Tales of Mythology Part 1 - The Mystery of the Running Game

With 3rd-and-5 the offense is in the shotgun. The quarterback takes the snap and steps up into the forming pocket. The defenders come screaming in off of both sides and the MLB comes up the middle on a delayed blitz but the quarterback coolly performs his checkdowns and threads the ball between two defensive backs towards his receiver. The ball falls just out of reach and the play is over. What just happened? The truth is, we'll never know.

We live in an age where the information stream is constant. Instantly experts abide and abound and analysis becomes reality as quickly as theories are touted. The game of professional football is constantly challenging and exciting. What goes on down on the field is difficult, even impossible to deeply understand just by watching television. It requires study, practice and effort. Even then, you can't tell, in many cases, if an interception is caused by a badly run route or errant throw. You would have to be privy to what goes on in the film room (where a bird's eye view of the game is replayed), the team meetings and then the huddle.

Have you ever watched the instant replay that showed something utterly foreign to what the announcers described? If, like me, you've watched a lot of football, you have. What is sometimes most interesting in the modern football world is the issue of information - and misinformation.

There are three reasons that announcers misstate what is happening on the football field. The first finds its roots in human nature - some broadcasters prepare extensively, while some barely go over the production notes. Some are glib and charming, others far less so, but those things aren't of issue here. The important thing is whether or not the information is accurate.

If the broadcaster happens to be one who prepares well, what are the other common reasons for misstatement? You cannot, by looking at the television perspective(s) of a play, which emphasize the quarterback, running backs, wide receiver and the ball, tell accurately what is going on. That really requires coaching film, taken from overhead, from the end zones and the sidelines. If the announcer is counting on televised feeds, he may make the same mistakes that you might make at home. Coaching film can tell a vastly different story.

The third reason that broadcasters make mistakes is that they may simply not understand that subject very well. They fall victim to the same myths and half-truths as many of the fans do - often because they, too, believed things simply because they were often said. It's important to avoid the common myths and misconceptions of the game. I chose three of the most egregious, in my experience, and I'm going to address them.

Myth #1 - The mystery of the running game

Let me start by defining terms: This next section is in no way intended to minimize the importance of the running game. I'm a huge fan of the running game.  I grew up on Gayle Sayers and matured watching Walter Payton, so my love of the run game is fully intact. The raw power and fierce grace of that position brings us to our feet and brings cries to our lips. The ability to run the ball has several advantages beyond the yardage gained. The first, and probably the most important, is that if a team can run on you, it begins to sap your willpower.

Players on both sides of the ball have talked about this extensively over the years. If you are running the ball well, it means, first and foremost, that the offensive line is imposing their will on the defense. They are opening holes. They are moving men out of the way of the running back, clearing the way for the fullback (if any) to get to the linebackers in the second level. They are winning the battle for territory. The running backs are getting stronger by the play and as they see the defenders start to waver.

And the defenders? From the defense's perspective, it's an awful feeling when you can't stop the run. You can't get off the field. Drives begin to wear on you.  The offensive line, running backs, the coaches on the sidelines, even the wide receivers begin to know in their hearts that you can't stop them. As their confidence soars, yours begins to falter. You get a sinking feeling in your guts and you start looking at the scoreboard, watching the clock, wondering when they're going to score on you again. It's one of the worst feelings in the world.

So, what's the myth? The myth is this - There is a constantly touted idea that a lot of running attempts means that you're going to win the game. People claim that if such and such a team would just run the ball X number of times, they'd be in the playoffs. Proponents of this claim that the rushing attack is the holy grail of football, that if you just rush the football, the game will be yours. Important as I agree the rushing attack is, they're still wrong.

If that were true, all of the teams out there would be running the ball 25, 30, 40 times a game. We know from experience that doing so doesn't win games. In fact, just running the ball a lot whether you are scoring or not is a fool's game. Look back at Oakland last year to see just how true that is. But failing to mount an effective rushing attack is also a fast track to losing. We all know that the rushing game is essential, and it is. What's the right way to look at it?

Here's the middle road - the truth - about the rushing game: The running game is just a tool. How you wield that tool says a lot about your club. You can choose to make it the dominant weapon in your arsenal, to emphasize the passing game or to balance the two. Which way you choose will be dependent on your philosophy and your players. No matter which way you go, you will still need a great offensive line to get you started.

Winning teams do run the ball a lot, but that's not why they are winning. In fact, it's exactly the other way around. Good teams, whether a rushing club or not, know that you run the ball when the game is close or when you're holding and protecting a lead. If you can run effectively at that point, you're going to win a lot of games. That's the real story. It's not just that you run the ball a lot. You can win a lot or lose a lot with that approach - it doesn't help or hurt you, in and of itself. But if you get the lead, whether by running or passing, most teams will then try to run out the clock.

That's why the number of rushing attempts ends to be higher for winning clubs. They don't win because they run - they are rushing a lot because they're winning. That's why winning teams have higher numbers of rushing attempts. The number of times that you rush the ball is going to depend on your players, your offensive philosophy and your situation in each game. When you're ahead, you should slow down the clock, and that means running the ball. I personally believe that you need a top rushing attack in the same way that you need a top passing attack, defense and special teams - they all contribute to a winning season. But that can also depend on the players that you have healthy, the defense you face and other factors. Regardless of how you're winning - if you're winning the game, the number of rushes will go up.

There is a grand story about Bill Parcells that illustrates this. He was coaching the Giants, long ago, and the Miami Dolphins and Dan Marino were going to be in town for game 3 of the 1990 season. Parcells is very upfront about his preference for the defensive game over the offensive, so this was touted as a classic battle. And it was...

After the kickoff, which Miami received, the Giants were able to hold Miami and force a punt. They took the ball and went slowly down the field, a chip at a time, taking a total of 17 plays to go 57 yards, taking 10 minutes and 25 seconds off the game clock. The drive only ended in a field goal, but Parcells immediately said to his quarterback, "Work the clock!"

At the beginning of the second quarter he was already planning how he would take 1-3 drives off the clock by slowing the game. The final score was 20-3 in favor of New York, and the quarterback got to spend most of the afternoon handing off and letting his offensive line, defense and his running backs do the rest. Would he have done that if he didn't have the lead, or at least a shot at it? Of course not. He knew when to run, and that made all the difference.

Understanding how to minimize the advantages of the opposing team, and how to manage the game to create a victory is a heck of a skill to develop. As fans, the more of it we understand, the more we can enjoy it. Next time, I'm going to take on a myth that has taken on stature among football fans. I hope that you'll join me.

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