DMan83 had a post a while back which suggested the Rams should take Alabama's Heisman-winning RB Mark Ingram. I attempted to reply, lengthily, to show that the position doesn't merit a first round draft pick in today's NFL, but some construed that response to mean that 1st round RBs don't pan out. That's not the case.
I'll try to make the case conclusively, but the comments should fill in the blanks and hopefully offer some counter-arguments, because my thesis is pretty radical, albeit simple - the running back isn't that important to the modern NFL offense in relation to many other positions per individual value.
Crazy talk? A little. And some people who might agree with me might still be holding fast to the idea of drafting RBs in the first for guys like Steven Jackson, Adrian Peterson or LaDanian Tomlinson. They're wrong. The running back should be valued, individually, similar to a TE or an interior offensive lineman or even a non-pass rushing linebacker, unless he is a superior receiver for the position, a la Marshall Faulk.
The cliche gets thrown around a lot - the NFL is currently in a passing phase. To win, you have to be able to pass the ball. The problem is that the ramifications just aren't accepted by most fans, and, given the way they're being run, by some teams as well.
For this post, I'll look at every playoff team in the last five years and look at their rushing situation. That should give us some idea of how successful teams have approached their rushing game, and what's working in this era of the NFL. That should establish the dominance of the pass nowadays. In part two, we'll look at the top rushers and rushing teams of the last five seasons, and in part three we'll take the draft-based approach and see how the highly drafted RBs fared over the past five years.
For now, though, let's take a trip down Postseason Parkway, addresses 2006-2010. Hahaha, urban planning humor.
Just to allow everyone on the same page, here's the data I compiled for this. It's a bit messy, but it served the purpose. And while I wish I had gotten this piece out before them (since I've been working on this for a couple of weeks), NFL Network had a recent segment on the topic that I should include for some sense of fairness.
First, here's a chart of playoff teams from 2001-2010. Going from left to right, the x-axis goes from teams who exited the playoffs earliest to those who were in the Super Bowl. So for 2008, the orange line, the Colts, Dolphins, Falcons and Vikings all bowed out in the first round of the playoffs. The rightmost plotted point on the orange line refers to the Super Bowl teams, the Cards and Steelers. Vertically, the points refer to what percentage of yards the team gained through the ground out of their offensive yardage (no return yards included):
It's a relatively small sample size, especially for the conference and Super Bowl data because you've only got two teams. For example, the 2009 Jets gained more than half of their offensive yards on the ground (2,756 rushing v. 2,596 passing).
Still, the drop off from the last three years is pretty blatant: Super Bowl teams are relying on the pass much, much more heavily than the run. But that's just pure yardage that shows over the length of a season, the passing game eats up more field than running. That's obvious. A 10-yard pass is much "easier" to accomplish than a 10-yard run. But what about frequency?
The number of rushes versus the number of passes should give us an idea of how often teams rely on the run. That reliance should be based on some kind of success rate. If you pass the ball better than you run it, you're going to pass much more often. If that's the case, we should see that the superior teams pass the ball much more often than they run it in the modern NFL:
Again, you see some notable drop-offs from the conference level teams to the Super Bowl participants. Of course, you have a huge 2005 outlier in which the Steelers and Seahawks ran their way nearly off the graph. You've still got things trending downward toward a greater share of passes versus the run. So to simplify let's look at a couple different sets of data and then wrap this up. Let's break both categories, % of yards from the run and % of rushing attempts from total snaps, by 5-year intervals and decade according to playoff depth, and then just break each down year by year among total playoff teams:
Here's where the movement 2005 until now becomes even more obvious. You can see the difference between Super Bowl teams in the last decade versus all other playoff teams: they're passing heavier than everyone else. And not just that, but Super Bowl teams since 2005 are running less, and for less yardage, than all previous teams, previous Super Bowl teams included.
So here's where I turn it over to you. You see the trends. And you've got the data. So what did I miss? To me, it's obvious. The pass made teams superior to others since the late '90's, and now we're on the cusp of a defensive reaction that is centered on QB pressure. But that leaves the running back out in the cold. Is this enough data to support the conclusion?