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Does a running game matter when you’re scoring 30 points a week?

John Romano | The Bucs throw the ball twice as much as they run. Maybe there’s no correlation, but some of their lowest-scoring games are when they run the least.
Leonard Fournette, left, leads the Bucs in rushing with 486 yards, but that does not put him among the top 20 running backs in the NFL. Tampa Bay is 31st in the NFL in rushing attempts.
Leonard Fournette, left, leads the Bucs in rushing with 486 yards, but that does not put him among the top 20 running backs in the NFL. Tampa Bay is 31st in the NFL in rushing attempts. [ MATT SLOCUM | AP ]
Published Nov. 21

TAMPA — The Rubicon was crossed by NFL offenses back in 1984. That was the first of what has now become 37 consecutive seasons when the average team has thrown the ball more than it has run.

Since then, the numbers have gradually, but steadily, increased toward passing offenses. Watch a typical NFL game this season, and you will see each team throw about 35 passes with roughly 27 running plays.

Unless you watch the Bucs.

No team has had a bigger disparity between runs and passes than the Bucs in 2021, with more than two-thirds of their plays going through the air. Tampa Bay has been averaging nearly 43 throws a game with slightly more than 21 rushing plays.

Is this a problem? Not on the surface. Tampa Bay is averaging 31 points a game, which is third in the NFL and just a tick above the franchise record they set last season.

The passing game has potential Hall of Famers at quarterback (Tom Brady), tight end (Rob Gronkowski) and receiver (Mike Evans), and the head coach (Bruce Arians) is as aggressive as they come. The lack of a concentrated running game clearly has not kept the Bucs from putting points on the board.

And, as Arians likes to say, it’s not a question of how many times you run the ball, but rather if you are able to run the ball whenever you want.

But this is where the story gets a little tricky. The three games the Bucs have lost this season also happen to be among the games in which they have called the fewest running plays.

Now, this could be a chicken-and-egg kind of question. Did the Bucs call fewer runs because they were trailing on the scoreboard, or did the lack of runs have something to do with the final outcome?

The Bucs trailed the Rams 14-7 at halftime and completely abandoned the running game in the second half. Only one play in the final 30 minutes was a handoff to a running back. They trailed New Orleans 16-7 at halftime and called only three running plays in the next two quarters. The Washington game, when trailing 16-6 going into the third quarter, had four running plays called after the intermission.

Naturally, there is some sense of urgency when a team is trailing in the second half, but it can be harder to move the ball when the threat of the run is virtually eliminated.

“Our run efficiency has been pretty good,” Arians said on Friday. “I’d like to have seen a few more — now the game dictated a little bit in Washington after getting down — (but) I’d like to see a little more balance. But the same thing goes for short passes. To me, they’re just runs. They’re long handoffs. Especially screens outside, and those types of things.”

The running game was enough of a concern for Brady early in the season that he began calling Friday afternoon meetings with the offensive line and running backs to go over ways to be more efficient.

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Those meetings coincided with a stretch of four consecutive games with more than 100 rushing yards, but in the past two weeks the Bucs have dropped to 71 and 53 yards. Incidentally, both were losses.

Again, there is a difference between cause and correlation. It’s possible the Bucs would have lost to Los Angeles, New Orleans and Washington no matter how many running plays they called.

But there are also bigger-picture considerations here. The health of Brady, for instance. An effective running game slows down an opponent’s pass rush, which is obviously good news for a largely immobile 44-year-old quarterback. The passing game was less effective against Washington because Brady took a vicious hit in the first series and, consequently, avoided deep and intermediate passes the rest of the day.

A good running game can also be a boon for your defense. The more a team can run, the more time its defense is able to relax on the sidelines, particularly with a lead.

“You play the game in the first three quarters. If you’re ahead 10, you’re going to run the hell out of it, and you’d better run it (well),” Arians said. “In those scenarios this year, we’ve done well.”

It’s neither realistic nor necessary to ask the Bucs to run the ball as well as they pass. Tampa Bay has thrown for more yards (an average of 300.2 per game) and more touchdowns (102 in 41 games) than any team in the NFL since Arians arrived here in 2019.

The offense is clearly built around the pass, and the Lombardi Trophy in the team’s lobby is a pretty good way to settle any arguments about strategies and game plans. The imbalance between the pass and run seems more of a quirk than a problem.

At least, for the moment.

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

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