By Sean McAlevey
THE GOLF COURSE WORMHOLE, USA, Earth — It’s not a secret that the NFL has witnessed less rushing in recent years as teams have taken a liking to the pass. Teams are averaging a mere 27 rushing attempts per game this year, which is the lowest in the history of the league.
And it’s entirely justified. Passing is a wholly more effective method of moving the ball offensively. This year, teams are averaging 6.8 yards per pass attempt and only 4.1 yards per rush attempt. Until those two numbers meet or near each other, it will continue to be more effective to pass. If you think the NFL’s throwing too often now, give it five years; I’d be surprised if rushing attempts remain above 25 per game.
So is the running game all but dead in the NFL? Well, not quite; not if the typical running back starts to become more like speed back Jamaal Charles. If teams keep drafting power duds like Mike Tolbert and LaGarrette Blount, the rushing average will continue to decline or, at best, stagnate. Those Jerome Bettis types are only good for short yardage situations; they’re a waste of a space (and yardage) otherwise.
Charles is currently the most effective running back in NFL history. He owns the best career rushing average at 5.5 yards per carry, which is a tenth of a yard more than Bo Jackson’s career average of 5.4. Don’t underestimate this fact. Charles is extremely effective at moving the ball; in fact, he moves the ball an average of 1.4 yards per carry more than the league-average back. He’s as good at picking up yards rushing as the Cleveland Browns (5.5 yards/att.) are at throwing!
Being equal to the Browns is typically an unimpressive feat, but not when we’re comparing rushing to passing. Remember, teams average 2.7 yards per attempt more at passing than running. Giving Charles the ball on the ground is just as effective as having Brandon Weeden drop back to throw, the occasional 60-yard completion to Josh Gordon and all. That’s truly impressive.
The NFL will need to convert its running backs into speed rushers or the running game will eventually die out. Although teams are typically slow to adjust in the face of obvious inefficiencies (punting on fourth-and-short immediately comes to mind), I’m confident the league will eventually welcome runners like Charles.
You’re seeing it already. CJ Spiller, Reggie Bush, and Chris Johnson are perfect examples. Imagine being an agent and having to pitch this idea to a late-90s GM: I’ve got this great running back; he’s 185 pounds and he’s as quick as a wide receiver; he’ll break off 80-yard runs if you give him time, but he’s not the best at running between the tackles. You’d be laughed out of the room before you finished the word “tackles”. If you can’t POUND THE ROCK LIKE A REAL MAN, you’re worthless.
Now teams are searching for runners like Charles, Spiller, Bush, and Johnson. I expect more will be on the way in the near future. The reasoning should be obvious by now. Gaining a consistent one, two, or three yards per carry is nice (it’s always nice not to take a loss on a play), but even if scatback runners sometimes take a handful of losses or no-gains per game, their one 80-yard touchdown run and multiple 12-20 yard gainers more than make up for their occasional ineptitude.
It’s a high-risk, high-reward venture – like passing. Just because you occasionally take a sack, or throw an incompletion, or throw an interception, doesn’t mean you stop throwing the ball. Those drive-extending 13-yard completions are the reason you take the risk of throwing a pick or taking a sack. And sometimes you connect on a 60-yard bomb to Calvin Johnson, confounded that you ever questioned the holiness of passing in the first place.
Understand that I’m not suggesting speed runners like Charles and the lot are as good as passing. That may not be the case for a decade or longer, or at least until defenses start adjusting to defend the pass, leaving more room in the box for runners to work. But at least speed runners can improve on the NFL’s pitiful 4.1 yards per carry average, and that’s really the bottom line at the end of the day.
For the time being, we’ll have to live with the reality of the pass being significantly more effective than the run; and we’ll have to live with moronic coaches calling as many runs as passes. But that’s only for now.
Give it a handful of years. The 185-pound, 4.3-40 runner will be the talk of the NFL. Either that, or running won’t survive long enough to even be talked about.