The Run Down


With Marvin’s commitment to return to the 2009 formula of being a run-first team, I’ve been thinking about the running game. Is strengthening the running game really the formula for success in the AFC North and in the NFL?

The Packers beat the Steelers relying almost entirely on their passing game. They passed for 304 yds and ran for 50 yds. The Steelers and Ravens have high-ranking run defenses every year. So, is Marvin really headed in the right direction?

Time for some stats. I decided to look into how productive the running game has been over the last couple of years to see how big a factor it was.

  • 2010  –  1522 yd / 428 att = 3.6 yd/att (8 TDs)
  • 2009  –  2056 yd / 505 att = 4.1 yd/att (9 TDs)

The numbers clearly show that the Bengals were more committed to running the ball in 2009 (+77 times) and that it was more effective (+534 yds, +0.5 yd/att). But was that a product of the unbalanced line that they used heavily in 2009? Let’s look at the rest of the Marvin Lewis era.

  • 2008  –  1520 yd / 420 att = 3.6 yd/att (6 TDs)
  • 2007  –  1556 yd / 416 att = 3.7 yd/att (10 TDs)
  • 2006  –  1629 yd / 435 att = 3.7 yd/att (14 TDs)
  • 2005  –  1910 yd / 459 att = 4.2 yd/att (15 TDs)
  • 2004  –  1839 yd / 437 att = 4.2 yd/att (14 TDs)
  • 2003  – 1987 yd / 481 att = 4.1 yd/att (12 TDs)

2009 was not quite as run-efficient as 2004 or 2005, but it was the most productive year. So far, so good.

But then I noticed that there is no correlation between running yardage and wins. In 2003, the Bengals were 8-8, even though they gained 77 more yards than in 2005 when they went 11-5. And in 2007 they went 7-9, even though they gained less than 40 more yards than the 4-win 2008 & 2010 seasons.

That got me to wondering about the passing game. Was it the difference? (An idea that was bolstered by this article from 2007 on which statistically proves that passing is much more closely correlated to winning than running is. It’s a bit technical but quite interesting.) So let’s look at the numbers from the passing game.

  • 2010  –  3767 yd / 590 att = 6.4 yd/att (26 TDs)
  • 2009  –  2890 yd / 477 att = 6.1 yd/att (21 TDs)
  • 2008  –  2406 yd / 513 att = 4.7 yd/att (11 TDs)
  • 2007  –  4012 yd / 575 att =7.0  yd/att (26 TDs)
  • 2006  –  3833 yd / 523 att = 7.3 yd/att (28 TDs)
  • 2005  –  3820 yd / 538 att = 7.1 yd/att (32 TDs)
  • 2004  –  3301 yd / 536 att = 6.2 yd/att (23 TDs)
  • 2003  –  3591 yd / 520 att = 6.9 yd/att (26 TDs)

The numbers show how pass-happy Bratkowski got in 2010 (+113 attempts over 2009), as well as how putrid the 2008 season was under Fitzpatrick. [Those calling for a replacement for Carson, take note.] They also show how much more effective the passing game was in 2005-2007 at close to a yard more efficient per attempt than 2010.

I noticed that the passing numbers for 2009 are not as good as 2010. And also, the Bengals gained 5289 total yards in 2010 but only 4946 total yards in 2009. So +343 yards in 2010 led to 6 fewer wins. Advantage running game.

You might have noticed that there is no one particular stat that points directly to wins, which frustrated me. I looked into other things as well, but I won’t drag them all out here. There just are no simple answers. But here are some of the other factors I see influencing the win totals:

Strength of Schedule. The Bengals had the worst SoS in the NFL last year. In playing better teams, it makes sense that more yards gained does not automatically mean more wins. They lost the close games that they won in 2009. Now extend that into 2011. An easier SoS ought to result in more wins, even without any real improvement by the Bengals. So don’t be tricked into thinking a better 2011 means 2012 automatically be a gimme. Under marvin, they have been good enough to beat up on 4th place teams, but they can’t yet hang with the 1st teams year-to-year.

Defense. This goes hand-in-hand with SoS. The defense was 4th in the NFL in 2009, when they were playing a 4th place schedule. Last year, playing a division winner’s schedule, they were 12th. So look for them to vault upward again in 2011 in another 4th place schedule. And it might not look it on the surface, but I find a 12th overall finish with the league toughest schedule encouraging. They did collapse in some games, but they didn’t tumble into the 20’s in 2010 (like the offense did). With a little more experience, the young guys on D that excited us last year will turn into a solid, physical AFC North-style defense that can keep the Bengals in games all on their own, much like the Steelers and Ravens.

Turnovers. One of the keys to 2005 was interceptions. That defense wasn’t great in most stats, but they stole the ball with regularity. The turnover battle is a big indicator of success or failure for the Bengals.

Red Zone Production. Yardage is great, but TDs wins games. The Bengals were somewhat productive between the 20’s last year. But in the red zone, where the running game is key, they struggled. Strengthening the running game should bring more success near the goal line. (Notice how the number of rushing TDs in 2010 was half that of 2005.)

To sum it all up, Marvin is right to want to bring more of a focus on the running game. They need that toughness to finish drives and get in the end zone. They need to get back to averaging one rushing TD per game again.

But the guy throwing the ball matters. A lot. If Carson is truly ready to walk away (and the Bengals had better be ready for that), the next guy has to be better than Ryan Fitzpatrick was in 2008. The softer SoS will help ease the pressure on the new QB, as will the better defense, but he still has to be able to produce. In fact, without Carson, I would not be shocked to see Jay Gruden grab the best QB he knows in the arena league to bring to camp to work against LeFevour. (I consider that more likely than the Bengals drafting a QB with one of their top 3 picks in the draft.)