A glance at the NFL over the final two months of the season gave an interesting glimpse where the league was headed.
The Ravens, the NFL’s best offense, were a predominantly rushing team. They rushed for a league record 3,296 yards in the regular season and were the league’s top regular season team.
The Titans rode running back Derrick Henry all season, which led to him finishing as the league’s leading rusher. Over the final nine games he rushed for an average of 24.6 carries per game, including 30 or more carries in three of the team’s final four games.
And most recently, the 49ers won the NFC in dominating fashion over the Packers with just eight passing attempts and 42 rushing attempts.
With a handful of the league’s best rushing teams advancing in the playoffs, there appeared to be a change in the way teams attacked defenses in the NFL.
But those stats have been a bit misleading for the crowd that wants to establish the run for the sake of establishing a ground attack. What the Ravens and Titans did was make rushing the football more efficient than any other team in the league.
Baltimore rushed for 5.5 yards per carry in the regular season, half-a-yard more than any other team in the league. They were only one of three teams to surpass the five yard-mark — one other team was the Titans.
When compared to passing stats across the league, however, none of the qualified quarterbacks had worse than a six-yard average when passing the ball. Speaking strictly from the numbers, passing is still more advantageous than rushing the ball, no matter what teams that advanced far in the playoffs accomplished.
What the Ravens and Titans do have, however, are two athletes that are unique in the NFL. Lamar Jackson was the league’s best rushing quarterback of all time and Henry led the league in total rushing yards.
So the Ravens and Titans didn’t reinvent the wheel and show the NFL the ground game was more effective, but instead showed the league to lean into the special talents that both teams had.
While the Titans were clearly better when Henry had his best days on the ground, there’s not a direct relationship to more Henry touches equaling a better day for the Titans.
When the Ravens fell behind 14-0 to the Titans, Henry had just seven rushes for 28 yards on the ground. Down the stretch, he rushed 23 more times for 167 yards — a 7.26 yard average. Essentially, the Titans used Henry most effectively when they had already scored the winning points.
The same can be said for the 49ers in the NFC Championship, who barely used Jimmy Garoppolo's arm. But when Raheem Mostert averages more than seven yards per carry, it’s difficult to get away from the run.
So while it might seem that simply running the ball got teams to the playoffs, and championship games, it was the fact that they were able to run the ball more efficiently than other teams across the league. Rushing attempts weren’t the reason those teams won, but how they used those rushing attempts instead.
And when Jackson and Henry are leading the charge, it’s hard not to give them the ball.
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