The Essence of Balance

The NFL is full of teams that do certain things well and other things not so well.

The New Orleans Saints possess an elite passing attack, but their defense is historically awful. Green Bay, too, puts up Madden-like passing statistics, but their rushing game is one of the five worst in the league, averaging 3.8 per attempt.

The Buccaneers lead the league in rushing yards against per game, but are dead last in passing yards against. The Cardinals have one of the best pass defenses in the NFL, but their passing offense averages 6.3 per attempt - good for 30th.

There are teams all throughout the league that do one or two things right: that can pass, but not rush; rush, but not pass. Teams that create turnovers, but then reciprocate them. Teams that play offense, but not defense; and vise-versa.

This year's San Francisco 49ers are not one of those teams. In fact, they are "not one of those teams" in a way that is utterly unique in NFL lore.

Those Niners sure can run the ball...

Right to the stats, then.

Since 1978, there are only 24 teams in the NFL to attain a rushing yards per attempt average over five.

Four of those 24 have joined that list this year: our own 49ers, along with the Vikings, Bills, and Redskins.

So what separates San Francisco from the other 23 squads? Several things.

Committee Attack

First off, the 49ers' rushing attack is more of a committee effort than most other teams, with 8 different players on pace for at least five attempts.

I went ahead and calculated the percentage of total rushing yards that each team's top two rushers accrued. The spreadsheet is organized automatically by that percentage, from lowest to highest.

San Francisco comes in as the 5th most "balanced" rushing attack, with Gore and Hunter accounting for only 70.94% of touches. The average team on the list is at 79.48%.

Seven teams had one lone rusher accruing a greater percentage than Gore and Hunter combined. These are teams with familiar names: Erick Dickerson, Barry Sanders, and Adrian Peterson. Even CJ2K's amazing '09 campaign makes an appearance.

What separates the 49ers from them is that the attack is more scheme than a one-man talent show. Our top rusher, Gore, is responsible for just 48.63% of our yards. The average top rusher of the 24 teams was responsible for about 10% more than that (58.26%).

Dual Threat

The second thing that separates this year's 49ers from the other 23 teams, is that our passing game is also an effective weapon.

The average passer rating for quarterbacks starting at least a couple games for the 24 teams is 78.48. Only seven managed to post season ratings over 90 - Alex Smith is one of them.

In fact, he comes in leading the list with a 102.1 rating.

Aside from rating, you can go ahead and pick your favorite passer value metric and Smith comes in near the top in all of them:

  • 3rd in yards per attempt
  • 4th in adjusted yards per attempt
  • 1st in ESPN's QBR
  • 5th in adjusted net yards per attempt.

Unlike most other teams on the list, who had quarterbacks holding them back, the 49ers have a passing game that is perfectly complimenting their rushing excellence.

Total Offensive Efficiency

If we reduce that list of teams to garner at least five yards per attempt when rushing to teams that also managed over six yards per offensive play, we get a much smaller list of teams with a passing game that actually helped their per play average.

San Francisco is one of those six teams.

Luckily, all six existed in the "DVOA era", so Football Outsiders will have efficiency stats for each offense.

  • Tm. (yr), Offense DVOA, Pass DVOA
  • KC (2002), 35.7%, 47.0%
  • SF (1998), 28.8%, 44.3%
  • SF (2012), 18.9%, 26.0%
  • PHI (2010), 17.3%, 20.0%
  • CAR (2011), 18.2%, 13.8%
  • PHI (2011), 9.8%, 13.5%

On the whole, our passing offense is ranked 10th this year by FO, and our rushing offense 1st. Like the 2010 Eagles, or the Niners of '98 (the last time we were really, really good), the 49ers of 2012 are fielding efficient attacks on both sides of the ball.

Also, just for fun, if you go back to the first list, but organize it instead by most rushing yards per attempt, San Francisco comes in conveniently at the top.

The most efficient rushing attack of all time? Yowzas. Through half the season, the answer is yes. Let's see if we can keep it up today against St. Louis.

Total Team Efficiency

As mentioned above, the 49ers are averaging over six yards per play on offense.

When I was first researching this stuff, I figured that wasn't really all that impressive. Given the explosion of passing offenses in the past 10+ years, is it really that difficult to average six yards per play?

Well, as it turns out, it is. Kinda. Only 44 teams have ever done it. Of course, 75% of those teams existed in the past 15 years.

If you organize the list by most to least, San Francisco comes in at 32nd. So, no, I'm not about to tell you that the 49ers are one of the most efficient offenses of all time. Even the DVOA comparisons above would shed light on that.

What I am going to say is something that, in my opinion, is much more interesting. If we instead organize the list by the lowest defensive yards per play allowed, then San Francisco comes in at the very top.

Unlike most of the top offenses on that list, the 49ers also field an elite defense - the most elite of the group.

Introducing (as far as I know): Yards Per Play Differential (Y/PD)

For convenience's sake, let's shorten that list above to teams that also allowed 5 yards or less per play on defense, so we can get teams comparable to the 49ers' excellence on both sides.

Then, let's take the difference between their offensive and defensive yards per play to give us a fancy new efficiency stat: yards per play differential (y/pd).

Coming into this season, only nine teams in NFL history had produced at least six yards per play offensively and given up five or less on defense:

  • Team (yr.), y/pd
  • STL (2001), 1.95 +
  • STL (1999), 1.71 ^
  • SDG (2010), 1.46
  • SFO (1989), 1.42 ^
  • SFO (1993), 1.40
  • NWE (2007), 1.27 +
  • CIN (1988), 1.26 +
  • PH (2006), 1.20
  • DAL (2007), 1.12
  • + Made it to the Super Bowl
    ^ Won the Super Bowl

    Among the nine, five made it to the Super Bowl and two won it - including our very own Niners in '89.

    Three teams this year are averaging at least six yards a play on offense; but only two of them have joined our second list by also holding their opponents to less than five: the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers.

    • Team (yr.), y/pd
    • SFO (2012), 1.59
    • DEN (2012), 1.33

    Y/PD Conclusion

    I want to get this post up before the game, so I will not be doing what I really want to do, which is calculate the Y/PD of every team in NFL history since the expansion and see how well it correlates to winning and if it correlates at all to Super Bowl appearances.

    The list above correlates slightly to the latter. And if Denver and San Francisco stay on it, and one of them makes it, then we might have ourselves a pattern worthy of prediction-making.

    I do know that Y/PD correlated about 73% to team wins in 2011 (i.e., the higher your Y/PD, the more games you won); but it only correlated 53% in 2010. Eventually, when I get all the data together, I'll share it with y'all and see what it says.

    For now, you can take some comfort in knowing that the 49ers might be among the most efficient TEAMS in NFL history as measured by their yards per play differential.

    We will see how that bodes for them as the season continues. Hopefully it means more wins, and another Lombardi; but we still have a long way to go and a playoff schedule that could feature any combination of Chicago, Atlanta, Green Bay, New York, and Seattle or Minnesota. Not exactly a cake walk.

    And now to finish with one last measure of San Francisco's balance...

    Point Differential

    As Pythagorean wins tells us, what could be more predictive of future wins, or a more accurate statement of the true value of a team, than the single most important stat of every game: points scored and points given up.

    Throw everything else out. You gotta score. You gotta stop your opponent from scoring. The teams that do that best tend to win games.

    Elite Scoring Defenses

    Coming into today's contest against the Rams, Jim Harbaugh's crew ranks first in the league in points against, giving up a measly 12.9 per game. They balance that with a slightly above average 23.6 per game on offense.

    So to try to get an idea of their balance in relation to other teams in NFL history, let's get a list together of all the teams to hold their opponent to less than 14 points a game.

    50 teams since 1978 have achieved the feat. However, some of them actually have negative point differentials; and some of them have only slightly positive ones.

    The Bears of 1988, for example, had a +97 point differential. With 12 wins, that's a mere 8 points per win. Not the elite stuff we're looking for.

    This year's Niners already have a +86 point differential, and they are only half way through the season.

    So let's narrow that list to teams that also posted point differentials of at least +160 - a mark the 49ers are on pace to reach.

    Complimentary Scoring Offenses

    That gives us, oddly enough, another nine team list:

    • Tm. (yr.), Pt. For / Pt. Against, Pt. Diff.
    • WAS (1991), 485 / 224, +261 ^
    • CHI (1985), 456 / 198, +258 ^
    • GNB (1996), 456 / 210, +246 ^
    • JAX (1999), 296 / 217, +179
    • DAL (1978), 384 / 208, +176 +
    • BAL (2000), 333 / 165, +168 ^
    • CHI (1986), 352 / 187, +165
    • PHI (1980), 384 / 222, +162
    • PIT (1978), 356 / 195, +161 ^
    + Made it to the Super Bowl
    ^ Won the Super Bowl

    San Francisco is on pace for +172 point differential, with 378 points scored and 206 points against. If they can keep up their awesome first half pace, which included two pretty devastating losses, the 49ers will join an elite and historic group of teams.

    What it takes is continued solid play on both sides of the ball. It's not something many teams this year are doing - nor is it something that many teams in NFL history have done.

    But here in San Francisco, Bo Schembechler's philosophy lives on through Jim Harbaugh:

    "The Team. The Team. The Team."

    Let's get this second half started right by beating a quality division foe. And let's do it on both sides of the ball.

    This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors.

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