Run-First Philosophy Has Little Place in Today’s NFL

Before arriving in St. Louis, Les Snead worked for an organization that believed running the ball was the key to success.

And since 2008 that team is 0-3 in the postseason.

The Atlanta Falcons have won a lot of regular season games under head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Forty-three to be exact. But because they haven’t shaken hands with the modern-day NFL, they’ve been a total failure in the postseason.

Rams fans would take 43 wins over the next four years if that’s what Snead and Jeff Fisher were able to produce. But while being competitive is the short-term goal, the Rams’ long-term objective is to win a Super Bowl. That’s why an organization pays someone like Fisher, who had the NFL’s fifth-highest win percentage from 1998-2008, all that money to run the show.

Being a successful running team is overrated. Denver led the league in rushing last year and when New England forced Tim Tebow to win with his arm, the Broncos were eliminated from the playoffs in embarrassing fashion. Kansas City was the top rushing team in 2010, but Matt Cassel threw for just 70 yards in a 30-7 loss to the Ravens in the Wild Card round that year. Mark Sanchez actually put together a nice postseason when the Jets led the league in rushing in 2009, but Peyton Manning threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns in the AFC title game to help the Colts advance to the Super Bowl.

Ask Snead’s former team, the Falcons, what happens when you can’t throw the ball in the postseason. Under Smith, Atlanta’s philosophy the past four years has been to wear opponents down, keep the game close, and win in the end. That strategy has worked against inferior opponents during the regular season, but as soon as the Falcons have been pitted against teams that could throw the ball they transformed into a corvette without four working wheels.

The last three Super Bowl champions all finished in the top 5 in terms of passing yards and while the last three rushing leaders all made the playoffs, none advanced to the title game.

Now, that’s not to suggest that being able to run the ball is unnecessary. On the contrary – look at the 2009 New Orleans Saints. People forget how balanced that team was offensively. Everyone marvels at Sean Payton’s passing attack, but what made that ’09 Saints offense so dangerous was the fact that they could play power football, too. Just when teams started to commit extra defenders in coverage, Payton would run Pierre Thomas between the tackles for chunks of four yards at a time. When they suffered all of those injuries to their running back corps in 2010, the Saints weren’t as successful and had the infamous meltdown versus Seattle in the playoffs.

The Rams have a long ways to go. Although the addition of Scott Wells helps, their offensive line is a work in progress and Sam Bradford has to learn his third offense in the past three years. If Fisher’s game plan is to rely on Steven Jackson and the running game in order to be competitive this year, that’s fine. But at some point Bradford has to be the focal point of this offense – not Jackson, Isaiah Pead or Insert Future Running Back Here.

Snead knows that better than anyone. After trading a combined six draft picks in order to acquire Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones over the last three years, the Falcons have yet to build their offense around Matt Ryan and they’ve paid for it.

Putting the ball in the air is a mentality. The Packers, Saints, Giants and Patriots aren’t afraid to put the ball in the air 40 times to beat you. In fact, they beg you to try and keep their offense on the field by running down the clock because as you take 15 plays to reach the end zone, they’ll take six and beat you most Sundays.

Over time, the Rams will have to develop that mentality under Fisher and Snead, or suffer the same fate as teams like the Falcons.