What comes first: running or winning?

There is a chicken-and-egg element to examining the success of so-called “running teams.”

It only goes to reason that good teams are going to attempt more runs than bad teams. After all, bad teams often must throw the ball a lot as part of being in catch-up mode. But are good teams good because they run the ball or do they run the ball because they’re good?


I believe it works both ways. Good teams are often able to put away an opponent through the use of the running game. And they can afford to stick with the run as a way of chewing up the clock because they’re able to mix in a few first downs along the way.


Over the weekend, I looked at which teams in the NFL ran the football the most during the 2008 regular season. The top five running teams, percentage-wise were the Ravens (56.0 percent), Falcons (55.4), Panthers (53.7), Titans (52.2) and Vikings (51.2). Each of those teams made the playoffs. They were the only teams in the league that run the ball more than half of their total offensive plays for the season.


The Raiders ran the ball 49.9 percent of their offensive plays, ranking sixth in the league. But their run game, obviously, did not translate to victories.


In 2008, the 49ers ran the ball just 41.3 percent of the time. Only eight teams in the NFL ran the ball a smaller percentage of the time. Of those teams, the Eagles (26th), Colts (29th) and Cardinals (32nd) made the playoffs.


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So what is Mike Singletary’s offensive philosophy? This is what he said on Dec. 31:


“My offensive philosophy is more of a traditional one, more of a run to pass. When it really comes right down to it, sometimes you have to pass more, sometimes you have to run more, depending on the clock situation, depending on the score. But if I’m going to go into the game, my philosophy is to run a little bit more than passing and hopefully have a balance, 50-50. But the most important thing for me is to be able to run. You have to know that you can run the football. I’m not trying to outsmart anybody. I’m not trying to be a magician. We are playing football and we need to be able to run the football.”


And this is what new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye said on Jan. 30 about the passing game after he was hired:


“I have no objection to throwing the football. I think if people are going to try to load up the box against you in the running game, depending on your personnel groups and location and the passes available to you, we will play, we will throw the ball, we will play offense and our offense will be able to take care of the contingencies of what the defense presents.”


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Perhaps the best indication of whether a team is a passing team or a running team is to look at what it does on first downs. Here is each team’s percentage of running plays on first-and-10 (you’ll notice that the top two run teams on this list had rookie quarterbacks and No. 3 had a serious QB problem):


1, Falcons 66.83

2, Ravens 66.75

3, Vikings 59.7

4, Panthers 58.61

(tie) Titans 58.61

6, Steelers 57.74

7, Giants 55.69

8, Jets 55.0

9, Chargers 54.1

10, Browns 53.5

11, Raiders 53.2

12, Bills 52.8

13, Buccaneers 51.9

14, Packers 49.1

15, Dolphins 48.8

16, Rams 48.2

17, Redskins 47.8

18, Bears 47.0

19, Patriots 46.7

20, Cowboys 46.4

21, Eagles 45.9

22, Seahawks 45.7

23, Lions 45.03

24, Bengals 45.01

25, Colts 44.1

26, 49ERS 42.96

(tie) Texans 42.96

28, Cardinals 42.8

29, Chiefs 41.5

30, Saints 41.2

31, Jaguars 40.8

32, Broncos 37.7


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Clearly, Singletary would like to see the 2009 49ers run the ball with greater frequency. Of course, that is a heck of a lot easier when the team is winning.


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