the data, I want to address the shortcomings of my data.  First, to determine overall success, I simply used final team rankings according to draft order.  This is admittedly a crude way to determine which team was better than which (ie: Seattle clearly wasn't the 9th best team), but it was a quick, and more importantly, objective way of looking at it.  Also, I used rushing ranks, rather than raw data (ie: total yards).  This ignores the variance between the rankings.  For example, the first ranked team in Yards Per Carry (YPC) has 0.6 more YPC than the second ranked team, but 0.6 YPC less than second drops you all the way down to 10th.  I chose to do it this way because it makes for a cleaner, more understandable graph.

Limitations aside, I found some pretty interesting results.  First I looked at rushing yards per game (rank) compared to NFL rank.

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As you can see, there is only a small trend with plenty of outliers.   Teams like the Packers, Colts, Bears and Saints had plenty of success without the aid of a strong rushing attack.  However, there are team like the Jets, Steelers, and Eagles who relied on their running game to succeed.  Overall, the graph is pretty scattered, meaning there's little proof that rushing yards correlates to wins.  But using rushing yards as a statistic can be misleading by itself.  Teams leading in a game tend to run the ball more late, and therefore accumulate yardage that isn't representative of their true rushing abilities.  Therefore, I have also created a graph using YPC.

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Surprisingly, there is actually a (very) small correlation in the opposite direction you'd assume.  Teams with a low YPC (high YPC rank) are actually slightly more likely to do better.  However, this correlation is not significant at all, meaning these two variables are basically unrelated.

Together, these statistics lead to an important conclusion: rushing success does not seem related at all to overall team success.  It is worth noting that this data does not account for variances in a team's passing attack, defense or special teams, but that's kind of the point.  Teams can compensate for a poor rushing attack with other aspects of the game.  The NFL is changing, and there's no blueprint for success.  That's the great thing about the NFL.  No two championship teams are alike, and although we like to point to the most recent Superbowl winner as the correct way to build a team, the truth is there are many paths to success.  It would be great if the Lions had an elite running game.  They would be able to run out the clock late in games, they would have an extremely effective play-action, and they'd pound it in on the goal-line. But, chances are, the Lions will have a mediocre running game.  But having a weakness in the run-game doesn't doom this team to the cellar of the league.  The Lions are just building their own unique blueprint for success.  

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