On Peyton Manning’s first drive of his first game as a visiting player in Indianapolis, the Denver Broncos faced third down and 1 yard to go. Manning handed the football to Knowshon Moreno, who was stopped short. Denver punted.
On Manning’s third drive, again he faced third-and-1, again he gave the ball to Moreno, and again the play was stuffed. Again, Denver punted.
“Hit a little rut there,” Manning said hours later, after the Colts gave his Broncos their first loss of the season.
Other NFL offenses failed on similar plays Sunday, and it happens week after week: In the most critical of short-yardage situations, teams are converting at the lowest rate since at least 1995. The days of smash-mouth football, of bruising backs pushing piles forward with the help of run-blocking offensive linemen, are gone. Teams that have perfected the pass are not as equipped as they used to be for getting a key yard – or even inches – on the ground.
“The concept of running the football,” former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer said, “has kind of taken a back seat.”
One of his 1980s Browns teams had two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season. One of his 1990s Chiefs clubs led the league in yards rushing. His tenure with the Chargers in the early 2000s featured LaDainian Tomlinson.
Times have changed.
Increasingly, teams can’t gain what they want on the ground on third or fourth down with 2 or fewer yards needed for a first down or a touchdown. And increasingly, they’re passing on those plays.
In all of those situations – third-and-2-or-less, fourth-and-2-or-less, including goal-to-go – NFL teams were successful 58.5 percent of the time through games of Oct. 14, according to STATS. That is a lower rate on such plays than for any full season since 1995 (that’s how far STATS data goes back).
The rate in 1995 was 65.1 percent. In 2008, it was 63.7, and has been declining steadily since.
“My only answer,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said, “would be they don’t quite run as much as they used to.”
That, of course, is true. Games this season are averaging 53.2 running attempts, the fewest in the Super Bowl era, and 213.7 yards rushing, the third-fewest. Passing, meanwhile, is on pace for records of 72.3 throws and 489.2 net yards passing per game.
In 1987, for example, offenses were far more balanced, with 62.8 runs and 64.2 passes per game.
In short-yardage situations, teams also pass more than they used to: This season, the breakdown is about 55 percent runs, 45 percent passes on third- or fourth-and-short. Back in 1995, it was 63 percent runs, 37 percent passes, STATS said.
In 1995, the success rates on those runs was 71 percent. It dropped a bit below 66 percent the past two seasons, meaning teams are failing about one out of every three tries.
This is not to say zero teams can run. But they’re rare.
“We like throwing the ball, too,” said Seattle’s Pete Carroll, coach of one of the league’s elite running teams. “but we really want to run the football.”
Especially when it’s time to extend a drive while trailing. Or run out the clock. Or on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
“Teams that, week-in and week-out, do a good job of running the football still have a better chance of winning because it wears a defense out and it gives your defense a chance to rest. It’s hard to do that with the passing game,” Reeves said. “There’s still a premium on running the football. Is it as much as it used to be? No, it’s not.”