By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts passing fancy
 
There is one group of fans on Planet Pigskin more depressed than those in New England heading into Week 2.
 
You'll find them in Minnesota, waiting for the slow, inevitable onset of a 48th consecutive winter of championship-less discontent, made tolerable only by ice-fishing season and the copious consumption of August Schell lager.
 
Sure, the Patriots lost one of the great quarterbacks of all time last week. But at least New England's No. 2, Matt Cassel, played fairly effectively in victory (1 TD, 0 INT, 116.0 passer rating).
 
The Vikings lost their opener to a hated division rival and don't even have a legitimate No. 1 quarterback – at least if Tarvaris Jackson's short career (12 TD, 17 INT, 68.2 rating) and his performance in Monday night's 24-19 loss to the Packers (1 TD, 1 INT, 59.0 rating) are any indication.
 
And poor quarterback play always leads to long, lonely winters in the NFL – no matter how good the ground game performs.
 
Minnesota fans fretted all off-season about their quarterbacking situation, believing that the only thing standing between their team and Super Bowl success was the performance of the passing game.
 
Minnesota fans probably don't know how right they were.
 
Coaches, fans and pigskin "pundits" love to pontificate about the importance of running the ball effectively. We hear about  it so often, the need to "establish the run" is so ingrained in football culture, that most people don't even think to question it.
 
Of course, the Cold, Hard Football Facts aren't most people. Instead of blindly prostrating ourselves at the feet of conventional wisdom, we bludgeon it into a bloody purple pulp with our pugil stick of pigskin.
 
The truth in the NFL is that establishing the run is virtually meaningless – a dominant ground game so distantly related to victory that it's legal for them to marry in all 50 states.
 
In fact, no team in history has stood as a greater testament to the meaningless of the ground game and the importance of the passing game in pro football than the Vikings.
 
Consider the case of the 2007 Vikings, one of the most statistically fascinating teams in pro football history.
 
Led by rookie phenom Adrian Peterson, Minnesota fielded one of the most explosive ground games the NFL has ever seen, with an average of 5.33 yards per attempt (YPA). Only five teams in the entire history of the league have exceeded that average of 5.33 YPA.
 
Minnesota, in other words, dominated on the ground last year, like few teams ever have.
 
Yet the 2007 Vikings went 8-8, five games behind division champ Green Bay, a team which struggled to run the ball effectively for much of the season.
 
But here's the kill shot between the eyes of conventional wisdom: the 2007 Vikings also fielded a historically stout run defense. They allowed opponents a mere 3.13 YPA on the ground – among the 20 best of the Super Bowl Era at stuffing the run.
 
The 2007 Vikings dominated on the ground on both sides of the ball, fulfilling the fantasies of countless misguided coaches, players and pigskin "pundits" from sea to shining sea.
 
Yet those 2007 Vikings were a .500 team that didn't even make the playoffs.
 
They're hardly alone among great running teams that defy conventional gridiron wisdom.
 
Take a look at the 10 best running teams of the Super Bowl Era. Notice anything unusual about them? Here's a hint: Few of the best running teams in modern NFL history were any good. In fact, only three of the best running teams in modern history even reached the playoffs. Between the 10 best running teams of the Super Bowl Era, they combined to win a single wildcard playoff game (1998 49ers).
 
10 Best Running Teams of the Super Bowl Era
 
Team
Att.
Yards
YPA
Record (results)
1
1997 Lions
447
2464
5.51
9-7 (lost WC)
2
2006 Falcons
537
2939
5.47
7-9
3
2007 Vikings
494
2634
5.33
8-8
4
2002 Vikings
473
2507
5.30
6-10
5
1984 Rams
541
2864
5.29
10-6 (lost WC)
6
1990 Lions
366
1927
5.27
6-10
7
1966 Browns
415
2166
5.22
9-5
8
1998 49ers
491
2544
5.18
12-4 (lost div. playoff)
9
2002 Chiefs
462
2378
5.147
8-8
10
2003 Chargers
417
2146
5.146
4-12
 
The 10 best running teams of the Super Bowl Era combined for a perfectly mediocre 79-79 record (.500). In other words, you could pick any 10 teams throughout history at random, and they'd be just as good on average as the best running teams ever.
 
***
 
Now look at the 10 best run defenses of the Super Bowl Era. Notice anything about them? With the notable exception of the 2000 Ravens, none of these teams won anything, either. Of course, the 2000 Ravens weren't just good against the run, they were good against everything: they surrendered a meager 10.3 PPG, making them the stingiest defense of the Live Ball Era (1978-present). But note the 2000 Chargers – one of the toughest run defenses in history. They went 1-15.
 
10 Stingiest Run Defenses of the Super  Bowl Era
 
Team
Att.
Yards
YPA
Record (Result)
1
2000 Ravens
361
970
2.69
12-4 (won Super Bowl)
2
1998 Chargers
422
1,140
2.70
5-11
3
2006 Vikings
348
985
2.83
6-10
4
2007 Ravens
446
1,268
2.84
5-11
5
1991 Eagles
383
1,136
2.97
10-6
6
2000 Chargers
470
1,422
3.03
1-15
7
1995 49ers
348
1,061
3.04
11-5 (lost div. playoffs)
8
1966 Bills (AFL)
344
1,051
3.06
9-4-1 (lost AFL title game)
9
1999 Chargers
432
1,321
3.06
8-8
10
1994 Vikings
355
1,090
3.07
10-6 (lost wild-card game
 
The 10 stingiest run defenses of the Super Bowl Era combined to go 77-80-1 (.491). In other words, the teams that dominated opposing rushing attacks better than any others in history weren't even good enough to be average.
 
***
 
Now take a look at the best passing teams of the Super Bowl Era. Notice anything unusual about these teams? Almost all were great teams. The top nine all reached the playoffs, and three made it to the Super Bowl. They include some of the best teams, best quarterbacks and best offenses we've ever seen.
 
10 Best Passing Attacks of the Super Bowl Era
 
Team
Att.
Yards
YPA
Record (Result)
1
1989 49ers
483
4584
9.49
14-2 (Won SB XXIV)
2
2000 Rams
587
5492
9.36
10-6 (lost wildcard)
3
1968 Chiefs (AFL)
270
2492
9.23
12-2 (lost div. playoffs)
4
1988 Bengals
392
3592
9.16
12-4 (lost SB XXIII)
5
1969 Cowboys
355
3212
9.05
11-2-1 (lost div. playoffs)
6
1984 Dolphins
572
5146
9.00
14-2 (lost SB XIX)
7
2004 Colts
527
4732
8.98
12-4 (lost div. playoffs)
8
1982 Chargers
338
3021
8.94
6-3 (lost div. playoffs)
9
1976 Colts
361
3221
8.92
11-3 (lost div. playoffs)
10
1983 Packers
526
4688
8.91
8-8
 
The 10 best passing teams of the Super Bowl Era combined to go 110-36-1 (.752). There is probably no factor in football, maybe even in sports, that correlates so closely with winning as passing the ball well.
 
The pigskin "pundits," as is so often the case, are wrong when they pontificate about the need to "establish the run."
 
But it turns out that Vikings fans who fretted all off-season are right: Adrian Peterson could be joined in the backfield by Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith, and it won't help this team win if Tarvaris Jackson doesn't quickly blossom into a first-rate NFL passer.
 
But cheer up, Vikings fans: ice fishing season is almost here.