You've heard this mantra probably a million times over the last decade-plus watching the NFL: It's a passing league. While teams are dropping back to pass with greater ferocity than any other time in history, what of the running game? How important is it to winning football games and an overall operation of a modern-day offense? That question was posed to Chargers head coach Brandon Staley and the 38-year-old perfectly crystallized how a strong running game complements the quarterback and the offense as a whole.
"What I think that the running game does for a quarterback is it gives you some breathers," Staley told reporters. "You don't need a good running game to be a good play-action team, but what you need the running game for is the physical element of the game. There's a physicality to the game that's real, right? If you're just a passing team, there's a physical element to the game that the defense doesn't have to respect. And that's the truth. Because the data will tell you that you don't need a run game to play pass. You don't need that. But what the running game does for you, it brings a physical dimension to the football game.
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"And what the running game does that the passing game does not, is the running forces the defense to play block and to tackle. That happens on a run play -- You must play blocks and you must tackle. In the passing game, those things don't need to happen, right? You don't have to play as many blocks. And you may not have to tackle based on incomplete or not. So what the running game does is it really challenges your physicality and that's why I think the run game is important to a quarterback. It's literally going to allow him to have more space to operate when you do throw the football."
Of course, Staley is exactly right. Not only does a good running game create more passing pockets across different layers of the field for quarterbacks, but the physicality also adds a critical element to the game itself.
For his team, a strong running game has proven to quite beneficial as the Chargers currently sit 3-1 on the season. L.A. is averaging 107.5 yards on the ground on 4.1 yards per carry, but have run the ball in a very physical manner as they rank seventh in all the NFL in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus.
Looking at Austin Ekeler specifically, you would think a player of his skill set would largely focus on outside runs where he can utilize his speed. While that may be the case in the passing game, Staley hasn't been afraid to run the 5-foot-10, 200 pounder like a thumper. Of his 50 carries this season, 35 have come either in that A or B gaps and has totaled 192 yards (5.4 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns. In those 35 carries, six have also gone for 10-plus yards. That's partially thanks to Ekeler's quickness, but also a physical offensive line that opening up different running lanes.
Naturally, that has helped Justin Herbert, who is currently eighth in the league in passing yards and is completing 68.9 percent of his throws.
So if anyone tries to tell you that the running game is a lost art in the NFL, you may want to point them in the direction of Staley, who'll likely be able to straighten them out.