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Offensive Tempo and the Greatly Exaggerated Demise of the Running Game

leseanmccoy

Tempo is having the most profound effect on today’s NFL, and it should keep the running game alive for years to come. Because we presently hear and read so much about the increase in offensive pace and passing, I wanted to see exactly how fast offenses are moving and exactly how much they’re passing. 

It’s 2014, and the league is pass-happy, pass-centric, pass-oriented — that we know.

We also know the ground game is dying a slow death.

Or is it?

Percentage-wise, yes. But considering the uptick in tempo elicits an entirely different outlook on running the football.

While there’s rightfully been a surge in commentary on and awareness of the NFL’s passing exploits since, say, 2008 on, the game has actually been “pass-happy” for a while.

In this study, the run and pass play totals from every NFL regular season from 1999 to 2013 were charted — that specific 15-year period seemed to be a large enough sample size but remained relevant to the present day.

Here’s the table:

Year Total Plays Total Passes Total Runs Pass % Run %
1999 30308 16760 13548 0.552 0.447
2000 29999 16322 13677 0.544 0.455
2001 29847 13666 16181 0.542 0.457
2002 31394 17292 14102 0.55 0.449
2003 31001 16493 14508 0.532 0.467
2004 30782 16354 14428 0.531 0.468
2005 30839 16464 14375 0.533 0.466
2006 30837 16389 14448 0.531 0.468
2007 31142 17156 13986 0.55 0.449
2008 30645 16526 14119 0.539 0.46
2009 31121 17034 14087 0.547 0.452
2010 31189 17269 13920 0.553 0.446
2011 31381 17410 13971 0.554 0.445
2012 31,713 17788 13925 0.56 0.439
2013 32,007 18136 13871 0.566 0.433

*numbers obtained from ESPN.com and NFL.com, and the only plays omitted were sacks, which are neither pass attempts or rush attempts.

Or, in case a graph helps:

image

image (1)

Some noteworthy tidbits:

  • Over that span, the NFL was a pass-oriented league every season, technically speaking.
  • Rich Gannon and those WCO-based Oakland Raiders of 2002 were really ahead of their time. Gannon, that season’s MVP, threw for nearly 4,700 yards and completed nearly 68 percent of his passes on a whopping 618 attempts— all those figures would fit nicely into the top-tier of today’s quarterbacks.
  • In 2002, the NFL passed nearly as much as it did in 2011. That’s quite the feat. So, really, both the Raiders and that regular season were ahead of their time.
  • The 2012 campaign marked the first time the NFL reached 56 percent pass plays, and, conversely, dipped just below 44 percent run plays.
  • Last year marked the first time the NFL went over 18,000 pass plays and 32,000 total offensive plays. (32,007)
  • The last fact in the final bullet is the central element of this study.

Making it up on volume

On a percentage basis, the NFL is becoming exponentially pass-centric. Nothing groundbreaking there.

However, the speedier pace of play is just as, if not more impactful on how offenses are now operating.

From 2008 to 2013, the total number of plays steadily increased every season—a 4.3 percent hike in that time frame. The total number of running plays decreased steadily every season since 2008, but not nearly as much—down only 1.8 percent in that time frame.

If you scroll back to the main chart, you’ll notice that despite a run percentage of just 43.3% in 2013—the lowest in 15 years of research—the total number of running plays last year (13,871) was higher than the total number of running plays in 1999 and 2000, seasons with higher run percentages—44.7% and 45.5% respectively.

OK, I’ll ease up on the number-spewing for a minute to let them soak in.

Essentially, offensive pace is getting faster in the NFL—which, obviously, equates to more plays being run. And the tempo is getting faster at a more rapid clip than the annual dip in running.

(Yes, the rise in total number of plays is partly a function of teams calling more passing plays. Incompletions stop the clock, which in turn yield opportunities for more plays.)

Conclusion

But what does this mean?

From an Xs and Os standpoint, it seems as though coaches are comfortable with their quarterbacks throwing the football more often now due to an influx of high-percentage pass plays being used in just about every NFL offense.

As a whole, the NFL has astutely been making use of the players provided to them by colleges. Many skill-position prospects drafted (or found in undrafted free agency) have entered the professional ranks after years in spread, up-tempo, high-efficiency, passing-centric offenses. While coaches with strong egos certainly have philosophies and schemes they want to implement, we’ve seen many tailor and tweak those philosophies and schemes to the specific talent made available to them by collegiate programs.

From a real life and even a fantasy perspective, it means that, above all, the NFL is becoming more offense-oriented. That’s cool. Really cool. Most diehards, casual fans or just occasional football onlookers crave offense and would be turned off by 9-6 LSU vs. Alabama defensive slugfests on Sundays.

Furthermore, the continued escalation of offensive plays should act as sustenance for the running aspect of the NFL…at least if we view the ground game on a total play basis.

For example, if the trend of past six years continues in 2014, the run play percentage may very well dip below 43% for the first time.

But if the total number of plays jumps to 32,500 — a large but feasible increase — 13,942 running plays will occur (at 42.9%), more than the run play totals of 1999, 2000, 2010, 2012 and 2013.

Is there a theoretical cap on how many plays the NFL can collectively run? Sure. But the New England Patriots, the team everyone loves to copy, have been moving rather briskly on offense for years now.

Also, with Chip Kelly and Doug Marrone — who led up-tempo college programs as recently as 2012 — in head coaching positions, and no-huddle, hurry-up concepts infiltrating more and more offenses across the league, there’s no telling when the NFL will reach it’s “maximum play total.” But it’s doubtful that time comes soon.

In all likelihood, teams will continue to pass more and run less.

But it seems as though they’ll continue to run more plays too, which, almost assuredly will generate more yards and more points.

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