Offensive balance out of whack last year in the NFL

Reggie Bush should give the Lions reason to run more. (USATSI)
Reggie Bush should give the Lions reason to run more. (USATSI)

One of the most critical areas for any football team is balance on offense. Run/pass ratios are studied closely by all 32 NFL teams and when things are out of whack they need to be fixed.

Offensive balance for playoff teams since 2000 is 46 percent run and 54 percent pass over the course of a season. There are rare exceptions for playoff teams. The Saints have been under 40 percent run in five of the last six seasons, but they are countered by the Patriots, who have never been under 40 percent run in the last 10 years.

Even with the success of Tom Brady the Patriots strive for balance and so do many other successful teams.

Last year 11 teams ran the ball less than 40 percent of the time. The last time we saw that many teams this far out of balance was 1995 when 12 teams were under 40 percent run. Since 1995 there have been an average of 6-7 teams a year under 40 percent run and most of them had losing records.

Many of the sub-40 percent run teams fought their way back to balance the following season. As one head coach said to me this past week, "You gotta run it even when you are losing and even the best quarterbacks need balanced offenses."

The run/pass ratio in 2012 was alarming enough for those 11 teams, but two teams dipped under 34 percent run in the same season for the first time in 12 years. Detroit (33.7 percent) and Dallas (33.8 percent) need to lead the way back to balance.

How rare is it for any team to be under 34 percent run for a season? Since 1996 it has only happened six times -- 2002 Rams; 2005 Cardinals; 2006, 2007 and 2011 Lions; and the 1996 Falcons.

Of course there are exceptions to the rules. Only the Colts (11-5) and the Falcons (13-3) had winning records last year of the 11 teams that couldn't crack the 40 percent run mark. It appears both teams were not satisfied with their lack of balance and took measures to remedy the situation. The Falcons went out and got Steven Jackson and the Colts signed Ahmad Bradshaw in attempts to bring the run game up to where it belongs.

The other nine teams with under 40 percent run plays (Cleveland, New Orleans, Tennessee, Philadelphia, Oakland, Jacksonville, Arizona, Dallas and Detroit) averaged five wins each and need to emphasis running the ball in 2013 even if the team finds itself in similar losing situations to last year.

Jacksonville and Tennessee have the backs to turn their situation around quickly, but a team like Arizona, which led the league in three-and-out offensive series, should be better with Carson Palmer managing the offense. That's provided running back Rashard Mendenhall can stay healthy.

You can bet all 11 teams out of balance want to make a commitment to balance. Here's a look at the two teams with the most work to do.

The Cowboys have changed the play-calling duties. Offensive line coach Bill Callahan will make the decisions. The first situation that will change is the first-and-10 calls. Last year the Cowboys ran the ball the fewest number of times on first down (41.7 percent). Last year's playoff teams averaged just over 53 percent run on first down.

The Cowboys need to add about 40 more run calls on first down over the course of 16 games or three more run calls a game. Second down is much the same with the Cowboys a 34 percent run team on second down. The Super Bowl teams averaged much closer to 50 percent (49ers, 56.6 percent; Ravens, 47.4). Dallas needs to add two or three more second-down runs a game.

If the Cowboys make the commitment, the six extra runs a game equate to 100 more runs a season. That would bring them up to 455 runs and make them a 43.3 percent run team.

The Lions signed Reggie Bush, and many may conclude he will be a big part of a passing game. But coach Jim Schwartz is hoping to take advantage of pass defensive calls against his team and run the ball with Bush.

Like the Cowboys, the Lions have struggled to keep a top running back healthy but need to get away from the first-down run percentage of 46.4 percent, which was 26th in the league last season. The Lions will have three new starting offensive linemen as well as Calvin Johnson getting double coverage most of the time, which makes the run game critical.

Last year Matthew Stafford called 152 more pass plays than Peyton Manning and over the past two seasons Stafford has called 314 more pass plays than Aaron Rodgers. For the Lions to hit the 46 percent run/54 percent pass ratio that 2012 playoff teams averaged they need to run the ball 143 more times or nine more runs a game.

I don't expect the Lions to reach that number, but I do expect them to head toward a more balanced offense if for no other reason than the opposing defense is daring them to do it.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
 
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