How Heavy Is Run-Heavy?

Before I dive in to the article, I just want to welcome you all to the new and improved Seahawk Addicts!  The folks over at Bloguin have been slaving away on this overhaul to their blog network for months, and the result is a leaner, meaner site designed to load faster and run better than ever before.  If you should run into any glitches or errors, please don’t hesitate to message me at (please include the names of the browser and device you were using at the time the error occurred) and I’ll forward the information on to Bloguin so that it can be fixed as soon as possible.  Thanks, and enjoy the new digs!

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Super Bowl XLVIII, aside from being the single greatest game in Seahawks history1, was also a fascinating matchup of polar opposites – or at least that’s how the media portrayed it.  On one side, you had Peyton Manning, an aging future Hall-of-Famer who had led the Broncos to their seventh Super Bowl in franchise history on the strength of a passing attack so incredibly prolific that it almost seemed to make the uneven play of the team’s defense seem almost irrelevant.  In the other corner sat Russell Wilson, a second-year upstart who helmed a run-heavy offense that seemed content to play second fiddle to one of the most aggressive, dominating defensive units in recent memory.


Hell, the articles practically wrote themselves.  Cutting edge air attack versus old school smash-mouth!  Finesse versus physicality!  Former first overall pick and four-time MVP versus runty third-round game manager!  Blameless reporters with hearts of gold versus the evil silence of Beast Mode!  Exclamation point!


But while all that stuff made for great headlines and sound bites, they offered only a shallow, distorted view of the game that was to take place.  For starters, how skewed toward running plays would an offense have to be before you called it run-heavy?  Denver was roughly 60-40 in favor of passing during the regular season (60.12% pass to 39.88% run, to be exact), so it would make sense that the Hawks were similarly inclined in favor of running, right?


Wrong.  During the regular season, Seattle’s run-pass percentages were 52.31% to 47.69%.  There’s a word for an offense like that, and it isn’t run-heavy – it’s balanced.  (The next time you hit a sports bar, feel free to use these numbers to win a cash bet against one of those loudmouth jackasses you’ve been dying to shut up.)  The problem here, as near as I can tell, isn’t that the media didn’t do their homework2, it’s that the NFL has increasingly become such a pass-happy league over the decades that most peoples’ perspectives have been skewed to the point that a near 50-50 split seems off-kilter by comparison.


In 2013, the average NFL offense had a play call ratio of 58.35% pass, 41.65% run.  By that standard, the Broncos’ near 60-40 split differed from the norm by just 3.55%, while the Seahawks’ more balanced attack differed from the norm by a whopping 21.32%.


And judging by history, calling more run plays than the league average puts the Seahawks in pretty good company.  Of the 48 teams who have won the Super Bowl, 31 have differed from the NFL play call average for that season by 5% or more in favor of running plays, while only two teams, the 1970 Colts and 2011 Giants, have similarly differed in favor of passing plays by 5% or more.


That doesn’t mean that running the ball more often during the regular season automatically makes you more likely to take home a Lombardi; more likely than not, most of those teams ran the ball more than the NFL norm because they spent more time using the run to grind out the clock at the end of games more often than most teams did (to quote the folks over at Football Outsiders, you run when you win, not win when you run).  It does, however, suggest the possibility that the Broncos, not the Seahawks, were the team less likely to win the Super Bowl.


I’d like to spend some time in my next article exploring one of the more irritating assumptions that arose from all the talk surrounding the big game (namely, that Russell Wilson is just a game manager), but first I’ve got to figure out how best to present data tables using the new blog software.  Until then, here’s a link to a Google spreadsheet I’ve filled with basic play call data for every team that’s won the Super Bowl, including league averages for each year.  Y’know, should such a thing interest you in the meantime.

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1 To my mind, the previous tenant of the number one spot is a toss-up between the 2005 NFC Championship game when Holmgren’s well-oiled machine annihilated a feisty Panthers team, and the 1983 playoffs in which Chuck Knox’s upstart Hawks defeated hotshot rookie QBs John Elway and Dan Marino in back-to-back weeks.  Good times.


2 Although I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that it only took me about thirty seconds’ worth of web-browsing and basic math to work out those percentages.