Commentary

Tip Sheet: Running from the truths

In the first two weeks, the usual formula for victory hasn't often held true

Originally Published: September 25, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Chris JohnsonJim Brown/US PresswireChris Johnson and the Titans rushed for 240 yards against Houston last week -- and lost.
In the NFL, these truths have historically been pretty much unchallenged: Run the football, stop the run, practice ball security, claim the turnover/takeaway differential, win the battle for time of possession and most times you win the game. It has been a straightforward, and generally proven, formula for success. At least until the first two weeks of this season, when some of the truths that govern the game are hardly so self-evident anymore.

INSIDE TIP SHEET
Here's some of what you'll find in this week's Tip Sheet notes. Insider

  • Adams on the spot
  • Veteran assistants valued
  • Greater challenge for Vick?
  • All quiet in Crabtree 'talks'
  • Sharper than ever
  • Redskins' injury concerns
  • Giants' battered secondary
  • Better Bills offense?
  • Colts' draft priority?
  • In the wake of his team's stunning loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Monday night, Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano perused the play-by-play stat sheet after a game in which the Dolphins rang up monstrous advantages in total yards (403-356), rushing yards (239-61), first downs (27-14), total snaps (84-35), and time of possession (45:07-14:53), lost the takeaway/turnover differential by only one (0-1), and yet still lost the game 27-23.

    "It is exactly the formula to beat that team," Sparano said in his postgame session with the Miami-area media.

    In most seasons, it would be. But some of the normal conventions and rules of thumb that typically hold true in the NFL have been debunked over the early schedule. The first two weeks of the season, a snapshot of the long campaign, aren't much of a body of work from which to draw more than knee-jerk conclusions. But if the rest of the 2009 season mirrors the first two weeks, a lot of standards and practices in the sport might have to be reexamined.

    Even at this early stage of the season, coaches and players are beginning to rethink some of the game's standard touchstones.

    "Some of the rules seem to have changed now," said Tennessee Titans tailback Chris Johnson after he totaled 284 yards from scrimmage (including 57- and 91-yard rushing touchdowns, and a 69-yard scoring reception) in a 34-31 loss to the Houston Texans. "It's like things have been turned upside down."

    Actually, things aren't completely topsy-turvy yet. But over the past several seasons, the NFL has evolved greatly, not so much away from a run-first league, but toward one in which the passing game is given increasing emphasis. So far in 2009, the pass is as prominent as it has ever been. Teams that have as many or more rushing attempts than passing attempts in a game are 14-4, and those clubs with more passing attempts are only 18-28. But teams with more rushing than passing yards in a game are only 16-16, despite a 13-2 record by teams that logged more runs than passes. And there have been 89 passing touchdowns and only 48 rushing touchdowns. That's a ratio of 1.85 touchdown passes per touchdown run; last season, the ratio was 1.36-1.

    The record of quarterbacks who passed for 300 yards is slightly better (8-4) than 100-yard rushers (8-5).

    "You've got to be able to throw the ball effectively anymore to win most games," said Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, speaking of the seemingly new freedom quarterback Joe Flacco has demonstrated in his second season. "Defenses are too good for you to win by being one-dimensional."

    Three clubs rushed for 239 or more yards last weekend, and all three of them lost home games. Of the top four rushing performances in the league so far, three were by losing franchises. Dallas posted 251 rushing yards last Sunday, but still lost to the New York Giants. Tennessee dropped a decision to Houston despite rushing for 240 yards. And, of course, there was Miami, which outgained the Colts nearly four to one on the ground, but still managed to lose.

    There are some traditions that have held firm. The teams that either tied or won the turnover/takeaway differential were 27-13 in the first two weeks. Those who lost the turnover battle were 4-20. And teams that had a higher time of possession were 22-10. But clubs that had an advantage in total snaps were only 15-17.

    "For them to run at nine yards a clip [actually 9.2], how we won the game is pretty amazing," said Texans coach Gary Kubiak after his team's victory over the Titans. "That just doesn't happen in this league."

    It did, though, in the first two weeks, when traditional norms were, at least temporarily, deemed fairly irrelevant.

    Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.