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Do the Titans Need to Run the Ball to win a Championship?

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 18:  Chris Johnson #28 of the Tennessee Titans runs with the ball during the NFL game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 18, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 18: Chris Johnson #28 of the Tennessee Titans runs with the ball during the NFL game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 18, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Earlier this week Paul Kuharsky said that the Titans offensive line is still terrible at run blocking, and that people are overly optimistic about their potential for improvement in that area. I completely agree with him. This team will still struggle to run the football. Kuharsky then beat me to the punch on the follow-up question of "does it matter?" I wanted to dig a little deeper, and focus in on a more specific question. The Titans want to vault themselves into the championship game. Having a great run game can certainly help them win a lot of games, but will it put them over the top? What areas should the Titans concentrate on so that one day we can see Jake Locker hoist the Lombardi trophy?

The first step in answering these questions was going over the run game rankings of previous Super Bowl champions. I took a ten year sample, and came up with the following results. The Super Bowl winner is listed on the left side, on the right the loser. In parentheses are the respective rankings by rush yards per game.

2011: New York Giants (32nd) vs. New England (20th)
2010: Green Bay (24th) vs. Pittsburgh (11th)
2009: New Orleans (6th) vs. Indianapolis (32nd)
2008: Pittsburgh (17th) vs. Arizona (32nd)
2007: New York Giants (4th) vs. New England (13th)
2006: Indianapolis (18th) vs. Chicago (15th)
2005: Pittsburgh (5th) vs. Seattle (3rd)
2004: New England (7th) vs. Philadelphia (24th)
2003: New England (27th) vs. Carolina (7th)
2002: Tampa Bay (27th) vs. Oakland (18th)

So a quick tally of the past 20 Super Bowl participants:

  • 6/20 participants had a top 10 run game. I'd classify this as the elite category.
  • 9/20 participants had a top 16 run game (average or better).
  • The last four years has seen a particular shift away from the run game. Only one team in the past four years has had a top 10 ground attack.
  • If we were to split the ten years into two halves, 4 of the 6 participants with a top 10 ground attack were in the first half.
  • Of the teams with great running games, 4 of the 6 were victorious.

From this data it doesn't seem like there is anything strongly associating a great rushing attack with championships. You can win a championship with great running, but it's not a must. So what is mandatory for potential Super Bowl teams? It's not hard to see where this is going. Here are the passing game rankings, bolded.

2011: New York Giants (5th, 32nd) vs. New England (2nd, 20th)
2010: Green Bay (5th, 24th) vs. Pittsburgh (14th, 11th)
2009: New Orleans (4th, 6th) vs. Indianapolis (2nd, 32nd)
2008: Pittsburgh (17th, 17th) vs. Arizona (2nd, 32nd)
2007: New York Giants (21st, 4th) vs. New England (1st, 13th)
2006: Indianapolis (2nd, 18th) vs. Chicago (14th, 15th)
2005: Pittsburgh (24th, 5th) vs. Seattle (13th, 3rd)
2004: New England (11th, 7th) vs. Philadelphia (7th, 24th)
2003: New England (9th, 27th) vs. Carolina (18th, 7th)
2002: Tampa Bay (15th, 27th) vs. Oakland (1st, 18th)

Now we're getting a little closer to the truth.

  • 11/20 had top 10 passing games. Again as above, this is an elite category.
  • 16/20 had top 16 passing games (average or better).
  • Again if we're using the most recent four year block, 6/8 teams had elite passing games.
  • Using the equal split, 7 of the 11 teams with elite passing games are in the most recent five years.

Looking at the complete offensive rankings seems to provide a much clearer picture. It is rare (4/20) for Super Bowl teams to have poor passing attacks. Chris Palmer has focused on implementing an elite aerial game in Tennessee, and that's great news for Titans fans.

Let's flash back two years ago and quote the contributor known for his love of burnt orange jerseys:

[From 2000-2009] In the past 10 years, only two teams have won a Super Bowl without a top ten offense or defense (2007 Giants, 2001 Patriots), and only one other team has made it to the Super Bowl with out a top ten offense/defense (2008 Cardinals). That tells me that, in general, you need to excel at one or the other. Expecting to excel in both is not reasonable, only three of the 20 teams have been in the top ten in both categories. Being just slightly above average at both doesn't usually get it done.

SuperHorn's post told us that Super Bowl winners excel in either offense or defense, rarely both. We can take that offensive side and split it up based on the two styles. The difference isn't that substantial when looking at the winners- four of the most recent champions had great passing games, three had great running games and one had both- but the difference is more pronounced when looking at the Super Bowl participants as a group. I would say that the teams who succeed using a great offense are more likely to excel with a great passing game.

So do the Titans need to run the ball to win a championship? Absolutely not. It certainly doesn't hurt to have a good ground game, but a poor one wouldn't be the main factor in preventing the Titans from reaching their goals.