SI: The Most Unstoppable Play in the NFL

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.

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19 comments, Last at 01 Oct 2013, 9:33am

1 Re: SI: The Most Unstoppable Play in the NFL

Tom Brady has such a high success rate because he's such a good decision maker, and so accurate, when throwing the ball on extremely short yardage. That, and the fact the Patriots tend to have very competent offensive line play. Lemme me know how well Jay Cutler has done.

2 Re: SI: The Most Unstoppable Play in the NFL

Was there any kind of control for quarterback scrambles after dropping back to pass? Otherwise, any scramble for positive yards would be counted as a successful run, while any failed scramble for 0 or negative yardage would show up as a sack in the play-by-play and thus not be in the study.

3 Re: SI: The Most Unstoppable Play in the NFL

I think the last point about Dunn and Duckett points out a tangential pet peeve of mine - the assumption by announcers and analysts that you have to be big to pick up short yardage situations.

It seems to me that size, speed, and decision making all factor in. And that a big back is no more likely to "push the pile" for a yard, than a small back is to sneak through a seam for a yard.

Anyone know if there's been any data here or on another site to analyze this?

13 Re: SI: The Most Unstoppable Play in the NFL

I'm not so sure about that.

A QB sneak isn't really like a power run with a big back. The QB gets the snap and picks a gap to fall forward into. A running back will get the ball a yard or two behind the line of scrimmage, and the defense will have had time to penetrate and fill some gaps, so the back will either have to (a) be shifty enough to avoid defenders and find a gap or (b) power through any defenders in his way.

So the overall conclusion might still be suspect, but I wouldn't say it has anything to do with QBs being "big backs".

15 Re: SI: The Most Unstoppable Play in the NFL

I don't think I was drawing a conclusion as much as throwing out my hypothesis. My pet peeve is that announcers and analysts seem to have already drawn their conclusion that if you need a yard or two you should use a "big back" to get it.

I'm wondering if there's any good factual analysis of my hypothesis out there.

Also, I wasn't referring to a QB sneak, as that isn't what you usually hear about from announcers (to my, admittedly, possibly lousy recollection). Instead to hear a lot of talk about how one guy in the backfield is small and fast for more big play ability and the other guy is big for short yardage. Or often I seem to hear that teams have a big back to use in goal line situations.

5 Re: SI: The Most Unstoppable Play in the NFL

Not ashamed to say that in Madden 95 (my first ever Madden), I used to run whole drives of the QB sneak. Boring, but very effective! Why aren't we seeing it more often? Especially on plays where you go 4 or 5 wide to really spread out the D.

8 Re: SI: The Most Unstoppable Play in the NFL

Injuries? The cost-benefit relationship of having your $15M/year player hammered by Haloti Ngata 6-10 times per game when he needn't do it? The incessant booing and debris throwing of the fans? I understand you can sign as UDFAs multiple QBs who are not generally thought of as NFL caliber for this role and pay them rookie minimum each year, but then when you have to run a real offense, down by 14 with four minutes left, what are your options? I don't mean to be snarky because when I think of the spread O and a QB gashing the D up the gut for seven I smile, but I don't think you can do that with a premium investment, and most teams want/need a great passer to be competitive.

If you had a Porsche and were stuck in traffic, would you drive it over the curb and through a stretch of woods to get home sooner? Not likely. Would you do it with a bottom of the line sedan? Maybe, but it's not advisable. Would you do it with a burly 4x4 that could definitely handle the abuse? Maybe, maybe not. You COULD, but still might decide it's not worth the risks (legal and mechanical). That's how I view the QB running more than 5 times a game, especially once the D is aware of it and might bring the lumber.

9 Re: SI: The Most Unstoppable Play in the NFL

Well yes, injuries...there's that haha. Hasn't stopped Brady running sneaks in the past. I just wonder how many he'd have to do per game before it was deemed too risky by the talking heads and other 'experts'? And how 'injureable' is a QB on a sneak, as opposed to other plays? I reckon 'ol Tom could throw in another sneak or two a game without Pats fans holding their breath too much. But that's just me....easier if it isn't a $15mil per year player of course, eg. if it's Matt Flynn competing with another guy on the roster who's equally questionable in ability, sneak away good sir!

11 Re: SI: The Most Unstoppable Play in the NFL

Brady is also one of the best at quick snapping and diving for 3 yards when the defense isn't even set, or has too many people on the field while trying to substitute. I've seen him do it before when no one else on his offense even moved, other than him and the center.

14 Re: SI: The Most Unstoppable Play in the NFL

Carson Palmer was good at doing this in Oakland, which further proves my point you don't need a good QB to run this play to great success.

As for injuries, shots like the one Brady took in 2011 AFC-C from Lewis are very rare on the sneak. That was really him diving over the line too instead of just grinding into the line. That was also a desperate 4th-and-goal situation.

It's unlikely any team would average more than 4 short-yardage situations per game in a season. I've said you don't need to do this every time as there are times where it's better to just throw a pass or hand off. Play the situation. When you have to have the conversion, then the sneak is the best call.

19 Re: SI: The Most Unstoppable Play in the NFL

thought about this last night during the MNF game. Dolphins were playing the Saints and had 3rd down and about 1 inch to go. Dolphins ran a running play that took a long time to develop and the RB was stopped for a loss. Dolphins kicked a FG. Tannehill could have kept the ball on 3rd and inches and easily went forward to pick up the 2 inches that was needed for a first down.