Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Wednesday Morning Quarterback: Stats and The Running Game

I didn't bother writing on the Patriots latest victory, 20-10 over the Jets on Sunday, as the weather made the game almost too brutal to watch. But I've had two posts sitting for nearly two weeks on the relative importance of the running game and allow me to summarize what I'd been trying to say: The running game is a relatively unimportant part of playing winning football. As the Patriots showed against the Eagles and the Steelers, you can put points on the board and win football games when you wholly abandon the running game. As the Patriots showed against the Jets, you can run the ball relatively well and fail to put points on the board when you can't get it done in the passing game. As Ron Jaworski has always said, throwing the ball puts points on the board and throwing the ball is what wins football games.

Part of the reason football fans can be so focused on the running game is football historically was about running the football and more recently, we tend to hear a lot about the need for a balanced offense. Balanced offenses are all well and good, but no one ever told the Dolphins that they needed a balanced offense when they won back-to-back Super Bowls in the 70's, throwing 7 and 11 passes in their two Super Bowl wins.

Then you have fools like Mike Martz, who tend to give a bad name to the passing game. The thing is, the reason Mike Martz can be so dumb is not because he's so pass happy, but because he's shown time and again throughout his career that he's not willing to adjust his offensive schemes- it's not just that he doesn't run the ball, but it's that he lets his quarterbacks sit in the pocket and get murdered while looking for the big play. Just think back to the Patriots-Rams Super Bowl in which Martz continued to throw down field despite the Patriots defensive maneuverings and failed to get the ball to Marshall Faulk even though the Patriots were practically begging the Rams to run the ball. It wasn't about the passing game or the running game, it was about stupidity.

For all the stats the Patriots have put up through the passing attack this year, they haven't accumulated those stats by pounding square pegs into round holes. They've attacked defenses where they felt there was room to attack and when the weather and a defensive alignment that had 8 and 9 people standing around at the snap seemed to weight against the passing game, they returned to the ground game.

Obviously, winning football teams must be able to run the ball and throw the ball somewhat effectively. Really good teams have lots of weapons and can attack a defense in any number of different ways. As I've noted before in this blog, football is not baseball, and standard statistical measures can often times fail to tell the real story. Take for example the all-too common stat that's supposed to prove successful running games win football games- Yes, teams with more yards rushing and more carries tend to win games, but this statistical disparity is because teams with leads tend to run at the end of games while teams that are behind tend to be throwing the ball.

Total yards generally tend to be imprecise measures of offensive effectiveness. If a team puts up 250 first half yards, but only manages to kick 3 field goals, missing one of them, then those yards don't mean very much. Similarly, a big play in the running game, say a 50 yard run, will detract from your defensive stats, but is ultimately meaningless if it doesn't lead to a score. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, the Ravens ran all over the Patriots for two drives, putting up two touchdowns- but the Patriots defense stiffened up, holding the Ravens to three consecutive three and outs with the game on the line.

There are stats that mean more than others- third down conversion percentage is important, as are, obviously, turnovers. But even all turnovers are not created equal. A 3rd down interception at mid-field that ends up having the same effect as a punt isn't the same as a blocked punt returned for a touchdown.The point is that when it comes to football, statistics aren't as important as what you see with your own eyes. I've always said Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks of all-time and this year he has the numbers to prove it- only, I didn't really need the numbers to prove what I've seen with my own eyes.


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