by Joe Fortenbaugh
June 18, 02013
Former National Football Post scribe and current Cleveland Browns general manager Mike Lombardi is a walking, talking encyclopedia of football information. That’s what happens to a person after spending 30+ years in the business. During my time spent working with Lombardi, school was always in session.
I’m still in possession of countless notebooks filled from the hours spent listening to Lombardi impart his wisdom. Were you to get your hands on one of these notebooks, you would quickly become cognizant of two things: That Lombardi possesses a vast range of knowledge spanning from management to game theory, and that a two-year-old with a half-eaten No. 2 pencil is capable of producing better script than yours truly.
One nugget of information that repeatedly appears throughout these notebooks is Lombardi’s insistence on the importance of rushing attempts plus completions. Specifically, the Browns general manager used to say that a good football team would produce a rushing attempts + completions total that averaged somewhere in the high 40s.
As you have no doubt already surmised, this statistic is today’s focus.
Let’s begin by taking a look at the best and worst teams in rushing attempts + completions from the 2012 season.
The top-10 teams in rushing attempts + completions combined to post a record of 101-59 (.631) in 2012, with seven of those ten organizations advancing to the postseason. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the bottom-10 teams combined for a 62-97-1 (.387) mark, with zero total playoff berths.
If we expand our sample size to the last five years, you’ll notice:
1. 30 of the 50 teams (60%) that ranked in the top-10 in rushing attempts + completions qualified for the playoffs.
2. Only five of the 50 teams (10%) that ranked in the top-10 in rushing attempts + completions produced a losing record.
3. The 50 teams that ranked in the top-10 over the last five years combined to post a regular season record of 491-308-1 (.614). That average winning percentage falls just short of a 10-6 campaign (.625).
4. The 50 teams that ranked in the top-10 combined to average a total of 51.176 rushing attempts + completions per game.
5. If you take only the teams that averaged 50.0 or more rushing attempts + completions per game over the last five years, you get a combined regular season record of 339-189 (.642), with 22 of 33 (66%) teams qualifying for the postseason. That winning percentage puts a team in between 10 and 11 wins per season.
So how does a team achieve an average of 50.0 rushing attempts + completions per game? Here are two statistics that appear to play an integral role:
Convert on third down: Of the 33 teams that posted an average of 50.0 rushing attempts + completions per game over the last five years, 22 (69.6%) ranked in the top-10 in the NFL in third down conversions. Move the sticks at a high rate and you’ll have more opportunities to both complete passes and run the ball.
Quarterback rating: If you take a look at the top-10 teams in rushing attempts + completions in the above chart, you’ll notice that nine of those organizations have a quarterback who ranked in the top-10 in passer rating in 2012 (only Detroit’s Matthew Stafford failed to crack the mark). The QB rating criteria appears obvious: Elite quarterbacks produce elite numbers, which leads to a high rushing attempts + completions average. This is true. But take note that you don’t necessarily need an elite quarterback to produce a solid QB rating. You just need a guy who plays at a very efficient level. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing attempts + completions average in 2008 and they did so with 38-year-old signal-caller Jeff Garcia under center, who finished the regular season ranked ninth in the league in QB rating (90.2).
A similar situation took place in 2010, when former Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel ranked eighth in the NFL in QB rating (93.0). That season, Kansas City ranked third in the league in rushing attempts + completions average (51.9).
The Cleveland Browns ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing attempts + completions average in 2012 (45.3), so it should be fun to see if Lombardi’s hiring leads to a new philosophy that yields a better offensive return.
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