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Myth and Reality of NFL Rushing Stats

   by Bryan Leonard - 11/03/2008

“Run the football more times, and you win.â€쳌 I hear this all the time, on television and on radio. When examining key games, analysts often conclude one team failed to run the football enough times, and the opponent pulled won the game simply because they had more rushing attempts.

This is a common theme in the NFL. Herm Edwards of the Chiefs and Jon Fox of the Panthers are old school in this regard. Running the football means you can control the ball and the clock, keeping it away from a good QB you are playing. It also helps your passing game, as teams may need to stack the line to stop a good running game, which creates more single coverage downfield.

We heard this criticism a lot during Super Bowl 36 when the Patriots upset the Rams as a 14-point dog. In that game, the favored Rams saw star running back Marshall Faulk get just 17 carries for 76 yards (two carries in the second half), while Patriots running back Antoine Smith carried 18 times in the 20-17 upset. The Pats had 25 rushing attempts that day, the Rams 22.

That’s one game where you can make a case Faulk should have touched the ball more, but let’s get back to the basic argument here: Is winning football, straight up and against the spread, as simple as running the ball more times?

The stats suggest this, but I can assure you this is one area where the data lie, or at least gets twisted around to simplify a very complicated subject. A few years ago I made a statistical analysis on an entire season on teams rushing the football. I broke it down into two categories: 1) Teams that rushed the ball 30 or more times and had more attempts than their opponents; 2) Teams that led by 10 or more points at the half and rushed 30 or more times.

On the surface, the results are a professional handicappers dream:



30 or more rushing attempts 10-point lead at the half, 30+

and out-rush the opponent: rushing attempts & out-rush opponent



158-30-1 straight up 66-4-1 straight up

142-40-7 against the spread 64-7 against the spread



I can hear many of you now: “A 64-7 against the spread record? Wow! I’m going to figure out what team should carry 30 times and bet them every game!â€쳌 If it were only that simple.

How can you predict what team is going to be up by 10 or more at the half? If you could do that, you’d be wiser to just make a first-half wager on those teams. And what team doesn’t end up with more yards rushing after leading by double-digits at the half? Coaches with a big halftime lead aren’t likely to throw the ball a lot in the third quarter – they want to milk the clock and practice ball control. And if a coach is down 20-3 at the half, do you think he’s going to say to his players, “The team that runs the ball more times is 158-30-1 last season, so let’s run the ball every play in the second half and we’ll probably win.â€쳌 This is absurd.

The numbers are being used to support a betting angle after the fact. A successful professional handicapper is able to look forward and predict, not look backward and explain what happened. And there are so many facets to dissecting a football game that it’s foolish to state, “This team would have won if they ran the ball more.â€쳌

The point analysts are making, though very badly, is that ball control is a great weapon. If a team is able to run successfully for first down after first down, for example, why would they ever need to pass? Former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes loved the ground game and used to say, “When you pass the football, three things can happen, and two of them are bad.â€쳌

Generally speaking, teams that out-rush their opponent are ahead much of the game, and as a result have a greater tendency to end up winning that game (and even covering). But rushing the football a lot is not some magic formula for winning.

Look at the last two Super Bowl bowls: The 2006 champion Colts had 42 rushing attempts in the game, the Bears just 19 in Indy’s 29-17 win (and cover). However, the Colts were leading most of the game. Chicago was forced to junk much of its running game trying to pass to get back in it. Last season the Giants ran 26 times for 91 yards in the Super Bowl, the Patriots just 16 times for 45 yards. Neither team ran very well.

So be careful when you read about betting angles and trends. Because if winning games were as simple as out-rushing the opponent, former Browns coach Butch Davis would have run the football every play – and probably still have an NFL job!

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