“The biggest thing was: When he came in and said you gotta run the ball, you gotta stop the run and let’s play special teams,” Gettleman said after Judge’s introductory news conference. “There’s a toughness that you develop when you build your team to do those kind of things.”
If that philosophy got Judge the job, the franchise is already destined to fail.
The league has been trending away from the rushing game for some time. Teams are spending less on the position and using rushers at a historically low rate. In 2013, a year before Judge joined the Patriots (and the first year data is available), the average cap hit for a running back was $6.2 million, accounting for almost five percent of all available cap dollars. In 2019, the cap hit for a running back dropped to $5.7 million, just three percent of available cap dollars. Rushing attempts have also dropped from 27.1 to 26.1 attempts per game in that span. Quarterbacks, meanwhile, are among the highest paid players in the league with passing rates at historic highs.
This shouldn’t be a surprise: Rushing plays are less valuable than passing plays. NFL teams produced 4.3 yards per play on the ground this season, more than two fewer yards than they produced per passing play (6.7) — and that’s after accounting for the loss of yardage due to sacks. NFL teams also scored nearly twice as many points per game on passing plays (10.0) as they did via the rush (5.2), a trend that has persisted since Judge entered the pro ranks as an assistant coach.
Gettleman further justified his hiring of a coach with a run-focused mentality by pointing out the top four passing teams by yardage (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams) did not make the 2019 playoffs while the top four rushing teams (Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks) did. Those are facts, but they are also facts devoid of context.
One reason the NFL’s best teams run the ball more is because they are often ahead, allowing them to run the ball to kill clock. NFL teams rush the ball 30 percent of the time when trailing by 10 points or more, 44 percent of the time when the score is tied and 55 percent of the time when enjoying a lead of 10 points or more, per data from TruMedia.
The teams with the most time of possession with a lead of 10 or more points this year included the Ravens, Patriots, Chiefs, 49ers, Saints and Vikings. The Giants, by comparison, enjoyed that large of a lead for an average of 2 minutes and 45 seconds per contest, 24th most in 2019.
The top seven teams in passer rating during the regular season made the postseason, as did the 10th- (Packers), 11th- (Texans), 13th- (Eagles), 17th- (Patriots) and 26th- (Bills) rated teams. All eight of the teams playing in the divisional round finished in the top 11 in passer rating.
According to Football Outsiders Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric, which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent, seven of the league’s 11 best passing teams are in the playoffs. The outlier, the Houston Texans, rank 15th. Eight of the 10 highest-rated passing attacks, per the game charters at Pro Football Focus, also qualified for this year’s playoffs.
As for stopping the run, well, it doesn’t appear to be as important. Depending on your metric, just five of the 10 best run defenses (Football Outsiders) or four of the top 10 run defenses (Pro Football Focus) made the postseason. And savvy coaches recognize that old-school lip service to running the ball isn’t the way to success.
“Everybody wants to commit to the run and stuff. Committing to the run isn’t just committing to the run. Players laugh at me a lot because I always say, ‘Do you guys want to run the ball?’ Yeah. You better be able to throw it then. If we want to throw it, you better be able to run it,” San Francisco’s head coach, Kyle Shanahan, explained to reporters Tuesday before his team’s playoff game against Minnesota. “Usually the team who has the most run carries wins, so you try to get the most run carries. But, the answer isn’t just calling run every play.”