What do all of these things have in common? It's something someone in the Sutton household has worried about today. My wife is super pregnant, I am skeptical, and my dog doesn't want to die. Ironically, neither my wife or I are as worried about our 10-day-overdue son as we are about an inflamed butthole and an offensive coordinator. Didn't say we were perfect...
As I was sipping on a delicious beer and doing research for fantasy football, I kept seeing how the NFL is a pass-first league, blah blah blah, how important the pass is, blah blah blah, eight of the top 11 single-season passing attempt leaders in NFL history have been established over the last three years, blah blah blah. For whatever reason, it annoys me. I can't put my finger on it. I like to think that balance still reigns supreme. So I started to do some research. What I found kind of blew my mind, and I'd like to share it with you.
I took a look at every Super Bowl champion since 1966 to decipher what their run/pass balance was. This statistic is highly reliable since it takes into account the variance of the NFL's play-calling. In other words, these statistics take into account the Super Bowl winning team in comparison to the other NFL teams of that year, adjusting to local trends. With the pedestal that the passing game has been put on, you would expect Super Bowl-winning teams to favor the pass (and be productive doing so). Since 1966, the Super Bowl champion has ranked in the top 10 in pass ratio 3 times: 1970 Baltimore Colts, 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the 2011 New York Giants. In 46 years, the winning team in the NFL has been in the top 10 in pass ratio three times. I thought it was worth repeating.
The run ratio, you ask? Of all the Super Bowl winning teams, TWENTY-SEVEN teams finished in the top 10 in run ratio. 27 of a possible 46 Super Bowl champions finished in the top 10 in run ratio. Almost 60%. Now it's worth mentioning that teams who have leads, like Super Bowl-winning teams, rely on the run game to drown the clock and protect the lead (just ask Sparano about this
failed tactic). An effective run game can milk precious time off the clock to prevent teams from airing it out and making comebacks. Conversely, teams that have to pass an overwhelming amount are probably playing from behind and trying to put points on the board. But, I got to thinking, does that really explain why it's 27-to-3? And if we take a more "modern" sample size, say, the last 15 years, it's still 7-to-2 in favor of the run ratio. 11 of the 15 teams of the past 15 Super Bowl champions had a statistically higher run-to-pass ratio (not meaning they ran more, but in comparison to other NFL teams they ran more), regardless of being in the top 10.
Remember how 8 of the past 11 single-season passing attempts records have been broken in the last 3 years? Care to guess what the most "pass-happy" season was in NFL history? 1995. In fact, during the 1994-1996 NFL seasons, teams threw 56.4% of all offensive plays. In the 2009-2011 NFL seasons, teams threw 56.8% of all offensive plays. So when you hear someone say, "the NFL is now a pass-happy league", ask them where they were 20 years ago. The pass-happiness of the NFL hasn't changed much in 20 years, so it's a misnomer that the NFL's offensive landscape has changed much. It may look different (WR screens, option routes, and the proliferation of the athletic TE), but the NFL is throwing the ball no more than it did 20 years ago.
Enter Mike Sherman.
Mike Sherman has been an offensive coach for a long time: tight ends, offensive line, offensive coordinator, head coach in the NFL and college, and acted as GM. I desperately, desperately hoped to see a semblance of balance as an offensive coordinator, since that is the position he holds with our beloved team. I took his last 2 years as an offensive coordinator, the 2007 Houston Texans and 2012 Miami Dolphins as the most recent examples of what his play-calling ratio entails. In 2007, Sherman called 417 run plays vs. 529 pass plays with the newly acquired Matt Schaub and veteran Ron Dayne. 44% run, 56% pass. In 2012, Sherman called 440 run plays vs. 504 pass plays with a rookie QB (granted he coached him the previous 4 seasons at Texas A&M) and a shifty Reggie Bush at RB. 46% run, 54% pass. Doesn't seem too bad, right?
Keep in mind that those play-calling statistics involved QB's that were an unknown trade commodity (Matt Schaub) and rookie QB (Ryan Tannehill), respectively. The 10 most run-heavy offenses since 2000 featured 5 of 6 teams possessing a rookie QB: Roethlisberger, Sanchez, Flacco, Ryan, and Boller. 9 of these 10 heavy run-oriented teams made the playoffs. It makes sense: trust your defense, run the ball and eliminate mistakes, and make plays when you have to. Schaub and Tannehill were both essentially rookies (well Tannehill WAS a rookie) when they took over the team, and yet, were disproportionately counted on to make plays.
Sherman has shown an overall propensity to throw the ball. I have creative differences with Sherman's play-calling last year, namely the fact that Reggie Bush, arguably a top 3 RB receiving threat in the entire league, was rarely involved in the passing game. He was rarely split out wide or in the slot, despite being a mismatch against almost any LB the NFL has to offer. The only time Reggie Bush had less targets or receptions in any of his seasons in the NFL was in 2010, when he only played 8 games. Mind you, he played 15 and 16 games for the Miami Dolphins in his 2 seasons. Aside from creative differences, Sherman shows a propensity to throw (I'm too lazy to list ALL the research on his seasons as offensive coordinator, so you'll just have to trust me). But I can only assume you had a stretch of play calls last year that left you a bit befuddled...Either way, he disproportionately calls the pass (over the course of his career), lacked imaginative play-calling (say what you will about the supporting cast, but I have never heard of lackluster talent requiring the play-calling to be vanilla and fairly predictable...if anything I would assume the opposite), and didn't use the strengths of the pass offense that he had in his arsenal in 2012. This worries me.
The Dolphins have upgraded the passing attack significantly with Mike Wallace, the re-signing of Hartline, Brandon Gibson, and Dustin Keller. One would expect that the Dolphins' 54% pass ratio would increase fairly drastically. Now I know we are not in the Super Bowl conversation, so I don't expect us to compare to previous Super Bowl winners. What I DO need to know is that Sherman has a stance towards the running game. Whether Lamar Miller be the workhorse or we have a committee, I just want to see a substantial focus on running the ball. Running the ball does a number of things, but mainly to keep defenses off-balance by virtue of being balanced. Running the ball opens up play action and bootlegs, which both suit Ryan Tannehill's strengths. Running the ball keeps our defense fresh. Running the ball makes our offensive line happy - if our OL can get to the second level, running the ball might just create some big plays, too. At any rate, going forward, our team needs to show they are capable of running the ball effectively, especially when we have a lead, especially in the 4th quarter, especially when we need a first down late in the game to run out the clock. This is on Mike Sherman - it's on the players, but it's also on the coach calling the plays and putting players in position to execute a play.
Perhaps I'm overlooking something in these statistics, perhaps I'm underestimating Mike Sherman, perhaps I'm putting too much faith in Lamar Miller's abilities to do it single-handedly. But gosh darnit, I want to see our running game evolve into a juggernaut because, I want to see us be able to run the ball consistently, at any juncture in the game. I want to see us take a lead into the 4th quarter and milk the clock, I want to see us utilize play-action to its fullest advantage, I want to see a RB not dancing around at the line of scrimmage. This is not a 4 yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust era, but our running game holds the key (aside from Tannehill's progression) as to whether we are a playoff team or not. Aside from other models in the NFL, I want to see the Miami Dolphins count on their running game as a heavy source of production. Lamar Miller averaged over 5 yards a carry last year. Although he only had 51 attempts, there's a good chance he can carry over that production to the next year and the coaching staff, players, and Miller himself have lofty expectations of what he can accomplish. Let's not forget about the running game!!!
So is it really trendy to throw the ball a bunch as all the "experts" will tell you? Or is it to create a well-established run game as the statistics will tell you?
Go Dolphins, and I love you all.