To pass or run?

by Joshua K. Connelly, Head NFL Writer, The Sports Quotient

It is no secret that the NFL has evolved into a pass-first league over the past 30 years. When Dan Marino became the first quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards in a season and added 48 touchdown passes for good measure (obliterating George Blanda’s then-record 36), the true age of the passing offense was ushered in. Despite the constant increase in passing attempts, Marino’s single-season records stood for years. Peyton Manning finally broke the single-season touchdown record in 2004, 20 years after Marino set it. The single-season passing yards record lasted even longer — 27 years! — before falling to Drew Brees in 2011.

Despite the increased role of the quarterback over the past three decades, a common belief still exists among NFL fans and experts alike that strong defense and rush offense are more important when it comes to winning a championship. This idea stems from the early days of the NFL, when rushing the ball was far more common than passing. Even in the first five Super Bowls combined, rushing attempts outnumbered pass attempts 678 to 525. It was not until the 1980s that passing truly took off.

Now, getting to the Super Bowl is one thing, but once a team arrives in the host city and begins game preparation, is it more beneficial to run the ball or pass it? A definitive answer may not exist, but looking back at previous Super Bowls may provide insight that could at least get the ball rolling.

The popular belief that running the ball wins championships suggests that the NFL’s pass-first attitude is left at the door when it is time for the Super Bowl, but looking at the pass-rush splits in each Super Bowl suggests the opposite.

The trend of passing overtaking rushing — in the Super Bowl, at least — has been evident increasing since Super Bowl XVIII, back in 1983, with a brief exception in Super Bowl XXV (1990), where run and pass play calls were split directly in half. Beginning in 1991 and continuing to this day, not a single Super Bowl has seen more rush attempts than pass attempts. The fact that 23 consecutive Super Bowls have featured more pass plays than run plays is a testament to the evolution of the game. (Fun Fact: The last time the number of runs in a Super Bowl was more than the number of passes was Super Bowl XVII, after the 1982 season.)

The differential between pass plays and run plays throughout Super Bowl history has been extreme at points. More than 60% of offensive plays in Super Bowls VI through IX comprised rushes, while passing made up 70% of the offense in Super Bowls XLIV (2009) and XLV (2010). There have been limited occasions over the past 20 years where passes and rush attempts have been nearly equal. Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII saw 52/48 and 53/47 splits, respectively. Super Bowl XLI in 2006 was another instance where passing made up on 53% of the offensive play calling. The lowest margin between passes and rushes since 1990 came in Super Bowl XLVII, in 2012, when the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers combined to pass only 51% of the time.

All of this is intriguing, but it doesn’t answer the question: Can you still win the Super Bowl if you pass more than you run? So far, these stats have shown the combined offensive play calling of the two Super Bowl participants. What happens when you break the data apart and compare the winning teams to the losing teams?

Because more recent Super Bowl data is more helpful than that of 30 or 40 years ago, only the past 15 Super Bowls (1999 season and onward) will be taken into account when looking at pass-rush splits between Super-Bowl-winning teams and Super-Bowl-losing teams. As the graph above shows, only five Super Bowl Champions ran the ball more often than they passed: the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2006 Indianapolis Colts and 2013 Seattle Seahawks. Of those five teams, none ran the ball more than 59% of the time in their respective games, and only one ran on more than 55% of its offensive snaps. The fact that two-thirds of the past 15 Super Bowl Champions passed more than they ran seems to dispel the idea that teams must have a strong run game in order to win an NFL title.

What about the losing teams? Again, looking at the past 15 Super Bowls, of the losing teams, none ran the ball more than they passed. The 1999 Tennessee Titans came the closest, rushing on 49% of their plays from scrimmage. The 2002 Oakland Raiders threw more often than any other Super Bowl loser of the past 15 years (on 82% of snaps).

It is true that, in some of these cases, this heavy favoring of the passing game came as a result of the losing team being down for a good part of the game, which would result in a higher percentage of pass attempts. However, eight of the past 15 Super Bowls were decided by one possession. A ninth was decided by two possessions, but only because of a late pick-six by the trailing team. The fact that the majority of these games have been so close sheds doubt on the idea that passing numbers were boosted by trailing teams. There are certainly instances of this happening — the 2000 New York Giants, 2002 Oakland Raiders and 2013 Denver Broncos — but the majority of losing teams were very much in their games until the end.

In addition, some of the losing teams — especially the 2009 Indianapolis Colts and 2011 New England Patriots — featured strong passing offenses with little to offer in the running game. Could this lack of a rushing presence have contributed to the teams’ Super Bowl losses? Definitely. However, because the NFL has become a pass-first league, using a run-first approach may not have done much for the losing teams anyway. They may simply have been outmatched regardless.

The problem that arises when comparing Super Bowl winners and losers in this way is the fact that this ongoing pass-first trend means almost all Super Bowl teams – at least in the past 15 years – pass more than they run. Of the past 30 Super Bowl participants, only five ran more often than they passed, a measly 17%. This realization is one of the reasons why these statistics are inconclusive, regardless of how interesting they may be.

In the end, it may not be possible to determine a Super Bowl winner ahead of time, just by looking at stats from previous games – especially when all Super Bowl teams pass as often as they do – but doing so can still provide insight into the NFL’s most-important game. When watching this Sunday’s game, keep an eye out for which team runs the ball more; which team passes from the get-go; and which team has to play catch-up. And remember that run-first offense does not automatically lead to victory, even in the Super Bowl.

Article and graphics both by Joshua K. Connelly,
Super Bowl pass-rush splits provided by Pro Football Reference

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