Do runs for losses indicate bad run teams?

September, 9, 2009
9/09/09
12:51
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky


Good running teams get stopped for a loss less often than bad running teams.

I knew it wouldn’t stand to figure so simply when I decided to look at whether runs for losses indicated anything last season. After talking with Jeff Fisher about it, I changed the number I looked at to the percentage of runs for losses.

Still, I found the results surprising. (Thanks to ESPN Stats and Information for putting this chart together.)
Rushes For Negative Yards
Team Total
Rushes
Neg.
Rushes
Pct. Rushing rk.
New England Patriots 489 26 5.32 6
San Diego Chargers 411 24 5.84 20
Washington Redskins 464 29 6.25 8
New York Jets 412 26 6.31 9
Cleveland Browns 403 26 6.45 26
Oakland Raiders 457 33 7.22 10
Baltimore Ravens 571 45 7.88 4
Atlanta Falcons 538 43 7.99 2
Jacksonville Jaguars 416 34 8.17 18
Chicago Bears 426 35 8.22 24
Dallas Cowboys 387 32 8.27 21
Denver Broncos 372 31 8.33 12
Buffalo Bills 426 36 8.45 14
Houston Texans 423 36 8.51 13
New Orleans Saints 388 33 8.51 28
Miami Dolphins 432 39 9.03 11
San Francisco 49ers 386 36 9.33 27
Philadelphia Eagles 412 39 9.47 22
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 441 42 9.52 15
Arizona Cardinals 324 32 9.88 32
New York Giants 484 48 9.92 1
Green Bay Packers 427 43 10.07 17
Cincinnati Bengals 410 42 10.24 29
Kansas City Chiefs 372 39 10.48 16
Carolina Panthers 487 53 10.88 3
Minnesota Vikings 507 56 11.05 5
Pittsburgh Steelers 446 50 11.21 23
St. Louis Rams 410 49 11.95 25
Tennessee Titans 491 59 12.02 7
Seattle Seahawks 414 52 12.56 19
Indianapolis Colts 356 47 13.2 31
Detroit Lions 351 48 13.68 30
Note: Kneel-downs were not included in either category.

The league’s worst rushing team, Arizona, got hit for a loss on 9.88 percent of its runs. The league’s top rushing team, the Giants, got hit for a loss on 9.92 percent of its runs.

And the two teams that absorbed losses the highest percent of the time, the Colts and Titans were far different run teams: The Titans ranked seventh and were regarded as one of the best, the Colts ranked 31st and were better than only Detroit.

Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders said he wasn’t surprised to see how this chart looked and hit on the two points you’d expect.

“It generally tells us two things: the style of the running back, and the quality of the offensive line,” he said. “In general, better offensive lines will allow fewer negative rushes. We know that the Colts had massive run-blocking problems last year, especially when Jeff Saturday was injured, and it isn't a surprise to see them so high.

“In addition, shiftier running backs tend to have more negative rushes than straight-ahead downhill backs (the Barry Sanders effect). I'm guessing that's the reason why Carolina, which was excellent run-blocking last year, is higher up in negative rushes than you might expect. Same with Tennessee, where Chris Johnson is a pretty shifty-style guy.”

So what do teams think about runs for negative yards? Is it something that has to be accepted when you are determined to run?

“If you’re going to be a good run team, you’re going to have to hand the ball off, you’re going to have to have numbers,” Fisher said. “And so the more numbers, the more attempts you have the more likelihood you have for runs for loss.”

But even after accounting for the runs for losses as a share of the total runs, the Titans rank high. By Schatz’s thinking, a good offensive line can be offset by a shifty runner like Johnson, who may swing and miss sometimes but is also more likely to get extra base hits.

“They’re going to happen, Fisher said of tackles in the backfield. “You have to be able to overcome them. You can’t allow them to affect your play calling. You have to stick with it, that’s just how it is. When you’re a good running team, people are going to stack the line of scrimmage, they are going to penetrate and you’re going to have some issues.”

In Houston, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said he and the offensive staff think bad runs should be, at worst, good for no gain.

“Even when you are not getting five yards a carry you have to stick with it in order to get one safety defenses,” Shanahan said. “You don’t want to throw against cover 2 every play and have the defensive line tee off on you or that’s a pick or a sack waiting to happen...

“Our thing is even when it’s a bad run, we don’t want to lose any yards. If it’s a run and we don’t block for any, that back needs to get zero to one yard. At least get us in second-and-nine. As soon as you get us into second-and-12, the odds are you’re going to punt.”

Paul Kuharsky | email

ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter

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