In 1999 something happened that hasn't happened again since. A team won the Super Bowl without running the ball better than their opponent. The St. Louis Rams passed the ball 46 times with 24 completions. Kurt Warner threw for 414 yards and was named the Super Bowl MVP. The Tennesse Titans were out matched against the Rams offense that was commonly known as "The Greatest Show on Turf". That Super Bowl came down to the final play where the Titans were stopped a yard or so short of victory. The Titans kept the game close and stayed with the MVP and his "Show" by sticking to the basics, running the football. Including a few scrambles by McNair, the Titans behind Eddie George ran the ball 36 times for 156 yards. Tennessee also controlled the time of possession 36:26 to 23:34 but came up a yard short against a high powered offense. The 1999 Titans ran the ball better than the Rams and still lost the Super Bowl but that is not the recent trend. In all of Super Bowl history, the team that finished the game with the most rushing attempts have won over 70% if the time.
Looking at the Super Bowls since 2000, let's see the trend of passing attempts and running stats.
Super Bowl Winner is in italics
Baltimore Ravens Vs. New York Giants: The Ravens passed the ball 25 times while the Giants threw it 39. Baltimore ran the ball 33 times for 110 yards while the Giants ran it 16 times for 65 yards. Time of Possession (T.O.P) - Ravens 34:06 - Giants 25:54
New England Patriots Vs. St. Louis Rams: The Patriots beat the high powered Rams and also won the running battle. Tom Brady threw it 27 times and former MVP Warner threw it 47. The Pats ran the ball 25 times for 133 yards and the Rams had 22 attempts for 92 yards. T.O.P - Patriots 26:30 - Rams 33:30*
*Rams won the T.O.P battle but lost the turnover battle giving up 3 while Brady and the Pats didn't turn it over at all.
Tampa Bay Bucs Vs. Oakland Raiders: Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson attempted 34 passes and the Raiders Rich Gannon attempted 44. The Bucs crushed the Raiders in the running battle with 41 attempts for 150 yards while the Raiders had a measly 11 tries for 19 yards. T.O.P - Bucs 37:14 - Raiders 22:46
New England Patriots Vs. Carolina Panthers: The Pats are the first team on this list to pass more than their opponent. Brady opened it up more in his second Super Bowl throwing it 47 times. Jake Delhomme had 32 pass attempts. The Pats ran the ball 35 times for 127 yards and the Panthers ran it 16 for 92. T.O.P - NE 38:58 - Panthers 21:02
New England Patriots Vs. Philadelphia Eagles: Back to the trend for New England this time. Brady threw the ball 33 times while McNabb hoisted it up 51 times. New England ran the ball 28 times for 112 yards and Philly ran it 17 for 45. In every Patriots SB victory they ran the ball over 110 yards. They may be known as a passing team but they ran it well when they had to. T.O.P - 31:37 - 28:23
Pittsburgh Steelers Vs. Seattle Seahawks: Big Ben Roethlisberger's first Super Bowl ended in a ring and a degree in ball control from Cowher University. Ben threw the ball 21 times completing only 9 passes. Matt Hasselbeck on the other hand put it up 49 times. The Steelers ran it down the Seahawks throats, rushing for 181 yards on 33 carries. Seattle put up a modest 25 for 137. T.O.P - Seattle 33:02 - Pittsburgh 26:58
Indianapolis Colts Vs. Chicago Bears: Like Brady a few years back, an elite QB was able to "out throw" the opponent and win. Peyton Manning tossed it around 38 times while Rex Grossman threw it 28. The running battle once again goes to the victor. The Colts were able to rush the ball 42 times for 191 yards against the number 5 ranked defense. The Bears, with Thomas Jones were able to run for 111 yards on 19 carries. T.O.P - Colts 38:04 - Bears 21:56
New York Giants Vs. New England Patriots: The Josh McDaniels led offense put up historic numbers in 2007. Tom Brady and Randy Moss led the charge and were vital parts for the team that saw an undefeated regular season. The Super Bowl trend continues however as Brady put the ball 48 times while Peyton's little brother Eli tossed it 34 times and was named the SB MVP. Everyone states that the Giants pass rush and their defense is what won this game. I somewhat disagree with that thinking. Yes, the defense had a massive role in pressuring Brady but the Pats couldn't run the ball. They carried it 16 times for 45 yards while New York rushed it 25 for 91 yards. Why did New England struggle, was it the Giants ability to stop the run? Perhaps, they did rank 8th in the league in run defense that season but one thing to notice is that the record setting Pats were ranked #1 in the NFL in Passing but 13th in the league in Rushing. Maybe they forgot that every SB winner this decade won by out rushing the opponent and not out passing them. T.O.P - Giants 30:27 - Pats 29:33
Pittsburgh Steelers Vs. Arizona Cardinals: This was a very close Super Bowl that went down the wire. Roethlisberger threw the ball 30 times and Warner threw it 43. The Steelers won the rushing battle and won the ring. They had 26 carries for 58 yards while Arizona abandoned the running game rushing only 11 times for 33 yards. T.O.P - Steelers 33:01 - Cards 26:59
It's understandable to think that the losing teams probably threw the ball more because they were losing and it may be misleading to say that the reason they lost was due to them passing more. The same thinking can apply to the time of possession battle as teams that were behind had to pass more to catch up. I can't say the same thing about running the ball. It is clear that every Super Bowl Champion in the last ten years won the rushing battle, aside from the aforementioned '99 Rams. Two QB's, the two best in this generation in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, were the only two to throw the ball more than their opponent and still win the game. Everyone else ran the ball, protected it from costly turnovers and controlled the eb and flow. Since 2000, 70% of the teams that won the rushing battle also won the time of possession battle and 90% of the time over the last decade the team that won the rushing battle also won the Super Bowl.
In my two other post's about the running game, Rushing To Win and Draft a 1st Round Running Back with a terrible defense , You Betcha!, I try to show that running the ball is very important to winning a football game. Good teams that control the ball, control the clock and control the game. In the latter of those two posts I show that 10 of the last 18 Super Bowl winners (save the most recent contest) had a 1st Round running back. Not to imply that the RB caused them to win but rather that all the Championship teams valued the RB position enough to draft a RB in the first round. MHR Staff member nycbroncosfan's post Running Backs, The NFL Draft and Value shows that 1st Round running backs produce better than running backs taken later and he proves "the notion that "excellent running backs are easy to find" isn't all that accurate, even for the Broncos".
When it comes to building an elite running back stable I often wonder what approach is best, the "Comittee" or the "Primary Runner". That comes down to what you value. The value argument against picking expensive running backs is one I understand but disagree with. The Running Back by Committee approach is fine as long as it is effective. That is the bottom line. Can you sustain a rushing attack when facing a charged up, playoff caliber defense in the biggest stage in sports? I favor the Primary Back or Backs as is the case in Miami and Carolina. When it comes right down to that one final game when your facing a playoff tested defense, an ellusive, extremely talented RB paired with the right supporting cast is extremely hard to stop and gives you a distinct advantage.
To be certain, passing the ball well is a weapon and when done perfectly is hard to stop but it also leaves the team open for mistakes and most likely reduces the chances to win the time of possession battle. Interceptions, sacks, QB hurries and fumbles from pressure all come into play when you pass much more often than you run. A team that can run the ball well and sustain the offense while avoiding mistakes is a method proven to win Championships.
What does this have to with Denver and their horrid defense? According to FootballOutsiders.com, Denver fans may have some hope.
"How do historically bad defenses rebound?
Denver may have hired a young offensive mastermind (Josh McDaniels) as its new head coach, but the problem in 2008 was clearly defense. Based on Football Outsiders' advanced DVOA ratings, Denver had the second-worst defense of any team since 1995. (The worst defense also played this year, in Detroit.)
The good news for Denver is that it would be almost impossible for the defense to be that bad for a second year. The natural tendency of all teams is for performance to trend towards the NFL average. For example, take the 25 worst defenses in DVOA prior to 2008. These 25 defenses improved the next year by an average of 11 percentage points worth of DVOA, or seven places in the NFL rankings."
The question then becomes how do we improve? Back to FootballOutsiders...
"Nearly every bad defense concentrated its top draft picks on defensive players, but a few of the really strong turnarounds came from teams that had highly-drafted linebackers entering their second seasons. For example, the Ravens went from 29th in DVOA in Ray Lewis' rookie year to 13th in his second season. The 49ers went from 28th in Julian Peterson's rookie year to 14th in his second season. The Broncos can't complain about last year's draft, not when Ryan Clady was such a force at left tackle, but they didn't select a linebacker until the sixth round."
What I suggest is that if Denver can not land an impact Linebacker then they should select the protypical Zone Blocking RB, Knowshon Moreno. The average year of experience for the Running Backs on the Super Bowl winners from 1980 - 2008 is 4.83 years, showing that a RB needs a few years to hit his stride. Obtaining a RB now would give the young offense time to jell and form a well oiled unit that would be hard to stop.
Heading into next year the Broncos have a bit of turmoil surrounding the team, they have a new coach off to a rocky start before ever playing a game. They have a young QB who appears to be a bit distraught and a fan base that is split between their team and their QB, wanting both to be right. Many years ago the Broncos team was close to relocating the franchise and the team was in trouble then along came Floyd Little. His abilities raised the franchise to a new level and he saved the Denver Broncos. Perhaps we can grab a gamebreaking RB and help save the franchise again.