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.