Welcome back to The Sports Wave! In our recent edition of “A Century of Change” we discussed the league’s transformation into a pass-heavy philosophy as well as shifts in positional value. Today, we’ll be evaluating if the commonly implemented pass-heavy approach is superior to a more balanced offensive attack, while also evaluating advancements in player safety. First, an analysis of the effectiveness of an increasingly pass-heavy play philosophy league-wide.
The pros of a balanced offensive attack in a pass-heavy league
As previously outlined in part one of our “Century of Change” article, 300 carry rushers, balanced play-calling, and running back paychecks are getting more scarce than ever. However, it is worth considering whether such an unbalanced offensive approach is advisable in today’s modern-day NFL. Despite an ever-increasing tendency to focus on a potent passing attack, running the ball is more key than ever in football.
This year, teams who had a 100-yard rusher in a game boasted a record of 81-21-1, showing teams who had a 100-yard rusher had a lucrative 78% win percentage. Additionally, in all games where a quarterback threw for 40+ pass attempts, their respective teams held a pitiful record of 34-87-4 (27% win percentage). Ultimately, these statistics suggest a balanced offensive approach with a healthy dosage of the run game is more critical than ever to the success of a franchise. This ultimately begs the question: then why are running backs so criminally undervalued? Well, it’s primarily not due to the fact the running game is seen as replaceable or unimportant, but on a player-to-player basis, the running back position is seen as easily replicable, no matter who is getting the touches.
Running Back Devaluation in Todays NFL
Last season, five of the top ten rushers weren’t even selected in the first round of their respective drafts. Furthermore, a handful of the league’s most prolific rushers of the last few seasons (David Johnson, Kareem Hunt, and James Conner) have been selected outside of the first two rounds of their drafts. However, this may be misleading, as many of those running backs had a lot of talent coming into the league, but simply came from small schools. All running backs selected in the top ten picks of the last five drafts (dating back to the 2015 NFL Draft) were from major schools (Todd Gurley from Georgia, Ezekiel Elliott from Ohio State, Leonard Fournette from LSU, Christian McCaffery from Stanford, and Saquon Barkley from Penn State). In conclusion, the fact of the matter seems to be that there is an overstatement on the perceived importance of “level of competition” for college running backs, allowing extreme talent to slide to later rounds and thus, creating a perception of replaceability at the position. For example, Kareem Hunt ran for 1,475 yards and ten touchdowns his senior seasons with an additional 400 yards and 40 catches in the passing game. However, Hunt went to Toledo, a much lesser-known football program.
To dumb it down, the running back position is more important than ever and top-shelf value is still of significant importance in a league where running (not passing) the ball determines success. Nonetheless, even though an explosive running game is of the utmost importance, with the current draft evaluation tactics of running back prospects, talent will seep in from small schools in the later rounds of the draft. In short, enjoy watching David Montgomery outperform Josh Jacobs this season because even though Montgomery is a much better runner, he went to Iowa, not Alabama. Level of competition is an overrated aspect of running back prospect evaluation while running the ball is an underrated aspect of winning football.
The Evolution of Player Safety
Perhaps one of the biggest talking points of the NFL now is player safety. Time and time again, parents aren’t letting their kids play football due to concerns over concussions and CTE. Meanwhile, the NFL faces increased scrutiny over their player safety protocol and are under more pressure than ever to ensure a safe play environment. However, there have been improvements in NFL safety measures over the last couple of decades, despite criticism on the value placed on player safety among NFL officials.
In 2018, the NFL had just 214 recorded cases of concussions, the second-lowest since the NFL has started collecting concussion data in 2012. However, this came after the highest ever recorded numbers in 2017, with 281 total incidences. Ultimately, this 24% decrease in 2018 can be attributed to the NFL’s new rules prohibiting a player from initiating contact with the helmet. Also, from 2002-2007, roughly a third of all concussions suffered were on kickoff or punt plays. Now, the NFL has passed many safety rules for kickoff and punt plays specifically, including that the kicking team must now remain stationary until the ball is kicked, along with the elimination of double team blocks. Additionally, the NFL has had innovations in helmet technology, encouraging players to wear safer and more innovative helmets. In 2017, just 41% of players wore these “advanced helmets”, yet in 2018, that number spiked to 74% of players. Equipment and preemptive measures are one thing, but how concussions are dealt with has always been the center of league aimed scrutiny.
A previous study, however, shows that from the 1996-2001 NFL seasons, the average days lost to a concussion were 1.92 days. However, from 2002-2007, the average days missed due to a concussion among players nearly tripled to 4.73 days. Furthermore, from 2002-2007, the incidences of the immediate game returns nearly cut in half from its 1996-2001 total of 127 incidences to just 64 such cases. Meanwhile, incidences of team doctors opting to remove the player from the game, along with the option to rest players before returning, both increased in the period discussed.
In short, despite growing concerns over player safety and increased scrutiny against the NFL for their leaps towards a safer game, the league IS making progress. Despite public opinion, the NFL is showing an increased value on player safety, they simply still have a long way to go before football becomes risk-free, assuming that even is ever possible.
To wrap up the “Century of Change” series, we’ve evaluated the practicality of an extremely pass-heavy approach, as shown as increasingly common in today’s NFL during our last piece, looked at why the NFL running back is perceived as so replaceable (and why they are but needn’t be), and the evolution of player safety. With the NFL season now underway, drop your thoughts in the comments down below on what in-season content you’d like to see! Thank you for reading The Sports Wave today!