Does a Good Passing Game Really Open Up the Running Game?

Six hundred years ago, many theorized that the earth was flat. About 500 years ago, many theorized that the sun revolved around earth. (A survey in 2014 revealed that one-quarter of Americans still believe that.) Today, many fantasy owners truly believe that a good passing game will open up the running lanes. Some owners may impress you when they talk about 8-man fronts and things like this. It’s a theory that must appear to be true since so many fantasy owners will use this reasoning when ranking their players.

Do NFL statistics support this theory, particularly from a fantasy perspective?
Surprisingly, no.

Statistical Criteria

Let’s break the NFL into thirds and consider yardage totals for each team. The top 11 passing teams would certainly represent the best from the NFL. The same would also be true for the top 11 rushing teams.

Since we’re talking about thirds, reviewing statistical rankings from the last 3 seasons should give us a fair comparison of recent NFL history.

In 2012 the best 11 passing teams ranked on average 20.4 in the rushing game. Only 2 of those pass-happy teams cracked the top-11 in rushing.

In 2013 the rushing average improved to an average rank of 16.4 on the passing-elite teams. A slight improvement, given that 3 passing teams did finish in the top-11 in rushing.

In 2014, strong passing teams saw their rushing rank dip to an 18.2 average. Depressingly only 1 of those teams finished in the top-11 rushing category.

Just to put these rushing averages into perspective, 20.4, 16.4 and 18.2 are rankings in the bottom half of the NFL. In fact, the average of all 33 teams represents a rushing rank of 18.3.

If any of this number crunching is confusing, let’s put it another way. Over the last 3 years, of the 33 best passing teams in the NFL, only 6 of these same teams were also good enough to finish in the top-11 in rushing. Six of 33 is actually 18% which is less than 1 in 5. Hardly a conclusive percentage.

Player Rankings vs Team Rankings

Astute fantasy aficionados may notice what could be a flaw in the math. In 2012, while only 2 “teams” ranked in the top-11 in rushing, there were actually 3 “individual players” (RB) from those same teams that finished in the top-11.

For instance, Doug Martin was part of a Buccaneers team that ranked 15 in rushing (below the top 11), but Martin individually finished 5 overall. Do the individual RB rankings skew the rushing numbers for pass-heavy teams?

To be fair, let’s examine individual players from those pass-heavy teams. If we look at these same 11-best passing teams from 2012 through 2014, and compare the rankings of their best RB, these are the average rushing rankings of each team’s top RB:

Does Good Passing Game Open Up Running Game 1

The rankings speak for themselves – both from a team ranking as well as on an individual player ranking. Statistically, heavy passing teams do not necessarily have superior running games. The last 3 seasons bear this out. And even if a handful of teams do finish well in both passing and rushing, that does not necessarily point to a dominant RB leading the way. And vice-versa.

With so few teams accomplishing the dual top-11 finish, fantasy football owners may actually want to focus their attention at teams with terrible passing rankings when considering a top flight RB.

Of the top 12 RB currently leading the 2015 consensus rankings (Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy, Le’Veon Bell, Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster, C.J. Anderson, Matt Forte, DeMarco Murray, Jeremy Hill, LeSean McCoy and Justin Forsett), only 4 (Lacy, Bell, Anderson and McCoy) were part of passing offenses that ranked in the top 11 last season. The passing offense of the other 8 backs collectively ranked a less-than-stellar 21.6.

It almost makes more sense that either a team will be strong in the run game or be strong in the passing game. It’s rare that an NFL offense is tops in both.

Has this changed your mind about a good passing game opening up the run game? You can choose to dismiss the statistical evidence. Many do when it comes to theories. And maybe one-quarter will still believe it too.

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Joe Mica
Joe has been passionate about fantasy football since 2001. He has experience as an owner as well as a commissioner in H2H, auction, redraft and IDP leagues. He has written fantasy football columns since 2010. Submit any fantasy football questions you may have to me on twitter @JoeFMica