Why the running game still matters

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
8:50
AM ET
Sometimes the most off-the-cuff statements take a person to interesting places.

So when Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton stated something yesterday, it seemed wise to check it out.

Horton is admittedly a stats maven; he says he spends a lot of time with numbers. But when he talked about defending the running game and discussed a team having a back with 20 carries in a game, he said something interesting.

“If you do that you win the game usually because if you can get your runner 20 plus per carries a game, usually you’re winning and you’re controlling the clock,” he said.

[+] EnlargeWillis McGahee
Ron Schwane/USA TODAY SportsThe Browns won the only game this season when Willis McGahee had more than 20 carries.
Which sounds like it contradicts conventional wisdom that the NFL is now a passing league and runners and running backs are de-emphasized.

Except Horton is right. And the numbers back him up.

In the past five seasons (including through eight weeks this season), when a team has a back that runs 20 times in a game, it wins 71 percent of the time (473-190-2).

This season, a player has rushed 20 or more times in a game 58 times. His team won 42 of those games, or 72.4 percent of the time.

Seven of those losses came from players on bad teams -- Doug Martin has 20 carries in four Tampa Bay games, and Arian Foster has three for Houston. Not even a good back can overcome a bad team. But take away those seven and the won-lost percentage jumps to 82 percent.

Last season, though, Foster had 10 games with 20 carries, and Houston won all 10.

All teams that had a back that ran the ball 20 times in a game last season went 118-36-2 in 2012. They won 76 percent of the time, or three in four games, or 12 in a 16-game season.

Results like that are meaningful, but they’re not unusual.

In 2011, the record was 109-41 (72.6 percent).

In 2010, it was 101-44 (69.6 percent).

And in 2009, it was 103-50 (67.3 percent).

Go back to the past, choose a random season.

In 1991, teams with a guy with 20-plus carries went 90-29 (75.6 percent). That was the heyday of Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, yet the won-lost percentage is nearly the same as 2011, when the NFL has become a “passing league.”

In 1974, it was 74-20 (78.7 percent)

And in 1963, the heyday of the great Jim Brown and Jim Taylor, teams went 37-10 (78.8 percent).

Consider the playoffs. In the past five seasons, teams with a back that ran 20 or more times in a game went 20-8 (71.4 percent). In the last 10, it was 42-20 (67.8 percent).

It means something.

Consider the Super Bowl. Teams that had a back with 20 or more carries have gone 22-4, meaning they win 84.6 percent of the time.

And since 1960, the won-lost record of teams that have a 20-carry guy is 3,031 wins, 1,146 losses and 24 ties. That would mean winning 72.4 percent of the time.

Conclusion? Thank you Mr. Horton.

What the bottom-line numbers do not show is why teams are running the ball. Are they doing it because they're ahead, which Horton referred to? Or because it's their game plan? Browns GM Mike Lombardi has talked in the past about the key number being a combined 50 rushing attempts and completions. What's clear is that running the ball matters, and it especially matters in the biggest of games, the Super Bowl.

How these teams got to these carries might be meaningful. But numbers that are consistent over decades mean Horton is right and that running the ball, and committing to the run, is related to winning.

Even in the “passing league” era, teams that run the ball win games.

-- Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football Reference.

Pat McManamon

ESPN Cleveland Browns reporter

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