Passing beats running

Forget the old farts who exalt four yards and a cloud of dust: In the NFL, the air rules.

Published November 15, 2001 8:57PM (EST)

What's more important to the success of a pro football team, the run or the pass? I've been researching this topic for 20 years, and the answer I get is always the same: the pass. And it's always at odds with what the football establishment says, which, of course, is the run.

How can two sides be so diametrically opposed on the same evidence? Well, there are a couple of explanations. One, I'm a natural contrarian, and, two, most of the people who do football commentary are old farts. Naturally, I put more emphasis on the second. Football coaches are naturally conservative men, and running the ball is the conservative way to play. It makes a coach feel like he is in control and without that most coaches don't really feel they've won. A great passing game takes daring and imagination, and you will never find more than a couple of coaches with those qualities coaching at the same time.

But those coaches will be the winners.

That's what I insist the evidence says. Let me put it as simply as I can: I can think of a handful of teams in the last 30 years that have won strictly on defense -- the '74 Steelers, last year's Baltimore Ravens, of course, but few others -- but of the rest I can't think of a single team that was carried by its running game. I can think of plenty, on the other hand, that won because they had great passing. The 49ers, for starters; do you think they won their second, third and fourth Super Bowls because of Joe Montana's passing or Roger Craig's running? I'm not knocking Roger Craig, but do you know anyone who thought he was the best, or anywhere near the best, as a pure runner? Don't you feel that if San Francisco had had to replace him with an average back but still had Montana throwing to Dwight Clark and Jerry Rice that they'd have won just as many Super Bowls? (In fact, the 49ers' running game during their first Super Bowl season was dreadful.)

In our own time we are told that St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk is not only the primary reason the Rams win but is also "the best player in pro football," a tag I've now seen applied to him by both ESPN magazine and Sports Illustrated. Now, I can see that Faulk may be the best player in pro football; he has tremendous power for a 210-pound player, explosive speed, great balance and terrific hands. What I do not see is how this makes him the most valuable player on his own team. Kurt Warner, the quarterback, can do only one thing really, really well, which is throw a football, but that's the reason the Rams won the Super Bowl two years ago and are favorites to win it again this season (well, that and finding a couple of people who can actually tackle).

When I say things like this in public I get replies like "How can you be sure that the threat of the run isn't making the pass work?" Which, of course, is not an easy thing to answer since the Rams' amazing offense is predicated on the basis of making opponents constantly aware of the threat of the run and the pass. I'd frame my argument this way: When Marshall Faulk was on the Colts he rushed for nearly as many yards as he did later with the Rams. In 1998, for instance, he gained 1,319 yards, but the Colts went nowhere, because they had a lousy passing game. It took Faulk 324 carries to get those yards, which means he averaged just 4.1 yards per try. In 1999, though, Faulk is on St. Louis with Warner at QB, and he gains 1,381 yards in just 253 carries, which means he is averaging 5.5 yards per carry, the highest figure in the league. What made the difference? In five full seasons with the Colts, Faulk had never averaged better than 4.1 a crack; since coming to the Rams he has averaged almost exactly 5.5, highest in the league. Do you think it has something to do with all those receivers spreading defenses thin, so a good runner who breaks into the secondary has some open space?

I do. No passer has ever spread defenses like Warner, whose three-year average of 8.8 yards per throw is the highest of any passer in NFL history, higher than Joe Montana, Dan Marino, anybody. This doesn't necessarily mean that the Rams should be considered a lock to win the NFC championship, but it certainly means they have the inside track, and at this rate it looks as if they'll play the Oakland Raiders, whose quarterback, Rich Gannon, is near the top of the AFC in yards per pass.

Of course, as long as both men pile up the yards the argument will go on and on -- is the pass setting up the run or the run setting up the pass? And as long as their offense produces like this, it doesn't matter. The Rams are the first team in NFL history to have the league's best passer and runner at their peaks at the same time. What do you do if you're a defensive coordinator about to face them? I asked one at the Giants game a couple of weeks ago. "Pray for snow," he said.

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The announcement of MLB's plans to eliminate two teams has thrown the sports press into their usual tizzy. Everyone seems to be reaching for his dunce hat. The New York Times' Murray Chass, who should and usually does know better, told readers that free agent signing would be curtailed until the new development of contraction was sorted out. Such is far from the case. Until a new basic agreement is established the old one is still in place, and for owners to agree not to bid on players is called c-o-l-l-u-s-i-o-n, and the owners are still reeling from the effects of the last collusion judgment. Expect free agent signings to proceed at the usual pace ...

USA Today's Jon Sareceno, who apparently doesn't know any better, couldn't wait to start flogging the players for their share in the contraction scheme: "Don't merely point a finger at greedy players," he wrote last week, "and their union guru, Don Fehr." "They," meaning owners and players, "are all responsible." Responsible for exactly what, one might ask. Baseball is making plenty of money to support all its teams; no one denies this, not even the owners' own "Blue Ribbon" panel. It's a question of how the money is divided, and who among management has asked the players to help them solve that problem? And why exactly are the players greedy? For taking the money the owners offered them? It's exactly this kind of dumb, a-plague-on-both-their-houses, sucking up to the fan's prejudices that clouds the real issues when they finally come to the table ...

I agree with Bert Randolph Sugar that Lennox Lewis should be able to utilize his significant advantages in height, weight and reach to win back the heavyweight title from Hasim Rahman this Saturday night. Still, it worries me that Lewis is the only heavyweight champion I can recall who was ever knocked out, twice, with a single punch. I asked Bert what he thought this meant. "It probably means," he replied "that the Lennox in his name refers to china."

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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