Running games have become resistance in the modern game

By Mike Fink
Oct. 16, 2020

In a week 7 matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and the Buffalo Bills in 2018, Colts rookie guard Quenton Nelson went over to Head Coach Frank Reich and told him to run the ball. The Bills possessed one of the best run defenses in the league at the time yet Nelson told his coach confidently that they could run against them. The 1-5 Colts ran for 220 yards that day on the way to a 37-5 victory. After the great day on the ground, the Colts instantly switched to a run-first team behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and won 9 of the next 10 games to finish the season (the season ended in the Divisional Round against the Chiefs).

When the Baltimore Ravens initially turned to Lamar Jackson in his rookie season after Joe Flacco went down to injury, the Ravens overhauled their offense. In a league that was seeing quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees, and others spreading out the offense and throwing on everyone, the Ravens threw us back to the wishbone ages. The Ravens became a run-first team and started beating defenses with schemed runs and a simplified offense. The Ravens were able to allow Lamar Jackson to succeed in his early years and watch their run game suddenly emerge as one of the best in the NFL. After Baltimore won 6 of the last 7 games of Jackson’s rookie season to catapult the Ravens into the playoffs, the Ravens were able to establish one of the best-run teams in NFL history in the next season as Lamar Jackson became the league's MVP.

In recent years, we have seen numerous cases of NFL offenses changing their identity to become run-first offenses and seeing varying degrees of success. This can be a for offensive success but are teams reverting to running the ball as a resistance to the pass-happy league that we are witnessing?

Recent years have seen a change in offenses unlike any we have seen in the history of the game. The air-raid has made its way into the game, the run-pass option is picking apart defenses, and the fast pace of the passing game was also worn down defenses with quick scores and the barrage of points. Quarterbacks have looked quantifiably better in recent years and the passing game has never been better. Young quarterbacks entering the league more prepared and ready for the NFL also helps the cause.

Recently, we have seen teams reverting to the run not only to balance out their attacks. They also aren’t becoming run-heavy offenses only on the virtue of its success. This is a movement that is in direct combat to the high-flying passing attacks. An established run game has proven throughout time that it will keep the opponent off the field and the defense well-rested. The great quarterbacks in today’s game are not able to make plays from the bench and the best way to keep them off the field is with a successful running game. We saw Bill Belichick guide the Patriots in the 2018 NFC Championship with a dominating first half, the credit can be towards the successful run game.

Last season, we saw both the Titans and 49ers bring their styles of running to the Championship games. Jimmy Garoppolo threw 8 total passes in the NFC Championship Game, a game that saw the 49ers dominate from start to finish. It’s a cliche that for every reaction comes to an equal and opposite reaction. When Quenton Nelson says “run the damn ball” it shows that we can possibly bring offenses full circle. I don’t think that offenses will go back to not throwing the ball but the NFL has a unique way of bringing tradition into innovation.