Home / General / Can You Ride A Star Running Back to the Super Bowl? (SPOILER: No.)

Can You Ride A Star Running Back to the Super Bowl? (SPOILER: No.)

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Rather than a redundant Sunday Chip Kelly post, here’s some data I’d like in one place for future reference. As I observed at some length last week, for a variety of reasons people have a strong sentimental attachment to the AUTHENTIC FOOTBALL represented by the running game, and are inclined to rationalize even the most obviously irrational decisions (like, say, taking a running back with a top 5 draft pick even with a Grade A QB prospect on the board.) One strategy is to argue that “this team one time won with a power running game and defense.” Well, defense is very important. But do teams win championships without a quality passing game?

The 1974 Steelers alternated between two young quarterbacks who weren’t very effective, but Franco Harris and the Steel Curtain powered their way to the Super Bowl. The next year, as you probably know, one of those young QBs came into his own and the team repeated. Since then, here are the adjusted passer ratings of the Super Bowl winning quarterbacks (100 is league average):

2014: Brady 111 [Obviously misleadingly low]
2013: Wilson 119
2012: Flacco 103, 9 Y/A 0 INT in postseason
2011: Eli 111
2010: Rodgers 124
2009: Brees 132
2008: Roethlisberger 97 (Lifetime 112)
2007: Eli 89 (Over 100 6 of next 7 years)
2006: Peyton 126
2005: Roethlisberger 122
2004: Brady 114
2003: Brady 107
2002: Johnson 121
2001: Brady 111
2000: Dilfer 98
1999: Warner 136
1998: Elway 119
1997: Elway 113
1996: Favre 130
1995: Aikman 122
1994: Young 147
1993: Aikman 129
1992: Aikman 118
1991: Rypien 130
1990: Hostetler 110
1989: Montana 149
1988: Montana 117
1987: Williams 126
1986: Simms 100
1985: McMahon 111
1984: Montana 134
1983: Plunkett 109
1982: Theismann 122
1981: Montana 122
1980: Plunkett 101
1979: Bradshaw 110
1978: Bradshaw 126
1977: Staubach 125
1976: Stabler 140

Since the Nixon administration, there is exactly one case of a Super Bowl being won by a team with a below-average QB having a below-average season: the 2000 Ravens. And even that team is hardly evidence that you can win with an offense built around a star running back — rather, it was a team with an exceptional defense that was able to carry a mediocre offense with a solid but nothing more than that running game. (You don’t need to invest big to find a running back who can run for 4.4 yards/carry behind a good offensive line.)

And that’s it. Roethlisberger had an off year in the regular season in 2008, but he’s a Hall of Fame-caliber player, and at any rate it wasn’t Willie Parker’s 3.8 yards/carry that carried the Steelers to a championship. Phil Simms was better than his regular season stats in 1986, but as with the Ravens in any case that team didn’t overcome that with a great running back, but with a defense featuring multiple Hall of Famers and plenty of depth beyond that coached by Parcells and Belichick. The 2007 Giants are probably the closest to an anecdotal case that can be cobbled together by ground-and-pound fetishists — Eli wasn’t very good for much of the regular season, and that team had a really good running game. But by the playoffs, Eli had transformed into the not great but solidly above-average QB he’s generally been ever since. And, more to the point, the Giants — who outscored their opposition by about 20 points in the regular season — are almost certainly the weakest Super Bowl team ever. Flags fly forever and they beat perhaps the greatest team ever assembled and more power to them, but if your strategy for building a championship team is “build a .500 team and have it overachieve in the regular season and get hot at the right time and win 3 straight coin-flip playoff games against significantly better teams,” well…good luck with that. It’s worked once; it’s failed innumerable times.

As always with this issue, the evidence is not ambiguous. Super Bowls are most commonly won by great QBs, and with very few exceptions the rest are won by really good ones. I won’t run through the running games systematically, but a trip through football reference will show some Super Bowl teams have very good running games, some have mediocre ones, and some have really bad ones. I will, however, note that some teams cited for the idea that you can with an offense based around a great running game rather than efficient passing prove the opposite. The 2003 Buccaneers had a horrible running game led by Michael Pittman’s 3.5 yards a carry. The 1990 Giants also had a replacement-level running game and a more efficient passing game than you remember (as well as the defense with etc.) The Patriots had a mediocre running game in 2001 and a terrible one in 2003.

And even in cases where a running back played a key (if inevitably subordinate) role in the offense, they generally don’t provide evidence that investing top draft picks or major free agent dollars in running backs is a sound practice. The Seahawks acquired Lynch for a 4th rounder and 5th rounder. The Rams got Faulk for a second rounder plus, and his relentlessly mediocre performance before joining the Rams makes it pretty clear that Warner was the key variable there. Terrell Davis is one of many late-round or undrafted players to run effectively in Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme. And Emmitt Smith is the exception that proves etc. If Jimmie Johnson is picking the players, you already have your QB and top wideout in place and — this step is important — some clown has just traded you like 30 draft picks because they massively overvalued your famous running back, then go right ahead and take a flier on a RB with the 17th pick if you really like him. Otherwise, you can find a good enough running back for much less cost.

Look, it’s not complicated. The NFL is completely dominated by pass offense and pass defense and has been for a loooong time. The marginal quality of your running game isn’t terribly important, and you don’t need to invest in an expensive running back to get a good enough running game. And between the surpassing importance of passing in the contemporary NFL, the typical inconsistency and short shelf life of running backs, and the fact nobody can identify the rare star who could retroactively justify a high draft position ex ante, you should only in rare circumstances draft a running back in the first round and never in the top 15. A great quarterback and a below-average running game is a great offense. Barry Sanders and a mediocre quarterback is a mediocre offense. No matter how you study the question you’ll reach the same result. Chip Kelly is the latest NFL decision-maker to learn this lesson the hard way.

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