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Tuesday Morning Quarterback: Strategery

Dec 6, 2005, 9:40 AM EST

Michael Wilbon may be a Bears fan but he does know football and the Redskins pretty well. He hit it right on the money in his column on Monday morning:

They should have been doing this all along. The Washington Redskins should have committed to pounding people with their running game from Week 1. Throwing is nice if you’ve got Peyton Manning tossing it to Marvin Harrison or Carson Palmer pitching it to Chad Johnson. But when your starting linemen are from the likes of Michigan, Auburn, Texas and Wisconsin and when your $50 million running back stands on the sideline pestering the coaches for more carries, it’s clear the personality of the team is screaming, “Let us run !”

The long bomb, which was supposed to be the new thrust of the offense going in to the season, certainly has its appeal. It’s quick it’s easy, you really don’t have to work for your seven points. It fits with the instant-gratification tone of our current society. It became even more appealing after Mark Brunell unloaded a pair of them to Santana Moss in Dallas and the Redskins got a win after having been outplayed for 55 minutes.

After that, however, the long pass became more of a novelty. Much of the passing yardage came on yards after the catch by the likes of Moss. Although the passes weren’t long in distance they were high in number compared to runs. Against Denver Joe Gibbs called 57 passes and 22 runs (note that sacks and Brunell runs are counted as passing plays as that was the play call). In that case, the Redskins did trail by 11 midway through the third quarter so there was some reason to throw more, although Clinton Portis was having a good day against his old team, gaining 100 yards on 20 carries. It was the next week in KC that many started to question the play calling. In a game that never had more than a seven-point spread in the score, there were 47 pass plays called to 28 runs.

It was during the November three-game losing streak, all agonizing, close losses, that the play calling really came into question. Yes they did have to play catch up against Tampa Bay for part of the game but Clinton Portis had 107 yards on 12 carries in the first half but after the Redskins tied the game at 21 early in the third quarter he got only eight more carries.
The term “abandon the run” was thrown around even more after the next game. With Washington up 13-3 at the half, Portis had 17 carries for 70 yards. Portis got five carries for 22 yards in the second half as the lead slipped away and the Redskins lost.

It was against the Chargers that Gibbs decided that if this team was going to turn it around it would be doing so via the ground game. For the first time all year Portis had more rushing attempts than Brunell had passing attempts. It almost worked, but they couldn’t get some clock-killing first downs when they needed them and they couldn’t hold the best running back in the game down for all four quarters.

Against the Rams the game plan was in full throwback mode with a ratio of runs to pass of nearly two to one. Certainly, the game plan was influenced by the fact that the Rams have one of the worst run defenses in the NFL but the Chargers have one of the best so it’s apparent that it wasn’t merely a case of taking what the defense gives them. It was an attempt to establish an offensive identity.

Wilbon asks why it took three-fourths of a season to establish such an identity:

If the linemen wanted to run all along and there are three quality running backs to carry the ball, why did it take until the 12th game of a 16-game season to get with the program, to commit completely and totally to the run?

“What lessons do we ever learn early?” Jansen asked with a smile. “With the defense we have, we should be able to do this every week. That has to be the personality of the offense. “

The view here is that rushing attempts will be in the thirties and passes in the teens against Arizona and perhaps even against Dallas. While the Cowboys are in the top 10 in total rushing defense, they are 25th in average yards per carry, giving up 4.2 per rushing attempt. Against the Giants a more diverse offense will be a necessity, but that’s a few weeks away. If the run is firmly established by then, the passing game will come.

  1. mbarnes202 - Dec 6, 2005 at 1:04 PM

    Rich,
    Analyzing rushing statistics is so difficult because so much depends upon situational factors that are hard to generalize for an overall picture, but here is my two cents:

    I looked at rushing plays during the last five games, and found the following:

    We’re certainly not a dominant rushing team, even when we’re running well.

    While our AVERAGE ypc is pretty good, this is inflated a bit by long runs. Of course those kinds of run are quite meaningful, but they distort a picture of being able to consistently gain 1st downs on the ground, or as important, consistently being successful, so as to not put us in bad down and distances. I looked at the MEDIAN and MODAL results for each rush by down, and whether we were in our territory or our opponents, and found the following:

    Situation MEDIAN MODE
    1st down 3 1
    2nd down 3 2
    3rd down 1 1
    WAS Terr 3 2
    OPP Terr 2.5 1

    What’s worrisome here is the MODAL values– these are the most frequently occuring results– i.e., more than any other time, we gained 1 yard on 1st down, 2 yds on second down, and 1 yard on 3rd down. The median values show that 50% of all rushing plays gained more than this, and 50% gained less.
    To illustrate, we had 80 rushing plays on 1st & 10, on 33 of those (41%) we gained 2 or fewer yards, on 43 (54%) we gained 3 or fewer yards, and on 11 of these, we gained 0 or fewer yards (14%!!). Those put us in bad spots regarding down & distance.
    Here’s a breakdown of the # yards gained over all rushing plays in these five games. These stats are from NFL.COM, so who knows if they are accurate of if I’ve made a mistake, but anyway here they are:

    Result # %
    >9 yards 16 10.5%
    9 yards 5 3.3%
    8 yards 7 4.6%
    7 yards 8 5.3%
    6 yards 9 5.9%
    5 yards 7 4.6%
    4 yards 14 9.2%
    3 yards 17 11.2%
    2 yards 21 13.8%
    1 yard 25 16.4%
    0 yards 10 6.6%
    <0 yards 13 8.6%

    We get one or fewer yard more often than we get more than 5 yards.

    My guess is that against a team like Arizona, this will work, against Dallas and N.Y. Giants, it will not. We’ll see.

  2. Kounter Trey - Dec 6, 2005 at 2:23 PM

    MBarnes, thanks for an excellent and thought-provoking post. You put into numbers what I suspect many of us have intuitively percieved this season.

    The standard deviation on Portis’ carries must be off the charts. Whereas a guy like Riggins seemed to get 3 or 4 yards on every single carry, the Skins’ current personnel simply can’t grind it out reliably because they’ve got an all-or-nothing running back. I love Portis, but he’s not the kind of guy who can run the clock out for you in the 4th quarter. The Skins have effectively been forced to pass in many more situations than they would like, I think.

    This is why I’ve frankly been surprised not to have seen any of Nemo this year–I thought he was looking like the kind of back who could give you, if not huge yards, consistent yards. In some circumstances, a guy who rushes for 3.4 yards every single play is more valuable than a guy who gives you one 20-yarder followed by a bunch of 2-yarders.

  3. Anonymous - Dec 6, 2005 at 3:30 PM

    i strongly agree with both posts (good analysis mbarnes)
    if the skins consistently try to establish their “identity” as a power run team against the giants (and probably dallas) the results will not be pretty.

    hopefully next week this works. but beyond that gibbs will have to come up with some of the old time innovative play calling that won those super bowls and play-off games. (like being the first to dismantle the bears defense of the 80’s in that memorable play-off game at soldier field)

  4. skins2001 - Dec 7, 2005 at 2:21 AM

    I do agree, however I think that while we can’t abandon the run, we need to work more with down hill blocking. On every single running play we pull someone. If we had some more traditional downhill blocking with a lead back maybe we could get a bunch more of those 4 yarders instead to being held to 1-2 most of the time. We have a very solid line and they’re pretty big. When they pull, Portis has to wait for them to see if there is any space to run and most frequently, there isn’t any space or the defense meets the lineman at the line or in the back field and portis is stuck from there. If we used some more power blocking then we could drive the d-line back and open up holes much quicker for Clinton. We clearly can have a dominant running game, I just don’t think we usually run the ball the way thats best for out team. Also, went to the game in ST Louis, and FedEx is SO MUCH better, in every possible way except for heat. It was great seeing the Skins whoop up on the road.

  5. Anonymous - Dec 8, 2005 at 5:42 PM

    I really like Portis but wish he could be more patient … seems like a lot of times he’s running up the linemen’s backs instead of waiting for holes to develop.

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