The significant advantages of passing over running have been demonstrated repeatedly — by some teams — in the years since the 1980s coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh, cranked up his West Coast offense. It was Walsh who first found that a pass offense, properly organized and supervised, can be as safe as a running-play offense and more effective. That finally convinced some, at least, of the numerous football coaches who had been overrating interceptions and sacks.
In yesterday's column, two advantages of passing were outlined:
First, in the game-opening race for the lead (which can sometimes last most of the first half), passing decisively beats running.
Second, passing teams are superior in a companion offensive challenge — the science of coming from behind.
In today's chapter, the focus is on some of the other reasons why football is most artistically and most successfully played by passing teams.
It isn't emotion but talent that prevails on pass plays. This contradicts an earlier NFL holding that the emotional factor ranks as about one-third of football — along with talent and intelligence.
Vince Lombardi and other 20th century coaches regularly maintained that playing hard is as helpful as playing properly. By contrast, today, passing enthusiasts don't consider emotion to be a key.
They point out that pass-offense players specialize in hand-eye coordination and intellectual acuity. Thus — by comparison with running-play players — passers and receivers can be successful regardless of their emotional state. They have recurrently shown they can make yards and points and winning plays against even the best defensive players who are psychologically charged up.
The decisive elements in effective pass offense are timing, recognition of defensive patterns, mental adjustments on the fly, and the ability to perform refined physical skills under pressure. None of this requires excess emotion.
On carefully rehearsed, closely timed passes, the game's many gifted receivers and passers simply bypass the hordes of eager, revved-up defensive players. What this means is that a sound passing team can continue to play well through the long season despite every team's inevitable peaks and valleys emotionally.
Brawn vs. Brains
Running teams carry a competitive burden that decreases their chances to succeed on game day — a burden that can be summed up in a phrase: comparative proficiency. Running teams can only count on running against teams they physically outman.
Most running teams (the Pittsburgh Steelers, as an instance, or the Baltimore Ravens) favor straight power football. They run the same handful of plays over and over. Facing them, defensive players know in detail what's coming.
The only way for such a rushing offense to succeed, most noticeably early in the game when the defense is psyched, or late in a close game when everybody is psyched, is to field superior players — athletes who are bigger, stronger, and better-drilled.
Passing teams, by contrast, can succeed even against better athletes — winning with superior tactics, timing, variety, and the element of surprise.
This relative effectiveness of passing versus running is proved every year when two or three running teams win their way through the regular season — beating up on physically inferior opponents — only to lose playoff games to smarter and more capable teams. In a case example, the bruising Pittsburgh Steelers walloped most opponents last year before New England's passing team took them apart and down.