The day the Washington Redskins announced Bill Callahan as their interim head coach, he was very clear about his offensive strategy: This football team was going to become more focused on the run.
“I envision us as a running team. I’d like to get our running game going,” Callahan, 63, told reporters at his introductory news conference. “If we can play two-down football, that would be huge. To do that, the consistency of the running game has to take place. We have a good stable of running backs and that will be the focus. There’s been flashes of positive runs in games. If we commit a little bit more, there is a chance to get it rolling.”
The commitment has been there. During the first five weeks of the season under Jay Gruden, the Redskins rushed the ball 17.6 times per game, accounting for 31 percent of all their offensive plays. That ranked 29th of 32 NFL teams. The numbers have increased dramatically under Callahan; over the past four weeks, the Redskins are averaging 24.5 rush attempts per game, accounting for 52 percent of all their plays. That puts them third in the NFL in that span. (Leaguewide, NFL teams are rushing the ball 41 percent of the time. Washington ran the ball 43 percent of the time under Gruden last season.)
So committing fully to the run is no longer an issue. And under Callahan, the team has improved at running the ball, even as its passing game has gotten worse. The Redskins are averaging 4.7 yards per running play under Callahan; it was just 3.9 yards per play under Gruden this season, and 4.3 yards per play under Gruden last season. Meanwhile, the Redskins are averaging 5.1 yards per passing play under Callahan, worse than the 5.5 yards they averaged under Gruden this season and last.
Sounds good, right? However, the team’s scoring output has dropped from 14.6 to 8.8 per contest since Callahan took over. Washington is also in the midst of a three-game streak without scoring a touchdown, the longest such streak in franchise history. And since Callahan took over, no team is producing fewer points per drive than Washington.
This shouldn’t be a surprise: Rushing plays are less valuable than passing plays. NFL teams are producing 4.3 yards per play on the ground this season, more than two fewer yards than produced per passing play (6.4). (The Redskins under Callahan, you’ll note, are above average at rushing, and below average at passing.) NFL teams are also scoring nearly 10 points per game on passing plays, compared to 5.3 points per game via the rush.
In truth, the Redskins’ rushing attack simply isn’t a strength of this team. Three of the team’s starting offensive linemen, Ereck Flowers, Morgan Moses and Donald Penn, have each received negative run-block ratings from the game charters at Pro Football Focus. Running back Adrian Peterson, meanwhile, is ranked 31st out of 58 qualified rushers by Pro Football Focus. Just 42 of his 115 carries (37 percent) have been successful this season, per data from TruMedia, with success defined differently based on down and distance. Among rushers with at least 100 carries, only Joe Mixon and Leonard Fournette have a lower success rate than Peterson in 2019.
Some will argue that Washington’s passing game is so bad that the Redskins have no choice but to rush the ball more often; rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins was under center for his first start in Sunday’s loss to the Bills, and the team’s top two tight ends, Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis, are both injured.
Yet even for a poor passing team, it’s still better to pass than to focus on the run. The eight worst passing teams this season, determined by passer rating, are averaging seven points a game on passing plays. By comparison, just seven teams are scoring seven or more points per game off the rush. In other words, even average and below-average passing offenses put more points on the board than all but the best rushing attacks.
Washington, which clearly does not have one of the league’s best rushing attacks, is a great illustration of this. The Redskins are scoring six points a game off passing plays but a mere 1.3 points per game on the ground. Under Callahan, the Redskins have two passing touchdowns and no rushing touchdowns. The Jacksonville Jaguars are the only other team without a rushing touchdown over the past four weeks.
Another argument made in favor of Washington rushing the ball more: The teams at the top of the rushing leader board are largely successful, which supposedly indicates that runs lead to wins. The undefeated San Francisco 49ers lead the league in rushing attempts with 303 and the Baltimore Ravens, fresh off their upset against the New England Patriots, are second with 299. However, these teams are able to rush more often because they lead more often. Remember, the rate of a team’s rushing attempts goes up in direct proportion to the score margin. In other words, you win to run, not run to win.
Put it all together, and the outlook for this run-the-ball offense isn’t bright. By my calculations, Washington should be favored in only one of its last seven games of the season: Week 11 against the New York Jets. And the Jets have the third-best run-stopping unit in the league this season, per Pro Football Focus. That probably won’t stop Callahan and the Redskins from continuing to pound the ball on the ground, no matter what impact that has on this struggling offense.