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Low-volume passing offenses in a modern NFL

The modern NFL is pass-happy, but run-heavy offenses are still having a lot of success, too

There's a common refrain in most league-wide analysis these days that the NFL is a "passing league." As each year passes, rule changes that benefit receivers, plus an influx of skill players schooled in wide-open passing offenses in college, continue to leave the ol' ground-and-pound in the dust. The concept of a run-first offense is about as in vogue as cassette tapes and the Macarena.

But is it as really as obsolete as it seems?

Under Greg Roman, the Bills were the NFL's top rushing team last season in yards, touchdowns, and yards per carry. Of course, that didn't help the Bills' playoff drought come to an end, so the front office at One Bills Drive needs to ask itself: can a team that focuses on the run have success in the pass-happy NFL?

The answer appears to be yes, in the right situation.

The Bills, as a team, threw 465 passes last season, which was the second-lowest total in the league. Coincidentally, the only team behind them, Minnesota, finished 11-5 and made the playoffs.

In the last five seasons, 13 teams (out of 30 total) have made the playoffs while throwing fewer than 30 passes per game.

Year Team Record Att/Gm
2015 Chiefs 11-5 29.56
2015 Vikings 11-5 28.38
2014 Seahawks 12-4 28.38
2014 Cowboys 12-4 29.75
2013 Panthers 12-4 29.56
2013 Seahawks 13-3 26.25
2013 49ers 12-4 26.06
2012 Redskins 10-6 27.63
2012 49ers 12-4 27.25
2012 Seahawks 11-5 25.31
2011 Broncos 8-8 26.81
2011 49ers 13-3 28.19
2011 Texans 10-6 29.19

There are a few outliers on this list that are hard to compare to the Bills' current state:

  • The 2011 Texans lost starter Matt Schaub after 10 games, and had to rely on rookie T.J. Yates for the end of the season, which meant a hefty dose of Arian Foster and Ben Tate.
  • The 2011 Broncos features Tim Tebow at quarterback. Needless to say, everything that happened from that point on was an anomaly, and it's hard to apply any of it as a precedent for any other situation.
  • The 2014 Cowboys, despite finishing second-to-last in attempts per game, finished 16th in passing yards and fourth in passing touchdowns, while also fielding a Top 5 run game. As far as I can tell, that stemmed from DeMarco Murray having one of the greatest seasons a running back has ever had, and Tony Romo making the most of the passes he did throw.

The rest of the teams, however, share a few common threads that can also be applied to the Bills' roster strengths and play-calling tendencies.

It takes a certain kind of quarterback

You probably noticed some repeat teams on the list above, and even the teams that only appear once have a common bond among them, for the most part.

Eight of the 13 teams listed above were quarterbacked by some combination of Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Alex Smith, and Colin Kaepernick. Those four men occupy the top four spots on the list of rushing attempts by a quarterback since 2011. Two of the others were led by Robert Griffin III and Tebow, who occupy the fourth and fifth spots on the single-season quarterback rushing attempts list (behind three of Newton's seasons).

It stands to reason that a team that doesn't pass very much is going to rely heavily on the run, and given the dearth of workhorse running backs, they need every available hand to pitch in. The stable of running backs will carry most of the load, but a successful run-first team needs the man under center to take off when the need arises. Fortunately for the Bills, Tyrod Taylor is more than up to the task of filling that role. His 104 carries last season are the most among quarterbacks who I didn't name in the last paragraph.

If you're going to run, go all the way

Of the 60 playoff teams in the last five seasons, 14 ran more often than they passed. 12 of them are listed above (last year's Chiefs team threw more often than they ran in a generally low-volume offense). The two that aren't:

  • Last year's Seahawks threw 30.56 passes per game and ran 31.25 times per game. Aside from being led by the aforementioned Wilson, they finished third in the NFL in rushing (behind the Bills and Panthers) despite losing Marshawn Lynch early in the season to injury. Thomas Rawls led the team with 817 yards, with Wilson pitching in 553 himself.
  • The 2012 Vikings threw 30.18 passes per game and ran 30.38 times per game (a total of three more carries than passes over the course of the season). They were almost entirely carried to the playoffs by Adrian Peterson, who missed out on the single-season rushing record by eight yards on his way to the MVP award.

The moral here? Again, it's important to either have a quarterback who can take off, or a running back playing at a Hall of Fame level. The Bills threw 29.06 passes and ran 31.81 times per game last season, and that ratio isn't likely to invert itself in Roman's second year in charge. Therefore, a repeat performance as the NFL's top rushing team is almost a necessity if the offense is going to carry the team into the playoffs.

Ball security is key

Of the 14 playoff teams on the list, 12 of them finished among the top seven teams each season when it came to avoiding turnovers. 11 stayed under 20 turnovers, a mark that the Bills (19) managed to keep themselves under last season.

The Bills, however, grouped their turnovers together in often crippling fashion. They coughed up the ball more than twice on two occasions: an eight-point loss to New England in Week 2, and a three-point loss to Jacksonville in Week 7. In all, the Bills went 1-5 in multiple-turnover games (the win was the meaningless squeaker over Dallas in week 16).

On the inverse, the Bills went 5-1 in games that they didn't give up any turnovers. The only loss was the 35-25 defeat in Washington, a game that is an outlier in more than one way...

If you have to throw, you have to win

In that Washington game, Taylor went 16-of-27 for 235 yards and two touchdowns. It was the only time last season where Taylor threw fewer than 30 passes and the Bills lost. How did he do when he threw 30 or more passes, and how does he compare to the other top running quarterbacks? The answer to both questions isn't very good.

Name Record (0-29 Att.) Record (30+ Att.)
Russell Wilson 32-8 14-10
Alex Smith 27-5* 22-16
Cam Newton 24-9 21-23
Colin Kaepernick 22-10* 5-11
Tyrod Taylor 8-1 0-5

*This doesn't include the tie against St. Louis in 2012 that Smith was knocked out of and relieved by Kaepernick, which ended up being Smith's final game in San Francisco.

The 8-1 record in low-volume games is impressive, but it's only outlandish if he could sustain it over the course of three or four seasons. Even if the Bills go 19-4 over the next 23 games that Taylor attempts under 30 passes, that only ties him with Smith. Still, it's a good place to be, especially when you aren't throwing the ball too often.

When Taylor has had to throw, however, the Bills have not fared well. Even the other guys can at least take their team to a few wins, but Taylor is thus far winless in such situations. Those games also accounted for five of his six interceptions on the season.

Even in an offense that runs the ball more often than it passes, there are going to be games where Taylor is going to need to win by throwing the ball in high doses. Until he (and the team) can make that happen, the playoff drought will be in serious jeopardy of staying alive.