The #1 Rushing Offense Is A Nearly Meaningless Accomplishment
The title was designed to catch your eye, stay calm.
But you know I’m not lying. For two straight years now, having the #1 rushing offense in football, with this years being just as good as last year, has lead the Baltimore Ravens to the divisional round of the NFL playoffs where they lost to a team that found ways to suffocate the rushing attack. While the Ravens have a functional passing offense, they do not have a strong enough passing attack to carry them on days when rushing fails. This must be remedied. Not controversially, it must be remedied by upgrading the level of talent. Controversially, it needs to be remedied with practice.
See here’s the thing, and here’s my basic premise. Actually, before I reveal my premise, that’s go back to the Gilded Age of 2019 when the team and its fanbase were riding high on objectively the best regular season of Ravens football ever constructed and bearing witness to the league’s best offense that year. By the end of the 2019 regular season, Baltimore had compiled 3,225 passing yards and 3,296 rushing yards. It was one of, if not the greatest single-season rushing offense put together by regular season team. The team ranked first in rushing. It ranked 27th in passing. What about this year? The Ravens were #1 once again in rushing with 3,071 yards. The Ravens were dead last in passing, #32, with 2,739 yards. That’s a difference of about 700 yards of total offense missing, more than two-thirds of it in the passing game. In 2019, the Ravens were the #2 overall offense (considering #1 was Dallas, it was actually the Ravens), and won 14 games, many of them total blowouts. In 2020, the team fell to 11 wins in a season where many expected the team to finish with at least twelve wins, and a number of the losses came at the hands of self-inflicted wounds.
Rushing is not holding this offense together. Passing is. Quarterback Lamar Jackson has been a top-10 rusher for two straight years, and he has some of the most beautiful footwork and hip movement ever put on tape. His passing offense is not as pretty as his running. And yes, I do need to do some deeper digging to find more concrete interactions between the pass and run games, but the fact is that there is an undeniable statistical reality, and if you don’t want to call it reality, you can call it a statistical narrative: in spite of being the very best rushing offense in football, and being absolute dogshit in the passing game compared to the field, the Baltimore Ravens still pass the ball significantly more efficiently and more productively than they run.
The numbers above already make this somewhat clear. The rushing offense is #1 in football, but the passing offense, ranked near the very bottom, is still competitive against that rushing offense in terms of yards compiled. In 2020 with the greater disparity between rushing and passing in terms of how they’re ranked, the passing offense is still only 300 yards shy of the mark of the rushing offense. The simple logic here would say that minimal improvements in the pass game, even at the cost of becoming only the #2 or #3 rushing offense, would improve the overall output of the team in terms of pure yardage. (We’re gonna be talking most about yards today, running on the principle that most of scoring touchdowns is getting yards.)
But perhaps you say “Durante, that doesn’t necessarily add up.” And you’re right, it doesn’t. So let’s dig a little deeper.
As somebody who doesn’t quite have the understanding yet of the deeper analytics (which we’ll bring up in a bit,) my preferred way of measuring offense is on a per-snap basis, this being represented in Yards Per Attempt. By measuring the yardage produced on a per-play basis by rushing or passing, we can see what the team did more effectively. Even better, in 2019 since Lamar sat so often, we can eliminate RGIII’s numbers to get a better determination on how the team is using their starter rather than the total passing offense.
In 2019 Lamar Jackson threw 265 completions out of 401 attempts for a percentage of 66.1, a total of 3,127 yards, which is 7.8 yards per attempt, which is very solid in a passing offense. (The league’s very best pure throwers achieved near 10 yards per attempt this season.) In the interest of fairness, we’re going to compare Lamar’s passing numbers against the cumulative running offense since Lamar’s individual rushing stats are in part reliant on being surrounded by other runners. In 2019 the Ravens attempted 596 runs with the ball, compiling 3,296 yards, which averages out to a fairly meager 5.5 yards per carry. (Not sure how that compares in terms of efficiency to other offenses that year.) It’s a difference of almost 2.5 yards per attempt. Even if you compare Lamar’s passing to Lamar’s rushing exclusively, Lamar was the most efficient runner on the Ravens and still only got 6.9 yards per rush, it’s still almost a full yards difference.
Those were the good old days, how about 2020? Well I’ll skip the larger numbers for rushing, because we averaged the same amount per carry across the team, 5.5 yards (on 555 attempts), with Lamar rushing a slightly less “nice” 6.3 yards per carry himself. Passing was way down compared to 2019, only 64.4 completion percentage with only 2,757 yards for Jackson passing on 376 passing attempts, except, wait . . . that’s still 7.3 yards per attempt passing. So while production for Lamar on a per touch basis went down across the board, the gap between his passing and rushing actually got a little wider, expanding to a full yard’s difference, and it’s still almost 2 yards an attempt better than the team rushing average.
Am I nuts? Am I taking crazy pills?
The “deeper analytics” I referenced earlier also seem to support the narrative. If you use https://rbsdm.com/stats/stats/ and look up the Ravens 2020 season, it looks as though we successfully added more expected points rushing than passing, but the actual listed numbers say that we added more expected points by passing. In 2019 our dropback EPA was more than four times our rushing EPA. For 2020, our passing offense was significantly worse, but we still had 25% more expected points per dropback than per rush.
It’s not merely an interest in emulating the success of other teams that drives my interest in passing, though that is worth noting. In the past few years, the most successful NFL teams are ones with explosive passing offenses, and if not that, than a defense capable of shutting down such an offense. Prime example is Kansas City’s Chiefs with the absurd talents of Patrick Mahomes, who have been the best team in football on and off for about three years now, it’s all of the contenders. This year’s NFC field was all passing except for the Rams: Wilson and the Hawks, Brees and the Saints, Brady and the Buccaneers, and Rodgers and the Packers. Then on the AFC side, there were the Titans who had the best hybrid offense in the NFL led by a much-improved Ryan Tannehill, the Colts benefiting from a late-career legacy push by Phillip Rivers, and of course the Bills led by Josh Allen. It’s not just a quarterback-centric league, it’s a passing centric league. I know you’ve heard it everywhere. But now you gotta hear it from me. Because it’s true.
The good news is, there’s plenty of ways to improve. As proven by bad snaps all season, the Ravens badly need a new center and overall improvements in line play. Mark Andrews and Hollywood Brown stepped up late in the season to prove their worth, but they still need the help of a true #1 wideout to really break out. Most importantly however, the team simply needs to pass more. Because as it stands, even with a comparatively woeful passing offense, the Ravens are still more successful passing than rushing. Lamar consistently comments to media that he’d prefer to let his runningbacks do the running. Gus Edwards and JK Dobbins are both easily over 4 yards per attempt, so the tools exist, even if Lamar himself is still the best rusher. Even with the exact same passing offense, more plays need to be called as passes. But the sky would be the limit if the Ravens were to, for example, sacrifice 500 yards rushing to get 665 yards passing.
That’s just me though.