Running does not always equate to winning

Running is important, but the remaining playoff teams -- and history -- have proven that's not enough.

Updated: January 16, 2004, 6:15 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

John Fox has a formula for winning. He doesn't reveal it, but it's not necessary that he does. It's a formula as old as the game itself -- just run, baby.

The Panthers were one of five teams that ran the ball more than 50 percent of the time this year. The Ravens (54.7 percent run), Broncos (51.9), Panthers (51.8) and Packers (50.8) were four of those five teams and each made the playoffs. The only team that didn't was the Dolphins, who won 10 games running 50.3 percent of the downs.

Fox's formula always resurfaces in an age of passing. It's the old Chuck Knox formula that worked with the Rams, Bills and Seahawks. It's Ground Chuck. It's the old Marty Schottenheimer system of Marty Ball that made perennial playoff teams of the Chiefs. It's the old Lombardi Packer sweeps. It's Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick. It's Franco Harris. It's Jim Brown running over everyone during the 1960s.

Stephen Davis
But what does it say if the Patriots, who ranked 27th running the ball, and the Eagles, who reluctantly ranked ninth for a coach who prefers passing, advance to the Super Bowl? It says that running the ball isn't enough. Not now anyways. Not in an era of improving young quarterbacks, Cover 2 defenses and running backs who make short passing plays as effective as good running plays.

"The way you win championships in this league is making big plays in the passing game," Colts general manager Bill Polian said. "You've got to score points in playoff games. Running may look ugly but it wins games on Sundays. But a good defense can take that away so you have to be able to pass the ball and score points."

When was the last time a team won a Super Bowl that ran the ball more than 50 percent of the time? The answer was the Denver Broncos in 1998. That Broncos team was rare. It had the running of Terrell Davis and the big-play passing ability of John Elway, who won the Super Bowl the previous year throwing the ball 51.3 percent of the time.

The Bucs won the Super Bowl last year even though they ran the ball only 40.3 percent of the time during the regular season, ranking 25th in the league. Michael Pittman had a big Super Bowl on the ground, but the Bucs relied more on Brad Johnson's arm to get to the Super Bowl than the legs of the running back. They beat a Raiders team that ran the ball only 38.3 percent of the time.

Sure, the Ravens of 2000 proved that you don't necessarily have to have a franchise quarterback to win the Super Bowl. They did it with great defense and Jamal Lewis' running. Trent Dilfer was the Ravens quarterback, but he had the ability to make some big plays. The Ravens ranked ninth running the ball 48.3 percent of the time. The Giants ranked 10th running it 47.3, according to Stats Inc.

Even the ground conscience Jeff Fisher knew that running wasn't the only thing that gets a team to the Super Bowl. His 1999 Titans ranked ninth running the ball at 45.4 percent of the time. They lost to a Dick Vermeil Rams coached team that ran the ball 43.4 percent of the time.

The trend in the league this year is to run the football more. Offenses answer to smaller, quicker defenses that go more into Cover 2 schemes is to wear them down on the ground. NFL games averaged 12 more rushing yards a game (235.7) than they did two years ago.

Fox turned around a 1-15 team two years ago into a playoff team by establishing one of the league's best defensive front sevens and then adding a 1,444-yard runner (Stephen Davis) and a competitive quarterback (Jake Delhomme). Of the two, as it turns out, Delhomme is the more important player. The Panthers held on to beat the Rams last week while Davis was nursing a strained quad muscle for three quarters.

"I think it is critical for all players to play well when you get to this level," Fox said of the important of quarterback play. "That is how you get there. It's the final four, and big players have to make big plays in big games. I don't think it matters which position."

But pro football this decade stresses the importance of big plays in the passing game. If anything, it opens up things for the running game.

Look at the stats of the two top seeds in each conference. The Patriots leading rushers are Antowain Smith (642 yards) and Kevin Faulk (638). While that combines into a nice 1,280 yards runner, they are averaging 3.5 and 3.6 yards respectively. The league average is 4.16. According to Stats Inc., the average per carry for a playoff team is 4.21. The Patriots, as team, average, 3.4 yards per carry.

Eagles coach Andy Reid reluctantly changed his offensive philosophy after two opening losses by turning his offense into a 50-50 running-passing team. Donovan McNabb was struggling with accuracy and then injured his right thumb. Receivers weren't getting separation from cornerbacks. Reid is a West Coast offense purist, so when McNabb righted his wrongs, he went back to more of a passing attack.

In the end, the Eagles finished 16th in the league based on percentage to run the ball (44.3). The renewed confidence in their passing game allowed them to be the league's third best scoring team over the final eight games of the season (236) behind the Chiefs and Rams.

The way you win championships in this league is making big plays in the passing game.
Colts GM Bill Polian

Losing Brian Westbrook hurts because it took away a 5.2 yard a carry threat and a spark plug in the offense. Correll Buckhalter and Duce Staley combined for 1,005 yards but neither back scares a defense. Last week, the two backs combined for 57 yards on 14 carries. McNabb almost doubled their running output by rushing for 107 yards on 11 carries.

In the year of the runner, the play from the quarterback is vital in these conference title games and Super Bowl.

In fact, listen to the philosophy of Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. The loss of four defensive linemen and linebacker Carlos Emmons for the season has put a strain on their run defense. During the regular season, the Eagles gave up 129.4 yards a game on the ground and 4.5 yards a carry. Ahman Green gashed their defense for 156 yards, yet the Eagles won their 13th game of the season by beating the Packers, 20-17 in overtime, during last weekend's divisional playoff game.

"We don't stop the run, we control the run, that's the philosophy," Johnson said. " When you take that game (Green Bay win), all 17 points came from the pass. That's the thing about it, it came from passes. That was probably more upsetting: We gave up three big passes."

Once you get past the regular season, the run to the Super Bowl is usually through the air. That's where the big plays happen.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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