Last season, four of the top five and eight of the top 14 teams in terms of yards per rushing attempt made the playoffs. The 12 playoff teams averaged a ranking of 11.9. Baltimore won the Super Bowl while ranking 12th and San Francisco won the NFC while ranking third.
Those, however, are the outliers over the past five seasons.
In 2011, six of the 12 playoff teams ranked in the top 12 in yards per rushing attempt. The 12 playoff teams averaged a ranking of 16.3. The Super Bowl-champion Giants were 32nd and the AFC-champion Patriots were 21st.
In 2010, five of the top-10 teams in rushing yards per carry made the playoffs. The 12 playoff teams averaged a ranking of 17.6. Green Bay won the Super Bowl while finishing 25th and Pittsburgh won the AFC while ranking 17th.
In 2009, eight of the playoff teams finished in the top 14 in yards per carry. The 12 playoff teams averaged a ranking of 15.0. Super Bowl-champion New Orleans ranked sixth but AFC-champion Indianapolis checked in at 32nd.
In 2008, five of the top seven teams in rushing qualified for the playoffs, and the 12 playoff teams averaged a ranking of 13.4. Neither of the Super Bowl teams were juggernauts, however, with Pittsburgh ranking 23rd and Arizona 32nd.
Surprisingly, despite the emphasis teams put on running the football, the last five Super Bowl champions have ranked 24.8 in yards per carry. The last time a top running team won the Super Bowl was 2007, when the Giants rode their No. 3 ranking to an upset of New England. Two recent champions have finished last, as did the runner-up Cardinals in 2008. The Patriots won it all in 2003 while ranking 30th.
Nonetheless, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy is putting a big emphasis on running the ball after ranking 22nd (3.9 average), 26th (3.9) and 25th (3.8) in yards per carry the past three seasons.
"Hey, we need to run the ball better," McCarthy said at his camp-opening news conference on Thursday. "That's the fact of the matter. We're about winning and quality of play. It's one thing to win the football game, but you have to be honest and look at everything that goes on in that game regardless of the outcome or final score of that game."
As McCarthy pointed out, his team is "very good" at most things on offense, as evidenced by its No. 3 ranking in points per game over the past three seasons. Green Bay dominates through the air and in turnovers. Offensively, it's excelled on third down and in the red zone.
The Packers have done well in those key categories in spite of a run game that's been woeful since Ryan Grant's career was derailed by a broken ankle sustained in the 2010 opener.
A bad run game doesn't all fall on the running backs and it doesn't all fall on the offensive line. More of the blame, however, would seem to fall on the backs who stepped in following Grant's injury. Showing that a big chunk of the blame should be taken off of the offensive line, DuJuan Harris provided a quality run game at the end of last season. He averaged 4.15 yards per carry while all the other backs combined to average 3.38. Draft picks used on Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin further show how the team regarded its backfield.
"Playing running back is no different than playing quarterback," McCarthy said. "The quarterback is graded for every decision he makes throwing the football and the running back is graded for every decision he makes running the football. That's the way you go about it. It's about playing with proper technique and making good decisions. Obviously, using your skill level and the fundamentals needed, particularly when you get to the second level. Frankly, we need to be a better second-level run team. Our issues are not as much on the first level as the second level."
Regardless of what the numbers say in showing almost no link between success and successfully running the ball, it is a big deal in Green Bay. Mother Nature has a big say in the play-calling in December and January. The statistics say the Packers didn't run it well en route to the Super Bowl in 2010, but those numbers don't include the impact made by then-rookie James Starks.
Moreover, an offense that can run it when it has to run it can be vital late in close games. The opposition can't stage a furious two-minute rally if the offense can move the chains a couple times to run out the clock.
Finally, there's the impact a running game can have on a passing attack. For evidence, look no further than last year's Packers. Using the blueprint used by the Giants in the 2011 playoffs, opposing defenses ignored Green Bay's running game, played coverage to take away the deep ball and attacked Aaron Rodgers with impunity.
The result? The Packers scored 127 fewer points, Rodgers' average per passing attempt dipped from 9.2 yards to 7.8 and he absorbed 15 more sacks. A big reason for the lack of explosive plays through the air was the disappearance of the play-action pass. Rodgers' passer rating on play-action passes of 102.0 was outstanding but worse than his overall rating of 108.0. Of the NFL's 10 highest-rated quarterbacks, only Rodgers and Seattle's Russell Wilson were worse in play action than standard passes. Rodgers' completion rate dipped by 7.4 percent in play action. Only three quarterbacks had a steeper drop-off.
"The things we need to improve on, our guys are very much in tune with it and they take it personal," McCarthy said. "Running the football is a collective effort. There has to be commitment from the play-caller. It's something we need to do a better job of and I'm confident that we will."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.