Around the time Pro-Football-Reference added the Game Play Finder in 2012, I used it to look up Tom Brady's rushing success in short-yardage situations (third or fourth down, 1-2 yards to go). The results were staggering. Including last season, in his regular-season career Brady is 88 out of 91 (96.7 percent) on these runs, including 56 straight conversions. That's almost as efficient as the extra point. After researching some other quarterbacks, I found that most of them had great conversion rates. This is largely due to the quarterback sneak, which has worked 85.9 percent of the time since 2009. The Tim Tebow signing in New England this summer gave me the green light to compile this study, which was done as a special feature for Sports Illustrated. While Brady is the master of the quarterback sneak, the research shows quarterbacks in general, regardless of passing proficiency, size and caliber of their offensive line, are the best options to convert a short-yardage run. Physics and geometry would agree.
Mathematician Euclid is famous for the axiom that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. This basic geometric rule can be applied to football when it comes to converting a short-yardage play. In a common running formation where the quarterback is under center with a running back behind him, the point at which the running back secures the handoff is often at least four yards behind the line of scrimmage. Add the extra yard needed for the first down and you are asking the running back to run for five yards just to gain one. It will be even longer (over six yards) if the play is a toss or pitch. Let’s not forget that the running back often starts seven yards deep in the backfield on these plays so his total distance ran is absurdly high when only a yard or two is needed.
The distance can be slightly shorter on a shotgun handoff, but not by much unless using the pistol where the quarterback and running back are closer to the line of scrimmage. We are witnessing the rise in popularity of the pistol, but it was not analyzed in this study. Now if the quarterback lines up under center to run the quarterback sneak, he’s just inches away from the line of scrimmage and can follow the center as his lead blocker. His distance to the first down is not much more than the one (or two) yards needed.
There’s also the element of time as things happen very quickly on an NFL field. When the quarterback takes the snap on the sneak, he often will immediately start the running process. Some will delay to pick a better hole, but usually it’s a drive right up the gut. Though when the running back’s number is called, that extra time it takes for the quarterback and running back to meet on the handoff allows for the defense to have more time to penetrate the line and disrupt the play.
Even if it’s not a sneak the quarterback still has some options on deceptive runs by design such as a bootleg or draw. These also have proven to be very effective in short yardage, but again are rarely ever used. Teams would rather bring in the specialist. T.J. Duckett was considered a power back and short-yardage specialist in Atlanta while Warrick Dunn was more of the speed guy. Yet Duckett converted just 20-of-38 short runs (52.6 percent) in his four seasons with the Falcons. In the same time, Dunn was 26 of 37 (70.3 percent) despite giving up three inches and roughly 70 pounds to Duckett.
After Atlanta, Duckett failed on two of his four short runs in Washington (2006), made four of five in Detroit (2007) and finished on a good note in Seattle, converting 16 of 20. That’s 75.9 percent in his post-Atlanta career, which is more in line with his reputation. The struggles in Atlanta could have been due to Duckett being targeted as the specialist and getting too many carries in big formations that were obviously going to be runs. That lowered his success rate as defenses worried more about a pass with Dunn in the backfield.
That’s the beauty of the quarterback running the ball in short yardage. No matter whom he is, that player will always have the schematic advantage over the defense. They are all short-yardage specialists due to positioning alone.