The Running Back sets the tone
While gathering stats to write this piece on the running back, one strange set of numbers popped up: Four of the top five fastest running backs made it to the playoffs last season. In order of fastest clocked times during a play: Leonard Fournette, Derrick Henry (Ten), Todd Gurley (LAR), and Tevin Coleman (ATL).
Notice something else? Two of them were first round picks, and one a Heisman winner. None drafted past the third round (Coleman). It’s a small sample size, but worth noting.
Here are some more stats: the top five rushers in the league made it to the playoffs, six of the top ten made it (would have been eight if not for tie break rules). CJ Anderson and Zeke Elliot were numbers 9 and 10. What’s curious about those two is: 1) CJ had the 9th most yards, but his 3 TDs were amongst the worst for a starting RB who started all 16 games. 2) Elliot had 7, and played four less games. What’s telling though is how badly Dallas did without him.
The top 10 RBs in the NFL last season:
1 Kareem Hunt 1,327 4.9 Avg Yds, 8 TD
2 Todd Gurley 1,305 4.7 13 TD
3 Le’Veon Bell 1,291 4.0 9 TD
4 LeSean McCoy 1,138 4.0 6 TD
5 Mark Ingram 1,124 4.9 12 TD
6 Jordan Howard 1,122 4.1 9 TD
7 Melvin Gordon 1,105 3.9 8 TD
8 Leonard Fournette 1,040 3.9 9 TD
9 C.J. Anderson 1,007 4.1 3 TD
10 Ezekiel Elliott 983 4.1 7 TD
One could say that you need a top RB to make the play offs and that’s the most important weapon.
He helps his QB do better. However, neither the Eagles or Patriots had a RB in the top 13. Deon Lewis was 14th and LaGarrett Blount was 21st.
What they did have was the third (PHI) and tenth (NE) best running yards. Of the top 13 teams who made it to the PO’s, only Dallas, Baltimore and Denver missed them. The Ravens had the same record in the AFC as LAC and Titans, but lost out do to tie breaker rules.
Of those 13 teams, Denver had the least TD’s. Many would blame quarterbacking and OL, but those are lazy answers. Here’s why:
Jacksonville. Blake Bortles was erratic to be kind, and he was among the most hit QB’s in the league. The OL was inconsistent and yet, their run game was the best in the league. 2,262 total yards. A big part of that was Fournette, but the other guys racked up 1,222 yards.
One bad call away from a Super Bowl with a mediocre OL and QB. Yes, their defense was tops, but the offense still had to score, they ran 18 TDs in. Minnesota had the 7th most yards and 15 TDs.
The real NFL guys will tell you that the running back helps the OL, and a poor back hurts them (QB, too). When your RBs are slow or miss gaps, they do a whole lot of nothing. Coaching is also to blame. If your line has simple calls, it’s easier for the defense to read them.
There are always exceptions to stats, they only tell half a story; however, I did an article last season and the same held true. Overall, teams with good run games made the play offs and their OL ranking didn’t seem to matter much. Plus, as we saw this year, QB play was all over the place. What mattered was balance.
Yes, a great OL can help the pass and run game by making life easier on the QB and RBs, but when you get in the red zone, the rubber meets the road. The two QBs who just kill it there, Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota, their teams each had 18 rushing TDs.
When defenses think you’re going to use Fournette (9 TD), DeMarco Murray (6) or Derrick Henry (5), it sure makes it easier for the QB to pop a TD off. Which brings us to getting into the red zone for them to score. The time between the 20’s.
The top five teams in the red zone were Jacksonville, NE*, Philly, Green Bay and New Orleans. The top seven teams in attempts went to the playoffs. It’s like hockey: the more chances on goal, the higher chance to score.
The bottom line is this: unless your team has Brady*, the run game is crucial to making it to and winning in the play-offs. This why more teams have running back by committee over a bell-cow back because if he goes down, game over. Let’s hope that Fournette can stay healthy the rest of the season.