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NFL - The Golden Rule: Pass or Perish

By Jeff Moore
Monday, November 25th, 2002
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Quick, name four top running backs in the NFL. Time is up. Perhaps you named Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, Eddie George, or Shaun Alexander. Would it surprise you to know that none of those names appear in the top-10 rushers after 11 weeks of the NFL season? If you have been following the season, you may be aware that injuries can explain the absence of Faulk and James from the top-10. And perhaps you are a fan who is informed enough to be able to correctly name LaDainian Tomlinson, Priest Holmes, Ricky Williams, and Corey Dillon as backs in the top-10.

But would you know that of the top-10 yardage rushers in the NFL, only four play for teams in the top-10 in scoring points per game?

Now check the list of top-10 passers after 11 weeks. Seven of those QBs lead offenses that are in the top-10 scoring offenses in the NFL. The point? In the NFL of today, the "run to set up the pass" philosophy is dead. The league is now a passing league and it doesn't matter if the team plays indoors like Indianapolis or outside in blustery Buffalo.

The NFL is a copy-cat league. You can bet that when someone finds something that works, the rest of the league examines the film to find out exactly what generates the success. The San Francisco 49ers had great success with the "West Coast Offense". The philosophy used a quick slant or outlet pass to take the place of the "three yards and a cloud of dust" type of offense that many NFL teams used for many years.

While not every team before Bill Walsh and the 49ers pounded it out on the ground (see Dan Fouts and the San Diego Chargers), the 49ers had consistent success. Combine that success with the improvement of the defense against the run and offenses needed to adapt.

More and more defenses have made a commitment to stuff the run and place teams in third-and-long situations. It is not unusual to see teams stack the "box" with seven or eight defenders in order to stop the run. The offensive counter for this move? Short, high-percentage passes that force the defense off the line of scrimmage. With San Francisco assistant coaches being promoted and moving around the league, it isn't surprising to see more pass-oriented offenses and the running game taking a less prominent role.

A look at the top-10 scoring offenses in the NFL shows that successful teams are putting the ball in the air. Only one team, the Atlanta Falcons, have run the ball more than it has passed. Michael Vick has a great number of those carries, so in reality, the QB is still making the majority of the plays for the offense. One team has run the ball 50% of the time. That team is the Kansas City Chiefs and with Priest Holmes running the ball, that is probably the wise choice.

The other eight teams all throw the ball more than handing it off. The Raiders lead the pass attack trend throwing the ball 66% of the time. The Raiders have only had a rusher with a 100-yard rushing game once while Rich Gannon has thrown for 300 yards or more seven times.

Historically, teams in cold weather cities have had a greater reliance on the running game in preparation for the poor weather conditions in December and January. Buffalo, New England, and Green Bay are all great examples of cities where weather conditions can dictate the game plan for a team. Even these teams are putting the ball in the air more often with the Bills going to the air 64% of the time and the Patriots having Tom Brady drop back in the pocket for 63% of their offensive plays. Before the season, the Packers didn't know who their starting receivers would be, but that hasn't stopped Brett Favre from passing 56% of every snap he takes.

If the key to success in the NFL now is linked to a strong passing game, then a look at the bottom teams in scoring should show the teams that are struggling need to address the success of their passing game.

The bottom five teams in scoring are, from the last place team upwards: Dallas, Houston, Carolina, NY Giants, and Cincinnati.

Currently, the Cowboys are trying to find a QB and Houston may have the real thing in David Carr, but it is going to take more than one year. Carolina began the year with Chris Weinke, then moved to Rodney Peete, then back to Weinke. Kerry Collins of the Giants has not re-produced his NFC Championship Game he had with the Panthers a number of years ago and his inconsistency has given the Giants trouble since their Super Bowl appearance against the Ravens.

And again, the final proof lies in Cincinnati. The Bengals have started three QBs this year and have yet to find one who seems to be able to lead the team. How important is the passing game? Only one team last year had a top-10 rusher and a top-10 defense, yet failed to make the playoffs. You guessed it, the Bengals. Maybe they should work on their passing game first.

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