The Biggest Lesson from the 2019 Season



Perhaps the show I have spent the most time watching in my life is Law & Order.


I’m not going to sit here and say that the hundreds of hours I spent watching District Attorney Jack McCoy navigate the legal landscape makes me a lawyer, but I will also object if you say it doesn’t.


So, as I sit here and reflect on the 2019-2020 NFL season, it seems to me that it is time for me to make the case for the idea that has been running (pun intended) through all of my pieces: running the football is a secondary objective that is subject to the success of what should be a team’s first objective, passing the football.


Throughout this case, you will undoubtedly hear your inner-voice tell you that teams that win need to run out the clock, that Derrick Henry just carried his team to the AFC Championship game, that teams that throw more often have worse records.


While all that may be true, I intend to structure a four part argument that carries you past those surface level reactions into the depths of football analytics. Along the way you will see some ugly things, and your ability to stomach unpalatable material will be tested.


But rest assured, when this case wraps up, I will have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that offenses should be built through the passing game and that when you watch football both this Sunday and every Sunday after, watching the passing game will be the most important indicator as to whether the team you are supporting is and will be successful.


Screen fades to black.


Voiceover: In the National Football League, offenses are represented by two separate and unequal groups: the running game, which kills efficiency and limits opportunity, and the passing game, which makes up for those shortcomings. This is their story:


KUNG KUNG


Evidence 1: Having a high end running back is immaterial to winning


First, the central logic of this whole argument - high end, high volume, big name running backs are not a big part of winning football.


Right now we are looking at a Super Bowl that features two undrafted running backs starting on opposite sides. Raheem Mostert, he of 220 yards and four touchdowns in the conference championship fame, played games for four other teams before landing with the Niners. He then carried the ball 41 times over his first 21 games with San Francisco before stepping into a larger role this year. That larger role, however, came when injuries and performance issues allowed THREE running backs ahead of Mostert to fall by the wayside. In other words, while Mostert could be a rare talent that nobody saw until the Niners got their hands on him and developed him in the shadows over the course of a few years to become a star right when they most needed him, but it is far more likely that this is evidence that running backs are interchangeable.


Need more evidence? Look at the Chiefs. In 2018, they started the season with Kareem Hunt. Hunt, as a rookie in 2017, led the league in rushing yards with 1327. Through 11 games in 2018, he was averaging 4.6 yards per carry, 5.8 yards per touch, and 14.8 touches per touchdown. A little over halfway through the season, however, Hunt was suspended and cut by the Chiefs only to be replaced with his undrafted backup Damien Williams. In the remaining games that season, Williams averaged 5.0 yards per carry, 5.8 yards per touch, and 11.2 touches per touchdown.


Translation: an undrafted player who had never rushed for more than 200 yards in a season with the Miami Dolphins outperformed the leading rusher in the league when inserted into the same offense.


Need more? Of the 15 running backs who ran for 1,000 yards this season (there were 16 players who did it, but we’re not counting Lamar Jackson’s 1,000 yards season), only six played for a team that made the playoffs. Of those six, one (Chris Carson) missed the postseason and his team won a game any way.


The final, total rushing yardage of those five running backs was 1st (Henry), 10th (Cook), 12th (Jones), 13th (Hyde), and 14th (Ingram). They are all currently eliminated. What this is saying, then, is that only two top ten rushers played in the postseason this year and only five of the top fifteen appeared in the playoffs.


And, if you were going to try to counter this evidence with the notion that many players would have broken a 1,000 yards were it not for injuries or backfield platoons, then you would be further strengthening my argument that it doesn’t matter who the running back is, but rather the scheme they run in.


So, I submit as my first piece of evidence, the notion that the best running backs in the league were not a part of the playoffs, the running backs on the most successful teams are career journeymen, and thus, that the player running the football does not matter.


Perhaps even more damning, though, is what all of the league’s most efficient running backs have in common...


Evidence 2: The most efficient running backs in the league are pass-catching running backs.


Now that we have established that having running backs that rush for a thousand yards has no (if not negative) correlation to winning football games, let’s look at a different area of running back success.


You see one of the reasons that rushing the football is most inhibitive in my mind is because it is not efficient. A running back having a good season might average four yards per attempt. This year, 45 running backs (plus two quarterback who we will ignore for now) had at least 100 rushing attempts. The leading back in yards per attempt was Raheem Mostert at 5.6 yards per attempt, 45th was Peyton Barber at 3.1. The exact middle was Chris Carson at 4.4.


Meanwhile, a quarterback having an average season might average seven yards per attempt (meaning seven yards per throw not per completion). Of the 32 main starters for each team in 2019, the highest yards per attempt was Ryan Tannehill at 9.6 (which we will come back to later) and the lowest was Mitch Trubisky at 6.1. The direct middle was Baker Mayfield at 7.2.


Looking at it this way, throwing the football is almost twice (1.64x to be exact) as effective, in the middle of all outcomes, as rushing it is. Now before we address all the jury members crying out that strictly passing decreases efficiency, and thus running is a necessary component to offensive success, let’s examine the most efficient running backs.


You see, running backs come in more than one mold and do more than one job. So far we have merely been looking at the rushing of running backs while ignoring the receiving. Let’s look at the whole picture.


When sorting all players based on yards per touch (meaning catch and/or carry) and limiting the output to only players with 100 touches, the first six results are wide receivers and these are the only players over 10 yards per touch. Not surprising, but also a good reminder that passing is more efficient.


We’re here to look at the running backs, though. The top seven backs by yards per touch are as follows: Austin Ekeler (6.9), James White (6.5), Duke Johnson (6.5), Raheem Mostert (6.3), Christian McCaffrey (5.9), Miles Sanders (5.8), and Tony Pollard (5.6).


In looking at that list, what should become immediately apparent is that the most efficient backs in the league are all backs that catch a lot of passes. The percentage of touches accounted for by catches in that group goes, in order, 41%, 52%, 35%, 10%, 29%, 22%, and 15%.


That means of the seven most efficient running backs in the league, the average touch breakdown was 70% rushing attempts and 30% catches.


Including running backs in the passing game makes them more efficient because passing the football is more efficient. (It can also be argued that including them in the passing game makes them more dangerous runners as they are not as predictable, but I have not found a way to statistically represent this yet.)


So, as the second piece of evidence, I submit that running backs are their most statistically valuable when they are more engaged in the passing game, further cementing the passing game as the central component of successful offenses.


But with all this focus on the running backs, let’s take a moment and turn our attention to the quarterback position and the correlation between successful passing and rushing.


Evidence 3: It is strong passing that leads to strong rushing, and not vice versa.


Having now proven which running backs matter and which ones don’t, let’s take a moment and acknowledge that there are rushing attacks in the NFL that are successful.


In doing this, however, I will now display that those running games are successful BECAUSE of their passing games, further establishing that passing is the basis of success in the NFL.


When looking at all of the stats regarding running the football, there is one case that stands out as an outlier to all rushing narratives:


Derrick Henry.


Despite leading the league in carries this year, Henry managed to finish the year third in the league in yards per attempt. This is bananas and is a large reason why Henry emerged as an unstoppable force in the Titans march towards the AFC Championship game.


And while it is impressive that Henry was able to do this, it is not merely because of his own abilities that the Titans’ RB were able to do what he did. In fact, the catalyst for Henry’s success was the efficiency of Ryan Tannehill.


First, the obvious correlation. Through Week 6 of the season, Henry played with Marcus Marriota as his quarterback and had just one 100 yard game and zero multi-touchdown games. Over that span, he averaged 3.68 yards per carry, totaling 416 yards on 113 carries with four rushing touchdowns.


Then Ryan Tannehill took over in Week 7. As previously mentioned, Tannehill led the league with a ridiculous 9.6 yards per attempt. The next closest quarterback averaged 8.6. In the ensuing 12 games (playoffs included) with Tannehill at quarterback, Henry rushed for 5.91 yards per carry, totaling 1590 yards on 269 carries and 14 touchdowns.


I submit to the court that had Tannehill not been so efficient in his throws, Henry would not have had such a favorable environment to be successful in his runs. It is much easier to sustain a rushing offense when a quarterback is able to pick up ten yards, on average, anytime he throws the ball.


This bears out when looking at the playoff games the Titans won. When they beat the Patriots, it was Tannehill’s passing that led to the first Titans score. Although Henry ran for 182 yards and averaged 5 yards per carry, he racked this up only after Tannehill had given the team the lead. In the end, Henry’s rushing accounted for as many touchdowns as Tannehill’s passing and the Titans only scored 14 offensive points - not a strong argument for rushing being the center of successful offense.


Against the Ravens, it was TWO Tannehill touchdowns that gave the Titans a lead to work with, and although Henry rushed for 195 yards and over six yards a carry, he accounted for zero touchdowns. Henry may have iced the game, but the Titans got to that position though Tannehill racking up 71 yards on his first five attempts, good for over 13 yards an attempt. Passing efficiency opened the door for rushing efficiency once again.


In fact, in this game, Baltimore ran for more yards per carry than Tennessee, but it was the Titans who threw for more yards per attempt. The winner of this game was actually the team that threw the ball more efficiently, not the one who ran it more efficiently.


In a vacuum, though, I know this argument has holes. Henry has historically been a better runner in the later part of seasons, and both of those playoff wins were, no matter how you slice them, showcases for the running game. But if you are a believer that, in these games and throughout the season, it was really Henry’s success setting up Tannehill, let’s widen our scope here to show you how misguided this is.


To do this, we need to know how many top running backs played with top quarterbacks and vice versa.


Here are the top 11 Running Backs in yards per carry (with at least 100 carries):


Raheem Mostert

Gus Edwards

Derrick Henry

Devin Singletary

Matt Breida

Nick Chubb

Mark Ingram

Josh Jacobs

Christian McCaffrey

Kenyan Drake

Alvin Kamara


Now, I am going to respectfully ask the jury to put aside any Baltimore Raven, Arizona Cardinal, and Buffalo Bill for the time being, for reasons that will become apparent.


With those removed, here is the list with the ranking of the yards per attempt ranking of that running back’s quarterback:


Raheem Mostert (3rd)

Derrick Henry (1st)

Matt Breida (3rd)

Nick Chubb (16th)

Josh Jacobs (9th)

Christian McCaffrey (24th)

Alvin Kamara (10th)


That means all but two of those running backs came from top ten passing efficiency offenses and one of them is a superhuman in Christian McCaffrey. All of this is extremely tied together and murky, but the end result of this little dive is that it is clear that most good running backs come from offenses with top end pass offenses.


Now let’s repeat the exercise for the reverse. Here are the top ten quarterbacks by yards per attempt (min 100 attempts):


Tannehill

Stafford

Garoppolo (Super Bowl QB)

Mahomes (Super Bowl QB)

Winston

Prescott

Cousins

Wilson

Carr

Brees

Rivers


Here is that list again with the ranking of their running back with the highest yards per carry (minimum 100 attempts):


Tannehill (3)

Stafford (40)

Garoppolo (1)

Mahomes (15 - Lesean McCoy 101 carries, ugh - otherwise Damien Williams 20)

Winston (29)

Prescott (17)

Cousins (18)

Wilson (21)

Carr (8)

Brees (11)

Rivers (30)


On final tallies, then, five of the seven running backs with the most efficient carries in the league played with one of the ten most efficient quarterbacks (71%). Of the top eleven most efficient quarterbacks, only three played with a top ten efficiency rusher (27%).


So, with both of these lists laid bare, the final point in this evidentiary line is that it is possible to have an efficient passing offense without having an efficient rushing offense, but to have an efficient rushing offense without an efficient passing offense is far more rare.


Of course, though, you are sitting there questioning whether I manipulated this evidence by excluding four of the most efficient rushers, who coincidentally didn’t play with top ten efficiency passing quarterbacks.


Well, that I did, but I did it with a purpose. In a dramatic turn, I present you the fourth piece of evidence that exonerates those four running backs...


Evidence 4: Efficient rushing quarterbacks create efficient running backs.


Of the original yards per carry leaders list, I removed four names: Gus Edwards, Mark Ingram, Kenyan Drake, and Devin Singletary.


As I said before, you might be crying foul because I removed four names that did not correlate with efficient passing offenses. But before you go to the press, let me turn your attention to numbers 1 and 13 on the yards per carry lists: Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen. Had Kyler Murray carried the ball seven more times, he would have been ninth on that list.


Those running backs were excluded because their rushing efficiency was bolstered by playing with an efficient running quarterback. The top three rushing quarterbacks each fostered at least one top ten running back.


Team success is enhanced by a quarterback who can create more efficient drop backs by picking up chunks on the ground as well as through the air. By doing this, any snap taken by the quarterback that is not a handoff becomes more valuable, and subsequently opens up the running game for more success.


In other words, just like efficient passing softens a defense for the run game, having to worry about a quarterback who can run efficiently also softens the defense.


Overall, a quarterback who makes gains, in any way, leads to a running back who will have more opportunities.


A good way to understand the impact of the quarterback play is through first downs.


This season Ezekiel Elliot led the league with 78 first downs rushing. Jameis Winston led the league with 243 first downs passing. (Man, running is the worst). Lamar Jackson was 20th with 161 first downs thrown. Josh Allen was 25th with 146. Kyler Murray was 17th with 173.


BUT, given that each of our rushing QBs supplemented their passing with rushing, we need to adjust these numbers. Specifically, Lamar Jackson ran for 71 first downs, Josh Allen ran for 42, and Kyler Murray ran for 27.


Add these numbers to their passing first down numbers and Lamar Jackson accounted for the second most first downs in the league (232), Josh Allen tied for 13th but was only three behind 9th (188) , and Kyler Murray came in at 7th (200).


Keep in mind that these are not cherry picked stats, but rather are the numbers that communicate how often these quarterbacks can get their teams a new set of downs. With their arms and their legs giving their team such an advantage, it makes sense that resources are pulled away from running backs and thus open up the game for them.


By including these quarterbacks as top ten efficient passers+rushers, then the list of top 11 running backs who played with a top ten efficiency QB grows from five of seven to nine of eleven, or 82%.


If the percentage grows, the jury knows.


But rhymes aside, maybe the most important aspect of the running quarterback is to note that these three, the best in the league, all averaged more yards per carry than players like Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliot, Dalvin Cook.


The rushing quarterback is not just a player who creates more rushing ability for their running back, they are often the most efficient runners on the field.


Seeing that the person responsible for passing the ball is also the best option for running ball, doesn’t it stand to reason that all offense should flow from the passing game?


Isn’t it time to abandon the run as the foundation of offense and embrace the pass?


In summation


We have proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that:


  1. Having a running back rush for a large number of yards does not create wins

  2. The most efficient running backs are the ones who catch passes the most

  3. An efficient passing game leads to an efficient running game, but not vice versa

  4. Efficient rushing quarterbacks also lead to more efficient running backs.


What the jury must do with this information:


There will no doubt be millions of applications for and references to this work for generations to come, but three quick ideas that bear considering in the immediate aftermath of this case:


  • In a search for 2020 individual game edges, consider looking to those offenses that value these attributes and can scheme up or create efficient passing.

  • Look at the 2019 stats to see which teams might win more next year based on a below expectation passing and/or rushing efficiency, such as: the Dallas Cowboys, the Cleveland Browns, the Atlanta Falcons, the Arizona Cardinals.

  • Note the players poised to make a jump off of a successful efficiency campaign that went undervalued, such as: Kyler Murray - a legitimate MVP candidate (full season of Kenyan Drake, another season with the oatmeal cookie Klif Kingsbury, increased running of the ball as the season went on, more expected wins based on point differential). His odds will be astronimcal to start the off season, his chances won't.

In the end, though, what you do with this information is up to you. Much like Jack McCoy I am only here to present you with facts and try to protect the greater good. Whether I have been successful or not is irrelevant.


What matters is that I fought for justice, I fought for truth, I fought for passing the football.


See you all for the Super Bowl preview, when I have to choose between the two most efficient regular season quarterbacks (minimum 14 games) on the season.


Either way, it will be a victory for passing the football.

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