Do runs for losses indicate bad run teams?

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Good running teams get stopped for a loss less often than bad running teams.

I knew it wouldn’t stand to figure so simply when I decided to look at whether runs for losses indicated anything last season. After talking with Jeff Fisher about it, I changed the number I looked at to the percentage of runs for losses.

Still, I found the results surprising. (Thanks to ESPN Stats and Information for putting this chart together.)

The league’s worst rushing team, Arizona, got hit for a loss on 9.88 percent of its runs. The league’s top rushing team, the Giants, got hit for a loss on 9.92 percent of its runs.

And the two teams that absorbed losses the highest percent of the time, the Colts and Titans were far different run teams: The Titans ranked seventh and were regarded as one of the best, the Colts ranked 31st and were better than only Detroit.

Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders said he wasn’t surprised to see how this chart looked and hit on the two points you’d expect.

“It generally tells us two things: the style of the running back, and the quality of the offensive line,” he said. “In general, better offensive lines will allow fewer negative rushes. We know that the Colts had massive run-blocking problems last year, especially when Jeff Saturday was injured, and it isn't a surprise to see them so high.

“In addition, shiftier running backs tend to have more negative rushes than straight-ahead downhill backs (the Barry Sanders effect). I'm guessing that's the reason why Carolina, which was excellent run-blocking last year, is higher up in negative rushes than you might expect. Same with Tennessee, where Chris Johnson is a pretty shifty-style guy.”

So what do teams think about runs for negative yards? Is it something that has to be accepted when you are determined to run?

“If you’re going to be a good run team, you’re going to have to hand the ball off, you’re going to have to have numbers,” Fisher said. “And so the more numbers, the more attempts you have the more likelihood you have for runs for loss.”

But even after accounting for the runs for losses as a share of the total runs, the Titans rank high. By Schatz’s thinking, a good offensive line can be offset by a shifty runner like Johnson, who may swing and miss sometimes but is also more likely to get extra base hits.

“They’re going to happen, Fisher said of tackles in the backfield. “You have to be able to overcome them. You can’t allow them to affect your play calling. You have to stick with it, that’s just how it is. When you’re a good running team, people are going to stack the line of scrimmage, they are going to penetrate and you’re going to have some issues.”

In Houston, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said he and the offensive staff think bad runs should be, at worst, good for no gain.

“Even when you are not getting five yards a carry you have to stick with it in order to get one safety defenses,” Shanahan said. “You don’t want to throw against cover 2 every play and have the defensive line tee off on you or that’s a pick or a sack waiting to happen...

“Our thing is even when it’s a bad run, we don’t want to lose any yards. If it’s a run and we don’t block for any, that back needs to get zero to one yard. At least get us in second-and-nine. As soon as you get us into second-and-12, the odds are you’re going to punt.”