Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Running back carries: the meaningless NFL statistic that just won't go away

It has gone on for far too long, and it has to stop. Today. Right now.

We're a divided nation, but a greater purpose demands we band together, regardless of our allegiances.

Whether you root for the Giants or the Eagles, the Ravens or the Steelers, the Bucs or the Falcons, it's time to take a stand — a stand against NFL commentators' repeated attempts to link running back carries to team wins.

The relationship is, at best, spurious.

Yet we continue to hear it cited on television, on radio, on Twitter.

Here's one recent example, a tweet from Gil Brandt, an NFL.com analyst and former Cowboys personnel executive:

Le'Veon Bell made it 38-0 Sunday when he rushed 30 times for 170 yards to help the Steelers edge the Chiefs 18-16.

Brandt's tweet resurfaced Monday on ESPN's "First Take" when Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman and guest Will Cain dissected the Cowboys' 34-31 loss to the Packers. Cain is an ESPN contributor who has worked for CNN and TheBlaze, the network founded by political firebrand Glenn Beck.

Cain, a Cowboys fan, cited the statistic while criticizing coach Jason Garrett's play-calling.

"Ezekiel Elliott was carving up the Packers defense, averaging 6 yards a carry," he said. "Give the man the ball twice, and it's a first down. Just do that over and over and over until they stop it."

Elliott rushed 22 times for 125 yards, an average of 5.7 yards per attempt.

The statistic Cain referenced is accurate. It is, however, problematic. It implies that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between carries and winning. There is not. Effectiveness matters, not volume.

There was time when you could hand the ball off 44 times to Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris and win the game. Teams today, though, run when they win, not win when they run, as Football Outsiders has found.

The Texans didn't beat the Raiders in the wild-card round because Lamar Miller rushed 31 times (2.4 yards per carry).

The Patriots didn't beat the Colts in the AFC championship in 2015 because LeGarrette Blount rushed 30 times (4.9 yards per carry).

The Ravens didn't beat the 49ers in the Super Bowl in 2013 because Ray Rice rushed 30 times (2.0 yards per carry).

The Seahawks didn't beat the Panthers in the NFC championship in 2006 because Shaun Alexander rushed 34 times (3.9 yards per carry).

Those teams won because they built leads and then tried to run out the clock. In 30 of the 38 playoff games in which a running back has rushed at least 30 times (complete list below), his team led at halftime. What's more, 27 of those 30 teams led by double digits at some point.

"I'm sure the arbitrary number (30 carries) has no direct causal link," Cain told me on Twitter. "But it's representative of a style of play and commitment that overwhelmingly leads to wins. And I wish the Cowboys had made that commitment."

Dallas made that commitment, at least early on. In the first quarter, the Cowboys' run and pass rates were consistent with their regular-season rates; Elliott rushed six times and Dak Prescott threw seven times. The play-calling balance didn't shift until the Packers jumped out to a 14-3 and then a 21-3 lead halfway through the second quarter.

From that point, Prescott threw twice as often as Elliott ran (31 times to 16). Dallas rallied and scored 28 of the next 38 points, thanks in no small part to its rookie quarterback. Before the Cowboys fell behind by 18, Prescott posted a 63.2 passer rating in three series. Afterward, he completed almost 70 percent of his passes and recorded a 115.6 rating. It was not enough, however, as the Packers prevailed when Mason Crosby hit a 51-yard field goal as time expired.

The Cowboys didn't lose because they didn't feed Elliott enough. They lost because they couldn't derail Aaron Rodgers. Early in the game, they allowed him too much time, and late, they allowed one too many big plays — a 36-yard dagger from Rodgers to tight end Jared Cook that set up Crosby's game-winner.

Football Outsiders has suggested the rushing attempts myth exists because many of today's commentators came of age or played during the run-heavy 1970s. Considering the amount of data available to us, that thinking is becoming less and less defensible.

While time is running out on this season, it's not too late to make a pledge, to refuse to perpetuate such nonsense. Say it with me once more: In general, teams run when they win, not win when they run.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

Running backs to rush at least 30 times in a playoff game (since 1950)

DatePlayerTeamOpponentHalftime lead?Double-digit lead?
1/15/2017Le'Veon BellSteelersChiefsYesNo
1/7/2017Lamar MillerTexansRaidersYesYes
1/18/2015LeGarrette BlountPatriotsColtsYesYes
2/3/2013Ray RiceRavens49ersYesYes
1/12/2013Ray RiceRavensBroncosNoNo
1/5/2013Arian FosterTexansBengalsYesNo
1/22/2006Shaun AlexanderSeahawksPanthersYesYes
1/27/2002Marshall FaulkRamsEaglesNoNo
12/31/2000Jamal LewisRavensBroncosYesYes
12/30/2000Lamar SmithDolphinsColtsNoNo
1/17/1999Terrell DavisBroncosJetsNoYes
1/10/1999Curtis MartinJetsJaguarsYesYes
1/3/1999Fred TaylorJaguarsPatriotsYesYes
1/25/1998Terrell DavisBroncosPackersYesYes
12/27/1997Terrell DavisBroncosJaguarsYesYes
12/28/1996Natrone MeansJaguarsBillsNoNo
1/14/1996Emmitt SmithCowboysPackersYesYes
1/30/1994Emmitt SmithCowboysBillsNoYes
1/23/1994Thurman ThomasBillsChiefsYesYes
1/9/1994Rodney HamptonGiantsVikingsNoNo
12/28/1991Barry WordChiefsRaidersYesNo
1/12/1991Thurman ThomasBillsDolphinsYesYes
12/28/1986Freeman McNeilJetsChiefsYesYes
1/4/1986Eric DickersonRamsCowboysYesYes
1/8/1984John RigginsWashington49ersYesYes
1/30/1983John RigginsWashingtonDolphinsNoYes
1/22/1983John RigginsWashingtonCowboysYesYes
1/15/1983John RigginsWashingtonVikingsYesYes
12/27/1981Rob CarpenterGiantsEaglesYesYes
12/29/1979Ricky BellBuccaneersEaglesYesYes
12/26/1977Chuck ForemanVikingsRamsYesYes
12/27/1975Lawrence McCutcheonRamsCardinalsYesYes
1/12/1975Franco HarrisSteelersVikingsYesYes
1/13/1974Larry CsonkaDolphinsVikingsYesYes
12/31/1972Larry BrownWashingtonCowboysYesYes
12/26/1970Duane ThomasCowboysLionsYesYes
1/12/1969Matt SnellJetsColtsYesYes
12/30/1962Jim TaylorPackersGiantsYesYes
Source: Pro Football Reference

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