Run More Often, Win More Often?
By Glenn Guzzo
The successful Strat-O-Matic football coach knows that it’s wise to keep his opponent guessing. The soon-to-be-released 2004-season cards and computer disks will show that the running game can be an effective way to do that.
In an era when NFL teams pass more than they run, where they are at least as likely to throw on 1st-and-10 and when Strat-O-Matic’s card ratings reflect this preference, Strat coaches are known to call “Pass” defense 70 to 80 percent of the time.
That’s one reason for offenses to call more running plays.
Another is the flurry of running backs who have potent guessed Wrong columns. For starters, there are 18 backs who gained more than 1,000 yards, including five (the Jets’ Curtis Martin, Seattle’s Shaun Alexander, New England’s Corey Dillon, Indianapolis’ Edgerrin James and the Giants’ Tiki Barber) who topped 1,500 yards.
There are 14 breakaway backs (including eight of the 1,000-yard men) who have at least one Long Gain on their cards. An array of additional injured stars (e.g. Priest Holmes) and talented backups (Lamont Jordan, Tatum Bell, Kevin Faulk, etc.) have Wrong columns waiting to inflict serious damage on defenses.
These Wrong columns show why second-and-long is a running down in the modern NFL and in Strat-O-Matic, too.
Top that off with new ratings that show an uncharacteristically high 13 halfbacks with run-block ratings of at least 4, including a pair of 6’s (Carolina’s Nick Goings and Denver’s Reuben Droughns) and four 5’s (including 1,000-yard men Jamal Lewis of Baltimore and Cincinnati’s Rudi Johnson). In the recent past, the halfback who could run-block was an endangered species.
“We have additional sources on running-back blocking skills now,” explained James Williams, who is deeply involved in the football ratings each year.
Strat coaches aren’t going to disdain the pass – not in a season when the average NFL team threw 505 passes (31.5 per game) and when Peyton Manning and Daunte Culpepper, among others, were spectacularly successful. But if you’re not happy with how many points your team has been scoring, maybe it’s time to consider changing the play-calling mix to run more frequently on 1st, 2nd or 3rd down, even when the yardage to go is formidable.
Take a look at what good can come of running in situations where it seems like only passing yardage will do. The numbers below are the number of gains in running backs’ Wrong columns that will get more yardage than the typical completed Short Pass – runs that result in gains of Short Gain (average: 15 yards) or more. Keep in mind that this doesn’t include those +6 and +7 gains that can turn 2nd-and-long into third-and-short enough-to-keep-the-defense-guessing-again.
Brian Westbrook, Philadelphia: Gained only 812 yards, but his 4.6 yards per carry and a merely decent longest play of 50 yards means he has plenty of other explosive runs. On End Run, he’s got a Long Gain, a +42, a +23 on the 4 roll and Short Gains on rolls of 3, 6 and 8 – that’s a whopping 17 chances out of 36 to punish a “Pass” call. Westbrook adds 14 chances Off Tackle. Westbrook is very dangerous in his Flat Pass Wrong column, too (30 chances of picking up at least 10 yards), so you can play cat-and-mouse with him to drive your opponent wild. What’s it going to be – run with Westbrook or Flat Pass to him? Where are those linebackers going to go? And who’s watching Terrell Owens?
Curtis Martin and Lamont Jordan, New York Jets: Martin led the NFL in rushing (1,697 yards) with a pedestrian longest play of 25 yards. So you know he’s getting good yardage in more places than just about anyone. That’s 14 chances of Short Gain or more on End Run and nine Off Tackle. Yes, he’s also among the best guessed Right – all the 9 rolls for Linebuck, Off Tackle and End Run result in Short Gain.
Jordan is the premier backup, with Short Gain or better on 14 chances on End Run, 13 on Off Tackle and 10 on Linebuck.
Tiki Barber, New York Giants. He gained 1,518 yards rushing, scored 13 touchdowns rushing and the Giants’ quarterbacks were weak, so you know he’s got to have a heck of a card to deal with the fewer times the defense will be Wrong. He does. He’s the only back in the set who has a Long Gain on dice roll 3 (rather than a 2 or 12) and he has it on both End Run and Off Tackle. Meanwhile, he’s got 11 chances of Short Gain or better on End Run, 9 on Off Tackle and 8 on Linebuck. On sweeps, he’s got +72 on 12 and +23 on 4. Off Tackle, it’s +58 on 2 and +22 on 11. He can break away on Linebucks, too. In a draft league with a better quarterback, he will be lethal. The ultimate symbol of Strat-O-Matic respect: Barber can gain yardage when Keyed (+1 on Linebuck roll 6). And like Westbrook, he’s a constant threat on Flat Pass Wrong (28 chances of +10 or better).
Shaun Alexander, Seattle. This guy is a load. Good reason: His 1,696 yards missed the rushing title by 1, his 16 TD’s rushing was second in the league by 1 and his 4.8 yards per carry was second among 1,000-yard rushers by 0.1. On End Run, he gets +29 on roll 6, to go with +44 on 12, +36 on 11 and Short Gain on 10 – that’s 11 chances in all. Add 10 chances Off Tackle (with +29 on roll 9) and 8 chances on Linebuck. He can gain yardage Keyed.
Reuben Droughns and Friends, Denver. First it was Terrell Davis, then Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis and now Reuben Droughns. The Broncos’ blocking schemes are so good that 1,200 yards or more awaits any runner who hits the hole quickly and can read blocks. Droughns gained 1,240 yards and averaged 4.5 per carry. He’s got 13 chances for the big plays on End Run and 8 more on Linebuck, where he has his Long Gain. Oh, the Broncos have traded him. So next in line is Tatum Bell (9 chances each on End Run and Off Tackle) or Quentin Griffin (9 End Run, 7 Off Tackle).
Corey Dillon, New England. He filled the Patriots’ one weakness brilliantly (1,635 yards, 4.7 per carry, 12 rushing TD’s) and gets 11 chances on End Run and 8 Off Tackle and probably is the best in the set guessed Right. Backup Kevin Faulk is every bit as explosive Wrong (12 chances on End Run, 10 Off Tackle).
Chris Brown, Tennessee. The replacement for Eddie George led the 1,000-yard rushers in yards per carry (4.9) and has a beautifully balanced card: 10 big-play chances on End Run and Off Tackle, 9 on Linebuck. All his 9 rolls guessed Right are Short Gains, too.
Rudi Johnson, Cincinnati and Jamal Lewis, Baltimore. Two more guys whose biggest play is on Linebuck. That’s 75 yards for Lewis, whose best column actually is at End Run, where there are 12 Short Gains. It’s a Long Gain for Johnson, who also has +28 at roll 4 on Linebuck, plus 10 big-play chances Off Tackle.
LaDanian Tomlinson, San Diego. His ability to get into the end zone on plays near the goal line inflates his rushing touchdowns (league-best 17) and deflates his average per carry (3.9). But he’s a great workhorse back, who has the tough yards Right (including a +1 Keyed on Linebuck roll 6), but also 11 big-play chances Wrong on End Run and 9 more Off Tackle.
Edgerrin James, Indianapolis. His 1,548 yards, 4.6 average and 9 TD’s are stats comparable to Martin and Barber, but because James plays with such a superior quarterback (Manning) who will have defenses guessing Pass all day, James doesn’t get as potent a running card as the New Yorkers. Still, he’s got 10 big-play chances on End Run and 8 Off Tackle.
Warrick Dunn, Atlanta. He’s got the yards (1,106), the Long Gain and 11 chances on End Run, and a nice +25 on roll 4. But he’s still got the second best End Run card on the team: QB Michael Vick has 18 big-play chances, including a nifty +26 at roll 8, plus the equivalent of 3 more chances Right due to Must Run (big-play rolls at 2-3-4, or 1/6 of the time from 17 Must Run results on Short Pass and Long Pass Right).
Kevin Jones, Detroit and Fred Taylor, Jacksonville. Despite more than 1,100 yards each (1,224 for Taylor), 4.7-per-carry averages each and unspectacular quarterbacks, they get less spectacular cards than some runners. That’s 8 big-play chances each on End Run and Off Tackle for Jones; 8 on Linebuck and 7 End Run for Taylor. But both of these guys get even bigger plays on roll 4 when going outside: +31 for Jones, +29 for Taylor. The good Linebuck card is surprising for Taylor, who scored only 2 rushing touchdowns and was often removed in goal-line situations late in the season.
Other 1,000-yard men:
Ahman Green, Green Bay: With frequent flinger Brett Favre forcing defenses to guess Pass more, and with a long play of +90 eating up a lot of yards, Green gets a mere 5 big-play chances on End Run, his best column. But he also gets a Long Gain Off Tackle.
Domanick Davis, Houston
Deuce McAllister, New Orleans
Willis McGahee, Buffalo
Clinton Portis, Washington
Even without fabulous quarterbacks, their running cards are less impressive because each of these guys averaged only 3.9 – 4.0 yards per carry, ordinary in any season. Portis, who had the most yards (1,315) and the worst quarterback, gets the most big-play chances (8, End Run). McGahee, with the most rushing touchdowns (13) and the shortest big play (40 yards) gets a robust +23 on roll 9 among 7 big-play chances Off Tackle and Short Gains at roll 3 in all columns guessed Right.