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NFL playoffs lesson for the Bucs: Don’t forget the running game

John Romano | Six of the top seven running teams made the playoffs. Five of the top six passing teams did not. The Bucs can’t ignore the run.

TAMPA — We love our quarterbacks. More now than ever before.

Go back 40 years and look at the top picks in the draft. Ricky Bell. Earl Campbell. Billy Sims and George Rogers. Four running backs taken No. 1 in a five-year span. The highest-paid player in the NFL in 1979 was O.J. Simpson and in 1980 was Walter Payton.

Not anymore. Today, it’s all about the quarterbacks. They get the money and they get the commercials. And the No. 1 pick in the draft? That’s right, four of the last five have been quarterbacks.

There is no doubt the game has changed, and the value of quarterbacks and running backs have changed accordingly.

So why are the best running teams all still alive in the playoffs?

Related: Bucs coach Bruce Arians likes Teddy Bridgewater’s style. Should Jameis Winston be worried?

It is, of course, a matter of degree. The Titans were the No. 3 rushing team in the NFL last season with 2,223 yards. That total would have placed them 15th in 1979. Teams are definitely running the ball a lot less today, but that doesn’t mean the running game is inconsequential.

And that’s something the Buccaneers need to realize.

Tampa Bay threw for more yards than any other team and tied for third in the league in scoring in 2019. That’s obviously a good thing, and should not be minimized. But all of that passing did have a drawback — a league-high number of turnovers that helped lead to the fourth-most points allowed.

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry gained almost 200 yards on the ground in Saturday's wild-card win over the Patriots. [ ELISE AMENDOLA | AP ]

There is a reason that all four teams that won during the first round of the NFL playoffs threw a lower percentage of passes than their opponents last weekend. In fact, in all 11 postseasons games last season the winning team threw the ball less, percentage-wise, than the teams they beat.

Naturally, some of that is due to circumstance. If you’re a losing team, you’re more apt to abandon the run in the second half of games. (Although teams that lost last weekend were either in the lead, or within one score of the lead, in the second half of all four games.)

And I’m also not trying to say a run-first mode is the winning playoff formula.

On their way to last season’s Super Bowl title, for, instance, the Patriots attempted passes (either an actual pass or a sack) 52.5 percent of the time in three postseason games. That’s less than the NFL average, but a clear indication that a pass-first philosophy can be a successful philosophy.

Related: How close are the Bucs to ending their playoff drought?

But losing 14-13 to Tennessee at halftime on Saturday, the Patriots virtually abandoned their running game in the second half and never scored again. For the entire game, they attempted a pass on 62.7 percent of their plays. The Titans tried passing on 29.8 percent of their downs.

Again, the takeaway is not to run more than pass.

But there is clear evidence that ignoring the run is a losing proposition.

If you doubt that, just look at the eight remaining playoff teams. Six were in the top-third of the NFL in rushing yards. One was in the middle-third and one was in the bottom-third. That kind of disparity should not be lost on NFL coaches and general managers.

And that point needs to be emphasized in Tampa Bay.

The Bucs, who attempted to throw on 62.3 percent of their plays, were one of 13 teams to cross that 60 percent barrier. Only one of those teams (Kansas City) made the playoffs.

Kansas City’s success in 2019, and other teams’ in previous years, means there are no hard-and-fast rules on the number of passing plays. But teams do need to take into account their individual circumstances to weigh how much risk they should be willing to take in a passing offense.

If your quarterback is Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers (all of whom had an interception ratio of 1.3 or below this season), your risk is mitigated. If your quarterback is Jameis Winston or Baker Mayfield or Kyle Allen (all of whom had an interception ratio of 3.3 and higher), you’re rolling the dice every week.

You can debate whether it is wise to run too much on first down. You can debate whether it is wise to run draw plays on third and long. You can debate a team’s game plan for any week of the season.

But you cannot debate that the ability to run the ball is still important in 2020.

Just watch the playoffs.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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