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The decline of the RB position in the NFL, pt. 1b

About two weeks ago, I looked at the trends in playoff teams' running attacks. This time, I'll just throw out the data for playoff and non-playoff teams for the last ten years to see if those trends suggest something more significant when compared to the less successful teams year in, year out.

Colored lines and words after the jump.

If you're looking for the raw data, it's in the same spreadsheet as last time.

I figured I would take a look at how often teams run the ball and if there is a marked difference between playoff and non-playoff teams:

Starting in 2005, there certainly is a difference. Playoff teams run the ball throughout the regular season much more often than non-playoff teams. The problem with this set is that playoff teams are likely to have large leads over non-playoff teams by the end of the game and run clock in the ground game. It's not a great way to investigate the value of the run between the teams.

The next graph is much more telling. Here, the two groups are measured in how much of their offensive yardage came through the run game:

Once I charted this, especially after the first graph, there was an obvious conclusion. Although playoff teams run more often throughout the season than non-playoff teams, the non-playoff teams are more reliant on the running game for yardage. This could be due to two major factors, IMO.

First, the really bad teams can't pass with any consistency. The worst teams often have the worst passing offense. That skews the data toward their running games, where they are more confident in at least keeping possession as opposed to asking their QB to make a play, often resulting in an INT.

Secondly, late in the game, as playoff teams are nursing their large leads and know their desperate non-playoff opponents are forced to go to the air, they can defend the pass with more pre-snap certainty. So whereas teams get more value from the passing game in a neutral situation, in these late game situations when passes are more predictable, the better teams in the league surrender decreased passing gains to the non-playoff teams. Those two opinions underlie the obvious trend in this last graph, yards per rush:

The trends are pretty obvious. Since 2005, playoff teams' average gain on rushes has settled just underneath 4.2 yards per rush; on the other hand, non-playoff teams' yards per rush average was greater than their counterparts in three of the last five years, and almost equal in 2008.

The reason is somewhat based on those two factors I mentioned earlier. With playoff teams defensively preparing for the pass both late in games and overall, the non-playoff teams are running the ball for larger gains. Also, with better teams spending less capital (both financially and otherwise) on the running game, the average run is falling off just slightly for playoff teams throughout the last ten years, more markedly so since the decade high in 2003.

Again, to poke a hole in my inflated head, I likely missed something. Am I overstating the case? Is there a data group that would make the case more effectively? I dunno.

In part two, I'll look at the top running backs in the league in the last decade. To reiterate, I just don't see the value in individual running backs or reliance on the run as an effective approach to offense in contemporary NFL strategy. My guess is that there is no correlation between the best running backs and the best teams. In part three, I'll look at the data from the draft as it relates to the position.