It's not saying anything original to point out the fact the Eagles rushing attack wasn't that great this year. The only real mystery is how it managed to be so generally average when, situationally speaking, it was pretty terrible.
Here's the obligatory opening salvo, courtesy of Football Outsiders:
The link above has definitions for all the stats, but in a nutshell, "Adjusted Line Yards" measures the team's average run after controlling for longer gains (it's more complicated than that), and the other stats are pretty much what they sound like.
Looking at just the ALY stat, you can see that the Eagles performance in 2008 wasn't that far out of line with the historical trend. The last couple years had just been really good.
Once you get past ALY, though, you see a bunch of depressing numbers that will probably conjure up lots of bad memories. The Eagles were absolutely terrible in short-yardage situations, finishing in the penultimate position in that stat with only a 55 percent conversion rate. By way of comparison, the Carolina Panthers were first, at 79 percent.
The Eagles were also just above the bottom third in runs over 10 yards. That's never been a statistic where they've been as good as I would have expected, given how much effort their receivers put into blocking. But they were even worse in 2008 ... *cough* Percy Harvin *cough*.
Finally, for the handful of folks who might have thought most of the problem was with Brian Westbrook, the Eagles were also right near the bottom in the percentage of runs that resulted in "stuffs." It's hard to get going when the tackler is meeting you in the hole. And first-and-ten, second-and-ten is not a fun way to try to move down the football field.
The FO guys also provide a little more color on these numbers by giving us the percentage of runs to each of the five zones (left end/tackle, middle/guard, right tackle/end), as well as the ALYs in each direction. Here are the ALY numbers from that same link above:
If you combine the percentages with the ALYs, you can get a good visual sense of the cumulative contribution of each direction to the total rushing offense, like so:
The percentages didn't vary more than a point or two, other than with right tackle and end, which went from 11%/16% to 15%/12%. Who knows how much of that is playcalling versus scorekeeper idiosyncrasies?
There are a couple different ways one could read the numbers in that chart. Clearly the left tackle/end statistics are meager in comparison to 2007. So does that mean Tra Thomas had a terrible year run-blocking? Because I watched Herremans a lot this year, and he really didn't seem to be the problem.
Or is the issue somewhat related to the absence of Shawn Andrews? Maybe MJG and Cole were adequate replacements in the straight-ahead blocking game, but not as good at getting to the second level to chop down those backside pursuit linebackers.
Or is it really a fullback issue? We know the Eagles offense is predominantly right-handed. That means most often the tight end is going to be on the right side of the formation, so the fullback will be the one responsible for making a key block on the left side at the point of attack. And as we saw a few weeks ago in a related post, the Eagles really struggled running out of the I-formation.
Most likely it's some combination of all of the above. It doesn't sound like Tra had a great year and the other issues were legitimate. I also want to point to another issue I was complaining about earlier in the year:
"See, running from shotgun works.
"The extent to which they refuse to use space -- rather than brute force -- to get the running game going continues to baffle me."
(Seriously, don't click that link. It's from the Cincy game.)
I think the "stuff" and "power" stats above sufficiently cover the "brute force" part, but check out what I meant about space. Here are situational stats for Westbrook and Buck by the number of wide receivers on the field:
Basically, in 2008, the more the Eagles spread the field -- more wide receivers, fewer tight ends -- the better they ran the football. Is that an indictment of the tight ends as run blockers (yes), the fullbacks (definitely), and the offensive line's ability to get push against a stacked box (possibly)? Again, it's hard to say for sure just looking at stats. But if the running game works best when it's just Westbrook and his five linemen, maybe they're not the biggest problem. Maybe.
The last thing I'll put up is this historical chart:
The decline in the leftside rushing numbers really was precipitous last year. That's all out of whack. On the other hand, we've seen similar declines/jumps in the past, with usually some sort of regression to the mean the following year. So that's something.
Also, am I the only one who finds it interesting that for all of Runyan's presumed former dominance (and current decline) as a run blocker, the right tackle numbers have never been better?
I swear, you could stare at these numbers all day trying to come up with a story to explain them.