Playoffs restore value of run games

The 2013 regular season was tough for running backs.

Rushing yards were down by 6 per game (225.8) compared to last season, the lowest total since 2007. Doug Martin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the only back who averaged more than 20 carries a game, but he lasted only six games. There were only 94 times in which a running back rushed for at least 100 yards in a game, a 22 percent drop from last year.

But the 2013 playoffs have rejuvenated the importance of the ground game. The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers emphasize the run. Thanks to LeGarrette Blount, the New England Patriots found the value of a power running game. The Denver Broncos valued the production of Knowshon Moreno during the regular season and plan to use the run during the rest of the playoffs.

In fact, the percentage of running plays during the playoffs is the highest in more than a decade. The run-to-pass ratio in this year's playoffs is 45.8 to 54.2. That's 1.6 percent above last year and 5.9 above the 2011 playoffs, when the ratio was 39.9 to 61.1.

The strategy is understandable. To win in games in wind, rain or snow, teams can't just throw the ball. The pass-happy New Orleans Saints changed philosophies during their two playoff games. Against the Philadelphia Eagles and Seahawks, coach Sean Payton used two- and three-tight-end sets with the hopes of running the ball.

Payton knew the only way to stay close to the Seahawks on Saturday was to try the run. Gusting winds made it tough for Drew Brees and Russell Wilson during the two quarters they were throwing toward the south end of CenturyLink Stadium.

The Cincinnati Bengals learned a lesson during the playoffs: They need to run the ball to succeed. They have lost three consecutive playoff games with Andy Dalton at quarterback. In their 27-10 wild-card loss to San Diego, the Bengals ran the ball only 25 times. Dalton threw 51 passes and was sacked three times.

New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson vows to use the run more in the future.

From the inbox

Q: Here is an idea that might help improve officiating. I do believe that one person can only process so much information. NFL officials are asked to process a lot of information at one time. Some of that information is pre-snap information. Why not remove that piece from the on-field officials and use officials upstairs? I believe play clock violations, too many men on the field and illegal formations can all be viewed from upstairs and would let the on-field officials concentrate on the play on the field.

Brian in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

A: Honestly, the pre-snap penalties aren't the problem. I think officials are consistent in making those calls, so there is no need to add another layer of officiating that could result in miscommunication. The problem with having upstairs officials making those decisions is that it takes up too much time. Let's say an offense in the midst of a no-huddle stretch. The referee would have to stop the game to communicate with the official upstairs. That would slow everything down. The umpire or ref should be able to spot the pre-snap infraction, huddle with officials on the field and then move on with the next play.

Q: I was watching the 49ers-Panthers game and the roughing the passer call in the fourth quarter got me thinking it might be time to allow coaches to challenge penalties. Newton was clearly a runner and turned into the hit. There was nothing the defender could do to avoid that hit. If this was allowed, I don't think this would extend the game at all, there would still be only two challenges allowed. In fact it might cause less challenges as coaches might save one for end-of-game situations. The penalty on Sunday had the potential to alter the end of the game drastically.

Derrick in Duluth, Minn.

A: I'm not for adding penalties to reviewable plays, but you have identified one of the problems with officiating. Officials are told if they have some doubts on hits on a quarterback, throw the flag, anyway. I agree with you, Newton was a runner on that play. The emphasis on safety has made things tough on the officials and quarterbacks tend to get too much of a break on those types of plays as a result.

Q: I had a thought about the Pro Bowl. What if they had a Pro Bowl week held a few weeks after the Super Bowl? During this week, they could have a "Draft Combine" for the players selected to play in the game, so fans could see improvements with the players and a chance for the players to see where they compare to their peers. At the end of the week, there is a new generation (four years in the league and less) vs. old generation (five years or more) game. I think it would be an exciting game to see Andrew Luck vs. Peyton Manning or A.J. Green vs. Calvin Johnson.

John in Fort Sill, Okla.

A: I would fear the ratings of such a game would be horrible because it would be so far after the season, fans wouldn't want to even watch it. The idea of a draft combine isn't a bad one even though you wonder if the players would take it seriously enough to work at it. Ratings for the post-Super Bowl Pro Bowls were on a downward spiral. Putting it between the championship games and the Super Bowl increased the ratings. If you move it way after the Super Bowl, the game wouldn't draw much interest. Fans will be more focused on the combine and the free-agency period.

Q: You mentioned in your most recent column that No. 6 seeds have won six of the past eight games against No. 1 seeds. Do you think that's because the top seeds had an easier schedule than most and weren't truly the best team in the conference?

Keith in Alamogordo, N.M.

A: I think it has a lot to do with the switch to eight four-team divisions. Before, there were three division winners and three wild cards. If a division is strong, the second place team might be the second- or third-best team in the conference. San Francisco is the classic example of that. It's hard to have four really good divisions, so the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds might not be as good as the first or second wild card. Look at the New Orleans Saints. In Week 16, they were playing the Carolina Panthers for the NFC South title and the No. 2 seed. They lost and became the sixth seed. Clearly, though, they were better than the NFC East teams and on par with the Green Bay Packers. Even though San Francisco and New Orleans had to go on the road as wild cards, they at least made the divisional round, so the four best teams in the NFC made it. I remain firm in my opinion of now reseeding and taking a home game away from a division winner.

Q: Being a Vikings fan in Cheesehead territory is difficult. We (the Vikings) need a QB to become a factor again in the NFC North. I don't trust this crop of college QBs ... Is there a trade scenario where the Vikings could get Kirk Cousins away from Washington? Would it take more than the No. 8 overall pick? If so, what do you think it would take and would it be worth it for the Vikings?

Tony in Madison, Wis.

A: If the Vikings don't believe a quarterback is worth a top first-round pick, they owe it to themselves to consider trading a second-round pick to get Kirk Cousins. They have to do something. Taking Christian Ponder didn't work. Their one-game fling with Josh Freeman was a disaster. Options at the quarterback position in free agency are very limited. The Vikings learned over the past couple of years the value of having a good quarterback. They have no choice if they want to compete in the NFC North.

Q: My friends and I have had an argument all season on whether or not a team out of playoff contention is better off losing out and securing a better draft pick than to win and get a lower pick. I believe that there isn't that much difference between say, a top-five pick, than a top-15 pick. You never know which player is going to pan out, and a player taken in the first half of the first round is going to have elite potential regardless. The one exception to this would be if the team needs a QB, which it is clearly better to have a very high draft pick (i.e. Colts, Panthers, etc.). If you take my Falcons as an example, they have drafted two offensive linemen in the first round that have had very little impact since being drafted, so who is to say another first-rounder will be the answer? I believe it is more meaningful for a team to establish a winning culture.

From Matt In Atlanta

A: I agree with you. Tanking the season usually costs a coach and maybe a general manager their jobs. Plus, there is no guarantee a top-five pick is going to work out. There are certain years in which you are lucky to lose. The Colts lost Peyton Manning for the season and ended up getting Andrew Luck in the draft. This year is a classic example of the uncertainty of the draft. If a team tanked the season for a quarterback, the team picked the wrong year. Next year's draft class of quarterbacks looks better. It's hard to figure out a draft until draft-eligible players commit, and that doesn't happen until mid-January.