A lot of football fans on this site and elsewhere express a preference for a powerful running game. The reason is most likely empirical; teams that can run the football with consistency seem to be better than those that can not. Hard luck teams looking for a turn around often go to power running schemes: Bill McCartney was on the verge of getting fired at Colorado until he switched to first the wishbone, then the I-bone and instituted a power running game. Harbaugh turned Stanford around with fullbacks and pulling guards. So what is it about a consistent running game that makes teams better? A good explanation can be found in Vince Lombardi's introduction to his description of the power sweep. Some key points:
1.) "Every football team eventually arrives at a lead play..."
That is, the team arrives at a lead play, not necessarily the play that the coach likes, or that the fans demand, but the play that, because of the capabilities and personalities of the team, the experience leve,l chemistry, etc. the team is best at running.
2.) "It is the play that the team knows that it must make go, and the play that its opponent's know they must stop."
A lead play gives an offense an identity. It creates the mindset that the team knows what it must do to win, and that when the breaks are going the wrong way, when the weather is bad, etc, it still has a chance to succeed.
3.) "Continued success with it, of course, makes a number one play, because from that success stems your own teams confidence."
The product of successful coaching is not so much knowledge, but confidence. Having a reliable play, or even series of plays, gives a team confidence that they can compete and have a path to success, without relying on wizardry or gameday guesswork.
4.) "Behind that is the basic truth that is expresses the coach as a coach, and the players as a team."
Again, having a base play or set of plays gives a team an identity and if the team can execute those plays consistently, a successful identity. Having a firm identity allows a team to understand its capabilities, to develop instincts and attitudes that make it successful. A team without such an identity does not understand itself, and is no better off than if it does not scout or understand its opponents.
5.) "And they feel complete satisfaction when they execute it successfully."
This is key. Having a lead play that gives a team an identity, that they can execute regularly builds team cohesion. It is fun to get back in the huddle after consistently getting 4 to six yards per snap and the defense can't do anything about it. There is a tangible feeling of satisfaction that the offense has when dictating to the defense; that the offense can run if it wants and pass when it feels like, rather than when it is desperate.
Great teams have base running plays: Lombardi's Packers (and Walsh's 49ers) had the power sweep; the Washing Redskins had the counter trey; Shanahan's Broncos had Elway, but also had Terrell Davis and the inside zone. Great teams can run the football, and they do not do so willy-nilly. They have lead plays. If they don't, they have coaches who give post game press conferences that include the phrase "the play was there, we just didn't execute." Good coaches are like good investors. They run plays that give them the best chance to be successful, rather than plays that would be awesome "if..."
So what makes a lead running play? There are about seven attributes of a run play that make it a lead play, and that can be found in the lead plays of almost all championship offenses:
1.) How inexpensive is it? How much practice time, talent, experience etc. is necessary for the team to make the play work? The reference here is the quarterback sneak.
2.) How robust is it? Can the team run the play in varying conditions, such as bad weather, against better athletes, with one or two starters out etc.? Again the reference here is the quarterback sneak.
3.) How fault tolerant is it? Can the team make the play work even if someone blows an assignment, or does the play have such a high execution threshold that the team ends up stopping itself?
4.) How efficient is it? How likely is the team to get four yards every time it runs the play. Two thirds is a good goal. This is why the QB sneak is not usually a lead play.
5.) How explosive is it? How likely is the team to get more than twelve yards when it runs the play?
6.) How durable is it? How many times can the team run the play in a game or in a single drive? A double reverse obviously is a poor candidate for a lead running play. On the other hand, the Redskins ran counter trey 22 times in the Super Bowl.
7.) How adaptable is it? Is it easy to set up constraint plays, to take advantage of defensive adjustments?
Here are two other points regarding having an effective running game:
1.) In general, the risk tolerance of your offense is dictated by the effectiveness of your defense. If your defense is struggling, or the other team's offense is particularly potent, a good running game is part of an overall game strategy to limit the opponent's score. (The reverse is also true. The risk tolerance of the defense varies with the ability of the offense to generate points.)
2.) Coaches out-coach one another during the week of preparation before a game, not during the game. Game day gurus and offensive wizardry is the province of X-box and Madden. More often than not (there are probably some exceptions) great coaches have teams that can run the football.