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No, NFL teams do not need to 'establish the run' to win

Todd Olszewski / Getty Images

Here is a very misleading tweet:

This is not to slag Baldinger, who is generally a fine analyst of the NFL's Xs and Os. But the point he's making here is shortsighted. Yes, everything he says in that tweet is true - but it also lacks any relevant context.

Baldinger is trying to present a correlation where none exists, no doubt because of a confirmation bias rooted in the idea that running the ball wins games because football is a tough sport and all those analytics experts just don't get it because they're nothing but pencil-necked nerds who never played the game. Which is a very outdated mode of thinking that ignores the way the game has actually been played for the last, oh, decade or so.

In short: Passing the ball is still far more efficient than rushing and the need to establish the run is a myth, which is something I typed just before I used my forefinger to push my glasses up the bridge of my nose.

First, let's examine the basics of Baldinger's point:

Team Team rushing YPG Record
Ravens 207.8 10-2
49ers 148.0 10-2
Seahawks 143.7 10-2
Colts 139.0   6-6
Bills 137.9   9-3

Seems pretty straightforward, no? But what's missing is when these teams have run the ball and how they've done it. To wit: They all tend to run to protect a lead, which is when it's most efficient to do so. A closer look at the situational rushing numbers for the Ravens, 49ers, Seahawks, Colts, and Bills bears this out.

Per Pro Football Reference, the majority of rushing attempts for three of the five teams with the most rushing yards have come when those teams have the lead:

Team Total rushes Rushes w/ lead % of rushes w/ lead
Ravens 444 269 60.6
49ers 400 239 59.8
Seahawks 375 158 41.7
Colts 373 121 32.4
Bills 361 186 51.5

The one team that rushes the ball the most when tied or trailing is the Colts, who happen to have a .500 record. That's some context, but it's just a start.

Next, using Pro Football Reference's Game Play Finder tool, let's break down how frequently all five teams run the ball with a lead in the fourth quarter:

Team Rushes & passes w/ 4Q lead Rushes Passes Run-Pass ratio
Ravens 148 102 46 68.9%
49ers 132 104 28 78.8%
Seahawks 121   80 41 66.1%
Colts   74   52 22 70.3%
Bills 110   78 32 70.9%

So: All five of the teams with the most rushing yards tend to lean most heavily on the run when they're ahead late, when it's best to churn the clock to shorten the game. That's not the only data that shows this, either:

  • For years, the annual "Football Outsiders Almanac" has stressed that "winning teams tend to run the ball a lot because they're running out the clock to win games."
  • An academic paper published last year by Stanford University data scientist Ed Feng, whose research went back to the 1980s, determined that rush efficiency does not correlate to wins.
  • Five Thirty Eight's Josh Hermsmeyer revealed that passes on first and second down tend to have a better success rate than runs.

And so on. Here's something else: Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (977 yards) is his team's leading rusher. His 140 rushing attempts account for nearly a third of Baltimore's rushing output. Jackson ranks ninth in the entire NFL in rushing yards. And he frequently uses the run-pass option (RPO) to keep defenses guessing, and reacts according to what he sees as the play develops.

Similarly, the Bills' Josh Allen (93 rushes, 430 yards) and the Seahawks' Russell Wilson (57 rushes, 284 yards) rank among the top five in rushing yards for QBs. This suggests additional factors are influencing the rushing volume of most of the teams Baldinger listed.

The run game is certainly a component of any successful offense. It can be deployed strategically depending on a variety of considerations (down and distance, field position, score, time remaining, weather, personnel groupings, countering a specific defense, etc.). But Baldinger's blanket suggestion, which implies a traditional understanding of simply rushing the football by handing it to a running back - running for the sake of running - is incorrect. "Establish the run" is a football phrase that deserves to die.

Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer for theScore.

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