The Super Bowl Passed

Football has changed. It wasn’t until this past Super Bowl I fully realized it. When the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 it marked an absolute turning point in the game of professional football. 

 Last Sunday the Packers only ran the ball 13 times the entire game. Every other one of the Packers 42 offensive plays was a pass attempt. For years teams had been choosing to pass the ball with more frequency over running it, but what makes this game’s statistics especially significant is that the Packers held the lead the entire game.

For those of you unfamiliar with the nuances of the NFL if a player runs the ball from the line of scrimmage, the clock continues to roll in-between plays, but if the offense decides to throw the ball and it is not caught then the clock stops until the next play.  As in all games with a time limit the winning team wants time to move quickly so they can escape with a victory while the team lagging behind wants time to stop. Because of these conflicting desires it would not be preposterous for a team that was losing to throw 75% of the time, but for a team to be ahead to do this seems moronic. And yet the Packers still found victory using this strategy.

This requires utmost confidence it your quarterback which I suppose the Packers quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, had earned. But it was strange to see the Packers going against the gospel according to Woody Hayes. The winning team is supposed to run out the clock, not pass out the clock. But time after time as the Steelers were mounting their comeback the Packers would continue to throw and throw some more. On their final meaningful drive of the game with the Packers margin of victory dwindled to a mere three points with 7 minutes 34 seconds remaining it seemed an obvious ploy to run the ball, so the Steelers would have less time to make a comeback. But of the nine plays on the drive the Packers only ran twice. Somewhere in the universe Vince Lombardi was having an ulcer.

We could see this as an anomaly. The Packers lost their starting running back in the first game of the regular season and had a talented corps of receivers, while their opponent, the Steelers, had the league’s top ranked defense against the run, but were mediocre against the pass. But last year’s Super Bowl contestants The Indianapolis Colts and The New Orleans Saints also both passed in that championship more than twice as often as they ran.

I am not brilliant enough to figure out why this trend has evolved. Have defenses become too sophisticated for runners, or have passing offenses become too complex for defenses? Passing plays are more fun to watch, but are they necessarily more efficient? This past year I went crazy as the team I follow the Miami Dolphins had two talented running backs in Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown and a mediocre quarterback in Chad Henne and yet they constantly chose the air over the ground. If I were a Packers fan I would have been cursing a green streak over the incomplete passes on their final drive that kept stopping the clock, but the Packers kept converting first downs and are now dancing the Super Bowl Shuffle while I’m left scratching my head at  how the times they are a changing.

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5 thoughts on “The Super Bowl Passed

  1. Well, Nick and I were always pass happy growing up, as we both liked playing Quarterback and Wide Receiver. This change is very exciting to us. However, longevity-wise, I wouldn’t see it lasting.

    Too many things can go wrong when you pass, where everything, for the most part, stays well in hand when you run the ball. I love the pass, but it’s not a lasting trait. Football will get back to the basics soon enough, especially if a lockout occurs and they have to win their fan base back. Passing is like hitting homeruns in baseball. It’s what brings people to the show. But because baseball let everyone get juiced up, it’s now having to return to the basics: speed, bunting, advancing runners. Used to be get a single, a walk and a blast, now you actually have to manufacture runs and pitch your way out of jams. Which is no surprise to me that truly the best series in the post-season this past baseball season was the Giants vs. the Braves. Every game either team had a chance to win and every mistake meant the world, whereas all the other teams tried to hit their way into the World Series. Heck, if the Braves could have beaten the Giants, they might be World Champs right now too. Both teams were built the same way, so who knows.

    But definitely running has taken a backseat for now. I had Chris Johnson in my fantasy league, and even with him being the premiere back of the season, and turned in a good season, great by other’s standards, the inconsistency was atrocious! When I first started in fantasy, if you had a good back you could almost always count on them putting up between 20-30 points on average. This year with Johnson, the number 1 pick in all leagues, some weeks I’d have 20-30, next week ZERO! Now he had to deal with a terrible quarterback situation in Tennessee, but still, this is a premiere back, he should have had more consistency than to put up multiple games where he hardly did anything. But this was true with LOTS of backs, Michael Turner, Ladanian Tomlinson and Shon Greene, Rashard Mendenhall, Matt Forte, just some of the backs from playoff teams all had so-so years, and some of the teams didn’t have a good quality running game or a good quailty back, like Green Bay, Indianapolis, New England, and New Orleans. Of course all of those teams are pass happy, no surprise. Having their quarterbacks guaranteed you a great fantasy year for sure.

    I just remember growing up that the teams that always seemed to be in contention had a balanced attack. That’s what I longed for the Falcons to implement instead of their horrifyingly bad Run and Shoot offense. When they finally did have a balanced attack, they went to the Super Bowl. Carolina was the same way. Dallas, San Francisco, Buffalo, Denver, all of these teams that had shots at the Super Bowl in the 90’s had great passing games, but also great running games as well. But it just seems lately you either have one, but not the other. Such as the Falcons when they had Vick, always led the league in rushing, but managed only two winning seasons with Vick at the helm, and no Super Bowl appearances. Carolina a couple of years ago led the league in rushing as well, grabbed a bye seed, but lost the game due to an inept Jake Delhomme (5 INTs and 1 Fumble-6 TURNOVERS FROM ONE GUY!!!) and seemingly had an inability to adapt to the staunch, wall-like run defense of….Arizona???? Delhomme messed up a couple of times early and it took them out of their game and into one more suited for Arizona, who had a far better passing game.

    It’s a trend, yes, but one that will die as soon as a team wins the Super Bowl utilizing a kick ass rusher with very little passing.

  2. Its the manipulative NFL machine. Like Hollywood panders to and targets the youth audience. So does the NFL. Big pass plays mean instant gratification. And, THRILLS! Hence, QB’s and WR’s are elevated in promoting the game. The younger generation can’t be bothered if they don’t have the big bomb blasts – MIchael Bay should start calling offenses ( which he does anyways).

    • The NFL has definitely conspired over the years to make passing easier by not allowing defenders to touch receivers. But they never touched the rule that an incomplete pass will stop the clock. That rule gives an incentive for the team behind to throw the ball, but makes it in my mind wiser for the winning team to run the ball and the clock out.
      But somehow in coachs’ minds these days that incentive isn’t enough to give up their efficient passing attacks.

  3. I remember saying out loud at the bar where I was watching the game, “they’re playing like they are behind.” Referring to the same phenomenon that you’re referring to, GB passing in the second half when they had the lead. I think part of it was the Steelers not only had a very difficult defense to run against, but the Steelers offense was also dangerous, notoriously in clutch situations. I think they understood it was going to be a shoot-out down to the end and that they needed score more points in order to win. Who knows what the coaches were thinking in the moment, but that’s how I reasoned it.

    But as far as the run/pass ration. They are always tweaking the rules every year in the NFL, and for many years there has been a cumulative effect of favoring the passing game. The corners can hardly look at the receivers these days, and the quarterbacks have much more protection, etc. That’s going to favor the passing game. I also think that defenses have committed to stopping the run more in recent years, and possibly as you have suggested they’ve gotten better somehow at stopping it.

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