Think about it.
The Buffalo Bills were 20th in the NFL in rushing last season. They were third in passing.
Yet, the Bills ranked second in the league in points and tied for No. 2 in total yards. That production factored heavily in their finishing with a 13-3 record, winning the AFC East and reaching the doorstep of the Super Bowl after a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game.
So, the question begs to be asked: Just how important is it for the Bills, or any team for that matter, to have a strong running game?
One is inclined to answer: Not very.
Consider the Baltimore Ravens, who led the NFL in rushing, lost to the Bills in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Tennessee Titans, who ranked second in the league in rushing, didn't make it past the wild-card round. The Cleveland Browns, No. 3 in the NFL in rushing, got as far as the divisional round.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who ranked second in the league in passing and 28th in rushing, won the Super Bowl. They beat the Chiefs, who were tops in the NFL in passing and 16th in rushing.
When it comes to the Bills, tackle Dion Dawkins doesn't think shortcomings in the run game should factor into judging the overall quality of the offensive line.
"Every team is different," Dawkins told The Buffalo News. "The only team that I can think of right now is the Tennessee Titans. They run the football, they have a humongous running back behind them, Derrick Henry, and that's their strength. So, they play to their strength. In their (player-acquisition) process, they get the best guys to move guys out of the way, so Derrick Henry can put points on the board."
Henry led the NFL with 2,027 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. His production helped the Titans share second in total yards with the Bills.
But it's notable that of the six players that ranked in the top five in the NFL in rushing, Minnesota's Dalvin Cook, Chicago's David Montgomery and Jacksonville's James Robinson (Montgomery and Robinson tied for fifth) were on teams that missed the playoffs.
Of the running backs in the top 10, five were on nonplayoff clubs, including Josh Jacobs of the Las Vegas Raiders and Melvin Gordon of the Denver Broncos.
'Balance good if you win'
Last season, the Bills did significantly more passing than running. They had 596 pass attempts, which ranked 11th in the NFL, and 411 runs, which ranked 17th.
What about offensive balance? What about the supposed need to keep defenses guessing about how they'll be attacked? Bills offensive coordinator and play-caller Brian Daboll doesn't buy into that axiom.
"Balance is good if you win; it's not very good if you lose," Daboll told reporters. "Our philosophy is always going to be to do what we need to do to try to win a football game. If that means throw it 30 times in a row, then it's throw it 30 times in a row. If it means run it 30 times, then run it.
"We don't have specific numbers. We just try to go out there and do the best we can with the things that we need to do for that week."
Through the majority of last year, Daboll knew what was necessary to get the most out of the offense, in particular, and the team, in general. The primary names associated with the Bills' best season since the Super Bowl run of the mid-1990s were quarterback Josh Allen, who finished second in voting for league MVP, and Stefon Diggs, who finished first in the NFL in receptions and receiving yards. Cole Beasley did his share to keep the chains moving by catching the ball.
For all the fan complaints over the struggles of the Bills’ run game and criticism directed at Devin Singletary for the drop-off in production from his rookie year in 2020, the team stood pat with the Singletary-Zack Moss backfield combination. The Bills signed lower-tier free agent Matt Breida, but didn't draft a running back. They also did most of their free-agent spending to keep together an offensive line that drew its share of heat for what was lacking on the ground.
That doesn't mean the Bills have ignored the part of their offense, if not the entire team, that needed the most work.
"We look at everything as a coaching staff in February and March," Daboll said. "We study ourselves, we study other teams, we add new concepts, we tweak old concepts. Maybe we take out some stuff that we didn't like. That's a process that goes into, really, training camp more so with the running game and seeing how effective those (changes) are.
"Even the first few weeks of the season, you really don't know exactly what you are until you get going. We're going to constantly try to improve, really, in every area, run game included."
Jim Miller, a former NFL quarterback who played for the New England Patriots when Daboll was an assistant coach for them and Tom Brady was their starter, is confident Daboll will find the right blend of passing and running.
"I think he's experienced both sides of it," said Miller, a host on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "When we were in New England together, that's when we picked up Corey Dillon. I mean, think how that offense shifted to a running offense with Dillon's skill set and how they ran the football all the way up to Super Bowl XXXIX (when the Patriots beat the Philadelphia Eagles). And you think of Daboll at Alabama, calling the plays there."
That was in 2017, when the Crimson Tide averaged 251 yards rushing and 193 yards passing per game on the way to a national championship.
"So, I think Daboll is equipped to do whatever he needs to do," Miller said. "But he wants to be able to do it all. Like we always say in the NFL, you want to be multiple because the more multiple you are, you're harder to defend. Brian is of a multiple background, because that's how he was raised at Michigan State, when he was a graduate assistant, and his other experiences in college and, obviously, what he's learned in the pros.
"Maybe your opponent's without a couple of linebackers or a couple of defensive ends, and Brian Daboll says, 'Hey, let's get after these defensive ends by running a lot of outside zone,' or, 'Let's get physical and run some power plays inside where they just lost two interior 'backers.' "
Nevertheless, there's no denying the primary reason the Bills are widely viewed as a top Super Bowl contender. It's the same reason the Bucs and the Chiefs are seen in a similar light.
"All around the football world, all around the NFL, you have to be able to pass the football," Dawkins said. "I think the narrative and the slang of it is it's a passing league. The world knows it. Protecting the quarterback in the pass game is priority and then getting to the run game is not an afterthought, but just a second step."
Not everyone agrees.
Asking too much of Allen?
Former NFL quarterback Chris Simms, for one, thinks the Bills need to fundamentally change their offensive approach. He believes Allen's health, and the team's fortunes, depend on it.
"They realize, 'We can’t just ask this guy to drop back 45 times and just make everybody miss and run all over the field and make all the throws possible and win the games,' " Simms said on his podcast. "That’s not realistic for a second year in a row. I think you’re going to see more of a balanced attack. That’s what Sean McDermott wants to do. I think early on last year they realized, 'We’re not blocking that well (for the run), we’re struggling,' and they had to abandon the way they really wanted to play, especially with the Dolphins and Rams, who took away their run game."
Simms thinks the Bills' offensive imbalance isn't only a threat to Allen's health. He sees it as having a negative impact on Allen's productivity as a passer.
"Allen will take a step back if they try to play the same way they did last year," Simms said. "It’s too much to ask of the guy with not enough talent around him to help. With him and Daboll, they’re so aggressive. (Allen's) going to make his plays and do his things."
He added that the passing "numbers might go down, but it’s going to be about the importance of" the running plays.
Jim Kelly thinks "a little more of the running game" is necessary to help reduce the pressure on Allen.
"And, also, it puts more pressure on the defense when you have a two-phase offense," the Bills' Hall of Fame quarterback told reporters. "I know. I had Thurman Thomas in my backfield.
"They rely on their passing game more than when I played. It was almost 50-50 because I had a Hall of Famer in my backfield and I had an offensive line that was ready to go. Nobody ever complained except the defense. They complained that we were scoring too quick."
Miller agrees the Bills need to do a better job of running the ball. Despite last year's success, there was, he believed, a missing ingredient capable of costing them wins.
"Probably the only thing you'd say about Buffalo is they couldn't salt games away," Miller said. "When I played for the Bears in 2001, we could just salt games away by running the football. I think that was a missing piece for the Buffalo Bills, where basically they can control clock and close out a game. And I think that'll happen this year. Josh is going to be able to do more at the line of scrimmage in terms of 'check-with-mes,' and how they're calling certain plays in that way."
'Stats don't really matter'
Daboll doesn't accept the conclusion that the Bills' running game should be deemed a failure because it generated substantially fewer yards than their passing attack.
When it comes to the team's offensive production, he chooses to look at a larger picture.
"There were a lot of good runs, and there was some runs that weren't as good as we'd like them to be," Daboll said. "And you can really look at the pass game and say the same thing. You're always trying to be better. You want to be the best offense you can be, whether you rank higher in one area than the other, at the end of the day, we're going to try to do whatever we need to do to win a football game. And that's really all that really matters to us.
"If that week, we need to run the ball to win, it's really important, just like if we need to throw the ball to win, it's really important. There's a lot of different ways to win a game. You'd like to be first in the league in pass and first in the league in run, first in the league in total offense and first in the league in points. That rarely happens. The team that won the Super Bowl was second in the league in pass and 28th in rush.
"To me, stats don't really matter. What matters is being effective at the things you're asked to do when we need to do them. So, if that's to run the ball, it's to run the ball. If it's to pass, it's to pass it."
Coach Sean McDermott shares the philosophy that how often his team runs or passes is far less important than how often it wins.
What the Bills did offensively last season was good enough for them to have the second-highest win total in the NFL and add two more victories in the postseason.
“The word 'balance' gets thrown out there," McDermott said. "I'm not sure that's always the right thing. I think at the end of the day, what does it take to win the game? What does it take to develop the offense in training camp? What does it take to close out games?
"It's always moving, in terms of that bull's-eye, so depending on us, depending on the opponent, depending on the situation, there's other ways to be balanced without being balanced.”
For the Bills, a pass-first approach worked just fine last season. Why shouldn't they believe this year will be any different?
"There's nothing wrong with sticking to what works, absolutely," Dawkins said. "We have to be great at every aspect of a football game, but knowing your strengths and your weaknesses helps you win football games."