An Overview of the American Football Ground Game

By Howie Long, John Czarnecki

In football, the ground game refers to running the football (as opposed to passing it). Running the ball is the basic premise of football, and it’s the easiest way to move the ball. A team runs three times and gains 10 yards, and that’s good enough for a first down and another set of four downs.

What could be easier? In youth football, every team runs. After all, what 11-year-old can pass like former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino? Plus, learning the fundamentals of running the ball is much easier than learning how to run pass routes.

Most championship football teams are excellent at running the football. The Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl in 1998 because they had a better running game than the Green Bay Packers. The Broncos could run, and the Packers couldn’t stop them and their talented running back, Terrell Davis. In fact, Denver’s offensive line was really fired up for that game — they wanted to block and open holes — because they felt that the Packers, the media, and some NFL insiders weren’t giving them enough respect.

The New York Giants won their second Super Bowl after the 1990 season, beating a superior Buffalo Bills team, because they could run the ball and keep the clock moving. They also kept the ball away from Buffalo’s high-powered offense. This ploy is called ball control, which is a common football term. Running the ball is the best way to maintain possession and keep the clock moving when a team is ahead because the clock doesn’t stop if a player is tackled in bounds.

However, if the quarterback throws an incompletion, the clock stops. Stopping the clock is advantageous to the defense; it gives them a breather and the hope that they may get the ball back. So when a team is running the football successfully, usually it’s physically whipping the other team. And that’s the object of the game!

The NFL has become somewhat of a pass-happy league, but the running game is still vitally important. In 2013, 13 running backs rushed for more than 1,000 yards, with LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles leading the way with 1,607 yards. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry.