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Are NFL coaches starting to turn away from the passing game?


tom brady throwing

There was a time when the NFL was all about “three yards and a cloud of dust.” The league was all about running the ball, and the running backs who carried the ball were the superstars of the day. They were the cool kids on the block who occasionally gave way to the passing game.

Oh–how things have changed.

In Super Bowl I and II, the Green Bay Packers threw the ball a total of 48 times and completed 29 passes for a total of 390 net passing yards. During last year’s Super Bowl, Tom Brady attempted 62 passes and completed 43 for 466 yards.

Yeah, it is safe to say the game has changed quite a bit since the old days. Rule changes in recent years have favored the passing game. As a result, many teams have adjusted accordingly and featured the passing game in their offense.

However, if there is one thing every good sports fan knows, it’s that eventually every trend comes to an end. It gets pushed aside for the next great trend to emerge. Either that or ‘the old way’ becomes popular again.

It looks like the NFL may be experiencing a bit of both.

The passing game is still prominent in the NFL. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer are still slinging the rock around like there’s no tomorrow. Jameis Winston, Andrew Luck, Marcus Mariota and Kirk Cousins are ready to ascend to greatness as well.

odell beckham jr catch

However, even though the rules have shifted in favor of the passing game, that has not necessarily equated to Super Bowl glory. Since 2002, the top passing game in the NFL has not won the Super Bowl once. The highest ranked passing game to win it all belonged to Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLI (No. 2).

Does this mean the importance of the passing game has diminished while the NFL has been trying to make it easier? Not at all. Five of the top ten passing teams made the playoffs last season, and two of the top five were in the Super Bowl. However, it is worth noting that six of the top ten rushing games made it in and that two of those teams made the Super Bowl.

Incidentally, only three of the top ten defenses made it to the postseason.

2016 Postseason Teams Offense Run Pass Defense
Patriots 4 7 4 8
Chiefs 20 15 19 24
Steelers 7 14 5 12
Texans 29 8 29 1
Raiders 6 6 13 26
Dolphins 24 9 26 29
Cowboys 5 1 23 14
Falcons 2 5 3 25
Seahawks 12 25 10 5
Packers 8 20 7 22
Giants 25 29 17 10
Lions 21 30 11 18

 

 

The 2015 postseason showed even more of an inclination for the running game and even more for the defense. Five of the top ten running teams made it in along with seven of the top ten defenses. Only three of the top ten passing teams made it in.

2015 Postseason Teams Offense Run Pass Defense
Broncos 16 17 14 1
Patriots 6 30 5 9
Bengals 15 13 15 11
Texans 19 15 18 3
Chiefs 27 6 30 7
Steelers 3 16 3 21
Panthers 11 2 24 6
Cardinals 1 8 2 5
Vikings 29 4 31 13
Redskins 17 20 11 28
Packers 23 12 25 15
Seahawks 4 3 20 2

 

But in 2014, there was a lot more balance. Five of the top ten running games, passing games and defenses made the postseason including the top team in each category.

2014 Postseason Teams Offense Run Pass Defense
Patriots 11 18 9 13
Broncos 4 15 4 3
Steelers 2 16 2 18
Colts 3 22 1 11
Bengals 15 6 21 22
Ravens 12 8 13 8
Seahawks 9 1 27 1
Packers 6 11 8 15
Cowboys 7 2 16 19
Panthers 16 7 19 10
Cardinals 24 31 14 24
Lions 19 28 12 2

 

Okay—so what does this tell us about where the NFL is headed? Are more teams leaning towards the run? Is the passing game still alive and well? What about the value of a solid defense? What about maintaining some kind of balance?

Balance is probably the dream and overall goal of every coach, but over the last three seasons only two teams have had a defense, run game and pass game ranked in the top ten: the 2015 Arizona Cardinals and last season’s New England Patriots. Yes, the Patriots won it all, but the Cardinals lost to a team with the 23rd ranked offense and 15th ranked defense (Green Bay).

rodgers passing

As nice as balance may be, at the same time, it can be a little overrated.

According to the old saying, offense wins games, but defense wins championships. The method of offense has shifted over the years. But the defense has remained vital to the overall success of teams. Since 2002, ten Super Bowl winners have had a top ten unit, and four had the No. 1 unit. The top passing game or running game hasn’t made it to the Super Bowl in years.

Year          Super Bowl Winners      Offense     Run          Pass            Defense

2016 New England Patriots 4 7 4 8
2015 Denver Broncos 16 17 14 1
2014 New England Patriots 11 18 9 13
2013 Seattle Seahawks 18 4 26 1
2012 Baltimore Ravens 16 11 15 17
2011 New York Giants 8 32 5 27
2010 Green Bay Packers 9 24 5 5
2009 New Orleans Saints 1 6 4 25
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers 22 23 17 1
2007 New York Giants 16 4 21 7
2006 Indianapolis Colts 3 18 2 21
2005 Pittsburgh Steelers 15 5 24 4
2004 New England Patriots 7 7 11 9
2003 New England Patriots 17 27 9 7
2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 27 15 1

 

So—what can we say about the passing game versus the running game?

Five weeks into the NFL season we have 13 teams throwing the ball over 60 percent of the time. Of the league’s 32 teams, 24 of them are passing at least 55 percent of the time. Only two teams are running the ball more than they are passing it (Jacksonville and Buffalo). Neither has even been to the playoffs in years.

The data doesn’t lie. Defense and a solid running game are better arbiters for success than the passing game. But teams are still emphasizing the passing game.

While it may be what people love to watch, it isn’t a prelude to Super Bowl glory. Are teams getting away from the pass? Super Bowl champions aren’t relying on it as much, but otherwise no.