N.F.L. Teams Have Rediscovered Their Running Backs This Season
N.F.L. offenses used to be pass-happy. They later became pass-giddy and eventually pass-post-dental-surgery-loopy.
After decades of ever-increasing neglect, however, the running game is finally making a comeback.
Through Week 10, N.F.L. teams average 121.8 rushing yards per game, the highest figure since 1987. Teams also average 4.5 yards per rush, the highest rate in history.
Teams rush 26.8 times per game, a rate that has been relatively steady for many years, but pass attempts have declined to 33.7 per game, the lowest figure since 2010. That means the league’s run-to-pass ratio has increased slightly over the last two years, from 41.9 percent in 2020 to 42.1 in 2021 to 42.7 this year.
The change may not be dramatic, but teams are running more frequently and enjoying more success as a result in 2022, bucking a trend toward increased passing that began when the league adopted pass friendly rule changes in 1978.
The revitalization of the running game is most noticeable at the top of the league standings. The Philadelphia Eagles (8-1), with an option-heavy offense, average 142.7 rushing yards per game. The Baltimore Ravens (6-3) average 168.1 rushing yards per game thanks to quarterback Lamar Jackson’s dual-threat capabilities. The Tennessee Titans (7-2), averaging 133.4 rushing yards per game, hop into a wagon most weeks and let Derrick Henry drag them to victory.
The Giants (7-2; 164.8 rushing yards per game) would practically be a volleyball team without Saquon Barkley at tailback. The Minnesota Vikings (8-1) average a modest 107 rushing yards per game, but they often line up with a halfback AND a fullback, the way the founding fathers intended.
To be clear, none of the teams above — division leaders save for the second-place Giants — have high rushing totals simply because they are protecting late leads. Instead, they feature offenses that are “balanced” or “establish the run” in ways that coaches have paid lip service to for decades before inevitably donning their headsets and calling two passes for every handoff.
There are three interrelated causes for the rushing resurgence.
1. The Rise of the Dual-Threat Quarterback
Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields is almost single-handedly skewing the N.F.L. rushing data. Fields has 104 carries on scrambles and designed options for 749 yards. Removing his production from the league’s data would drop the N.F.L. per-carry average from 4.537 to 4.502: The latter figure would still be an all-time high, but it’s still a striking illustration of the impact one player can have.
Scramblers have produced gaudy rushing figures for decades, but never has there been as many quarterbacks running as frequently and boldly as there are in 2022. Fields, Jackson and Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills are all averaging more than 50 rushing yards per game this season. As recently as 2012, Washington’s Robert Griffin III was the only quarterback to average more than 50 yards per game in a season.
After years of reluctance to allow their quarterbacks to run, coaches now realize that injuries on designed options are not common and defenses rarely figure out how to neutralize such tactics. As a result, Fields, Jackson and many others both rush for chunks of yardage and make their running backs more effective by giving defenders more to worry about.
2. The Return of Running Creatively
During their long peaks, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning operated in offenses designed to allow them to call simple run plays at the line of scrimmage if defenses were back on their heels. Copycat coaches soon began pretending that all quarterbacks were just like them and needed little more from their running games than a rudimentary fallback plan.
N.F.L. coaches later realized that not every quarterback is a human supercomputer and are now scouring the appendices of their playbooks for abandoned rushing tactics.
As mentioned above, many teams dared to allow their quarterbacks to run occasionally. The Titans, Vikings and San Francisco 49ers have rescued the fullback from the brink of extinction. The Giants and Cleveland Browns have revived pulling-and-trapping tactics along the offensive line to create openings for Barkley and Nick Chubb. The Seattle Seahawks punish defenses with heavy formations with three tight ends. And so forth.
These diversified rushing tactics have allowed teams with less-than-stellar quarterbacks to thrive. Meanwhile, defenses built to stop the passing game at all costs are getting a rude surprise.
3. The Decline of the Linebacker
As passing rates increased steadily over the last 40 years, defensive coaches began replacing one or two of their linebackers with smaller, speedier defensive backs. At first, they swapped them in only on passing downs, but eventually extra defensive backs became prominent throughout the game plans and on rosters.
A modern N.F.L. defense lines up with five defensive backs on more than 60 percent of offensive snaps and with six defensive backs on about 15 percent of snaps. That leaves just one or two linebackers to do what used to be the work of three or four in the middle of the field.
Many of the remaining linebackers are smaller, quicker pass-coverage specialists. Imagine the chagrin of some lonely, undersized linebacker when Henry, Barkley or Chubb barrels straight at him, perhaps with a fullback or a 300-pound pulling guard leading the way.
Defenses try to counter the rushing resurgence by dusting off forgotten tactics of their own. Unfortunately, multitalented linebackers like the Dallas Cowboys All-Pro Micah Parsons have rebranded themselves as sack specialists and replaced true defensive ends in the ecosystem. The burly linebackers hanging around on most benches generally belong there, and a defense that builds to stop Henry or Barkley just leaves itself vulnerable to Patrick Mahomes.
Rushing rates are likely to increase a bit more in the years to come: An ever-increasing percentage of collegiate quarterback prospects are dual threats and offensive coordinators like the Eagles’ Shane Steichen and the Seahawks’ Shane Waldron will likely bring their run-focused systems with them to head coaching gigs next year.
Teams will never be perfectly balanced — passing still nets 6.1 yards per play, making it more efficient than rushing — but the N.F.L. may finally achieve a tactical equilibrium after nearly a half century of swinging exclusively in one direction.
That equilibrium is both overdue and welcome. It’s much more fun to watch teams mix runs and passes in innovative and unpredictable ways than it was to watch Brady, Manning and 30 teams that just wished they had Brady or Manning.