This is obviously of trivial importance compared with the feeble attempts to debunk the Lancet article, but I’m glad to see David Leonhardt tackle a form of reactionary innumeracy that becomes an annoyance on Sundays: the argument that running is the key to success in the NFL. Part of this is just old-fart prejudice, but it is sustained by the fact that winning teams rush for more yards than losing teams. This is, of course, the wrong metric to use. It just tells us the obvious fact that winning teams rush more often, hardly surprising given that once you’re ahead running the clock and avoiding turnovers is more important than scoring. The relevant question is whether good teams run more effectively. When you do this, it’s clear that pass offense and defense are vastly more important than rushing, as Allan Barra demonstrated a couple decades ago. As Leonhardt notes, the evidence remains unambiguous:
To uncover the secrets of N.F.L. success, Roland Beech, a former investment company researcher, has correlated teams’ statistics in key categories with their overall records. Passing yards per attempt does a far better job of predicting which teams win than almost any other statistic.
Having a good rushing average is obviously better than having a bad one, but it says far less about which teams win, said Beech, who now runs TwoMinuteWarning.com.
People who think that running are the key to NFL success are the rough equivalent of those who think that “moving the runners” and “making productive outs” are the key to winning baseball. I can’t wait for Tech Central Station to publish an article defending the received wisdom in both sports…