Michael Lombardi's Formula for Winning and What It Means for the Browns in 2013

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Michael Lombardi's Formula for Winning and What It Means for the Browns in 2013
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
If per-game rushes and pass completions reach 50, does that mean an automatic win like Browns GM Michael Lombardi suggests?

You may or may not be familiar with Cleveland Browns general manager Mike Lombardi's "formula for winning" (for lack of a better term). His assertion is that the sum of rushing attempts plus pass completions needs to average out to at least 50 in order for a team to be successful (Joe Fortenbaugh of the National Football Post takes a look at the formula here).

Though not a flawless formula—the New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys got very close to the magic number of 50 last season but ended the year with 7-9 and 8-8 records, respectively—there is a very strong argument for its accuracy.

As Fortenbaugh points out, 30 of the 50 teams that ranked in the top 10 in rushing attempts plus completions in the past five seasons have made the playoffs, only five of those 50 have had a losing record and the average win-loss record of those teams has been 10-6. 

Rob Carr/Getty Images
The Dallas Cowboys are one of just two teams that hit Lombardi's "magic number" last year but didn't make the playoffs.

For reference, in the 2012 season, the Browns approached a combined 50 rushes and completions eight times—49 in Week 2's loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, 51 in Week 6's win over the Cincinnati Bengals, 47 in Week 9's loss to the Baltimore Ravens, 53 in Week 11's overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys, 51 in a Week 12 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, 55 in Week 13's win against the Oakland Raider, 52 in Week 14's win over the Kansas City Chiefs and 48 in Week 17's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That's three wins when they met the number and five losses with they didn't.

They only had one game—in Week 8 against the San Diego Chargers—when they didn't get too close to 50 combined completions and rushes; that total was 44, and they won by one point.

None of the losses they had when they approached 50 completions and rushes were by more than 10 points, save Week 17. Their average combined completions and rushes on the year was 45 (328 completed passes plus 396 rushes divided by 16), below Lombardi's benchmark number. When just Weeden's 297 completions and Richardson's 267 rushes are added up, that average drops to 35.

All of this information is interesting, especially when framed within the context of this year's iteration of the new-look Browns. After all, the creator and main proponent of this philosophy is the team's general manager, so it's not hard to assume that it will be integrated into the way Cleveland's offense operates this year.

Let's take a look at the ways Lombardi's formula could influence the Browns' strategy for the upcoming season.

 

300 Carries for Trent Richardson?

Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Three hundred carries for the season means Trent Richardson will need an average of two more carries per game this year than he had in 2012.

Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner would like second-year running back Trent Richardson to get 300 carries this season, despite the league trending far more heavily towards the pass.

Turner, who knows a few things about running back talent—Emmett Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson are among those he coached—praised Richardson's skills in the pre-training camp media session. But some were still left wondering if 300 carries is really the plan the Browns have in mind for the 2012 first-round draft pick.

Based on the Lombardi formula, Turner's vocal commitment to the run makes sense.

There are many ways to get to the magic number of 50, and when a team possesses a true feature back—one that Turner called the best player on the team—heavy running is certainly an option.

Over 16 games, 300 runs averages out to 18.7 carries per game, or two more per game than Richardson had in 2012. Surely, the Browns can add at least two run plays per game this year, whether that means Richardson's carries go up (apparently the desired course for the Browns at this time) or another back also adds a contribution. 

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
If there's a coordinator who can get the most out of Richardson this year, it's Norv Turner.

Richardson had 18 or more carries in eight games last season, with his most productive stretch coming not only when the Browns approached or exceeded the magic number of 50, but also in wins.

Keep in mind that most of this production came while Richardson was struggling under the pain of broken ribs. A healthy Richardson this year should be able to handle a consistently heavy workload while improving upon his 3.6 yards-per-carry average from 2012. 

Though the run game appears to be less popular in today's NFL, there's actually been just a three-to-four percent drop in rushing attempts in the league over the last decade.

Still, only five running backs hit 300 carries in 2012—Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, Alfred Morris of the Washington Redskins, Doug Martin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arian Foster of the Houston Texans and Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks.

Interestingly enough, four of those five teams managed to reach the playoffs last season.

The importance of the run game—or rather, a good, productive run game—hasn't really decreased. When it works, it helps teams significantly. It makes sense that the Browns would want similar production out of their top running back this year, especially in the lens of Lombardi's formula. 

 

The Passing Component

Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Brandon Weeden needs to up his completion percentage this year, regardless of his target depth.

Fortenbaugh also points out that nine of the top 10 teams in rushing attempts plus completions last year featured quarterbacks who led the league in passer rating. It makes sense: The better the quarterback, the greater the number of completions.

But he also points out that "elite" status isn't necessary for a quarterback to help his offense reach the magic number—really, efficiency is the most important thing.

He points out as an example the 2008 Buccaneers, who ranked fifth in the league in completions plus rush attempts with Jeff Garcia as their quarterback. His quarterback rating that year was in the top 10, but he was nowhere near the league's leader in passing yardage.

The Browns don't need Brandon Weeden to morph into Peyton Manning over the course of an offseason (though it would be welcomed); they just need him to be more effective at moving the chains, even if that doesn't result in a 4,500-yard passing season for the second-year quarterback.

Not once did Weeden complete 30 passes in a game. His quarterback rating for 2012 was 72.6, thanks to a completion percentage of 57.4 and the fact that he threw 14 touchdowns to 17 interceptions on the year.

In his new offense—one better suited to his strengths—he should have a more efficient and productive season. There's also a lot to be said for having a year of NFL experience to his name and coming back more prepared.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Brandon Weeden doesn't need Peyton Manning-like numbers; a good template for his season is Jeff Garcia's 2008 with the Buccaneers.

The biggest thing to keep in mind about the passing component of Lombardi's formula is that it focuses on completions, not attempts. Weeden doesn't have to throw more. He just needs to complete more of his passes, even if that comes in games in which he throws the ball 35 or fewer times. 

The Browns' interest in running the ball more this year should help out Weeden, relieving the pressure of having to carry the weight of the offense play after play and hopefully resulting in greater efficiency out of the passer.

After all, in games in which Richardson gets around 30 carries (something he did three times in 2012), Weeden can have 20 completions and the Browns will still reach the magic number. 

 

However...

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Is Lombardi's magic number of 50 a classic case of "chicken-or-the-egg?"

There is a devilish detail wrapped up in Lombardi's formula—it almost requires the Browns to build early leads and protect them. It presupposes being conservative in offensive game-planning. Remember: This formula is about completions, not how deep the pass was that ultimately resulted in it being caught. 

Throwing five- or seven-yard low-risk passes and running heavily is often the provenance of teams that already have a two- or three-score lead.

That's not always the case, of course—Todd Haley runs a high-percentage passing offense in Pittsburgh that is focused on methodically moving the chains and keeping possession of the ball. The strategy worked wonders prior to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's 2012 injury, even with an uncharacteristically terrible run game supporting it. 

Therefore, having a lead isn't necessary for Lombardi's formula to work. But if the Browns fall significantly behind in a game, this strategy becomes a bit less useful.

Playing catch-up in the NFL means taking more risks—throwing deep passes, even though they are less likely to pay off—and running less, unless for some reason running keeps producing first downs where the pass cannot. 

Questions of "correlation or causation?" arise from Lombardi's formula. Is this a road map for how to win games, or is it simply a way to explain what winning teams do? Further, if the Browns can complete 25 passes every week and run the ball 25 more times but cannot score touchdowns out of those plays, does the magic number of 50 really matter? 

Lombardi's theory may be more of a guidepost than a prescription—evidence of a commonality between the offenses of teams that win games rather than a strategy that can be universally employed.

And, needless to say, the Browns both failed at reaching 50 combined completions and runs multiple times last year and also finished the season with five wins. The two are related; it's just a matter of why, and what it means.

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
How can the Browns apply Lombardi's theory if they're significantly behind their opponents, as they were last year against the Denver Broncos?

There's also the matter of defense to consider.

This is merely an offensive theory; it doesn't take into account what defenses contribute to winning football games, things such as turnovers, effective pressure on opposing quarterbacks and good pass coverage.

The Browns are working hard in training camp to fully realize defensive coordinator Ray Horton's vision of an aggressive 3-4 defense. The better that works, the need for the Browns' offense to hit 50 completions and rushes per game becomes less important than simply finding ways to score points. 

Lombardi's theory has merit, but it's hard to say that it's a foolproof method to win games. Clearly, successful offenses have commonalities when it comes to running the ball and completing passes, and that's something the Browns should strive to accomplish this year.

But to go into each game ticking down each run and each completion until they near a total of 50 isn't the skeleton key to unlocking a winning season or a playoff appearance. 

 

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