MailBag Question of Week, Part I: Would top-5 running game propel Browns?


This week's Question of the Week prompts some interesting statistical numbers-crunching:

Interesting question. Very interesting question.

You sent me to the stats from the last couple of seasons. First, I'm not optimistic about the 2015 Browns, nor do I believe a team that relies on running the ball can win consistently in the league. I'm with Joe Thomas, who believes that at some point you have to throw the ball to win, and that the teams with the top quarterbacks are consistently the best teams.

Let's check the stats though. The top 10 rushing offenses in the league last season were Seattle*, Dallas*, the Jets, San Francisco, Houston, Cincinnati*, Carolina*, Baltimore*, Philadelphia and Kansas City. Five of the top 10 (the teams with asterisks) made the playoffs, and just two of the top five. Of the five that made the playoffs, four had something else exceptional to bolster the running game. Seattle had that defense, Dallas had an excellent passing game featuring Tony Romo, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant. Cincinnati had A.J. Green and a very good defense. Carolina had the benefit of playing in a division where every team finished below .500. Only Baltimore did not have something else exceptional, though Joe Flacco supporters would disagree with me.

New England won the Super Bowl. The Patriots ranked 18th in rushing.

In 2013, six of the top-10 rushing teams made the playoffs. Those are just two-year samples, though, and hardly worthy of proper analytics. So I went to ESPN's Stats & Info group and asked about the last 10 years. They reported the following for the last 10 seasons ...

  • 52 percent of the teams to finish in the top 10 in rushing made the playoffs

  • 58 percent of the teams to finish in the top 5 made the playoffs

  • 7 of the 10 teams to lead the league in rushing made the playoffs.

In addition, for the heck of it I checked the last 10 Super Bowl teams to see where they ranked in rushing. Going back the last 10 years, teams that made the Super Bowl ranked here in rushing:

  • 18 and 1

  • 4 and 15

  • 11 and 4

  • 32 and 20

  • 24 and 11

  • 6 and 32

  • 23 and 32

  • 4 and 13

  • 18 and 15

  • 5 and 3

Only once in the last 10 years have two top-5 rushing teams faced each other in the Super Bowl -- and that was when Pittsburgh beat Seattle in 2006. Only six of the last 20 Super Bowl teams have ranked in the top 5 in rushing (30 percent), and seven of 20 (35 percent). Teams ranked 23rd or lower in rushing have won the Super Bowl as often as teams ranked in the top 5, and teams ranked in the bottom half of the league in rushing have won just as many Super Bowls as teams in the top half. The lowest-ranked team in the league in rushing won the Super Bowl in 2012 (the New York Giants over the New England Patriots), but the top-ranked team has never won the Super Bowl.

The average rank in rushing for the last 20 Super Bowl teams: 16.05.

The average rank in rushing for the last 10 Super Bowl champions: 14.5.

Basically, being one of the top rushing teams gives you at best a 6-in-10 chance of making the playoffs, and it would appear that doing so requires a team to excel in another area. There is little correlation between being in the Super Bowl and running the ball, though.

Do the Browns have enough on defense to excel and allow a top-5 running game to carry them? I don't think so. They are still lacking at too many vital positions on offense -- quarterback and the skill spots. I reserve the right to change my prediction after training camp and preseason, but at this point I'm sticking with what I said after the draft: 4-12.