ESPN: Busting NFL's Biggest Myths

Khalil Mack
Khalil Mack
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

At ESPN+, here's a look at some of the biggest NFL myths that have been busted by analytics. If you're a regular reader, you'll be familiar with a lot of these: there's no such thing as establishing the run, you don't have to finish the season hot to do well in the postseason, pressure rates tell us more than sack totals, you don't need to run more to improve play-action, and so forth. A good summary of things we have learned at Football Outsiders.

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1 comment, Last at 05 Sep 2019, 2:41pm

1 Establishing the Run

I think the guys at PFF put it best, "the NFL has existed for 100 years, the run was already established 100 years ago." If you could "establish the run", then your first few runs of the day would be going for 10 yard averages, as teams were all surprised that you ran the ball. After this, the YPC would start dropping down, as teams figured out that you were legally allowed to rush the ball. That never happens. Instead, teams seem routinely surprised by play action fakes, despite these being straight up better plays for most teams most of the time.

I would love to see a team that legitimately runs play action 4x more than running, game in game out, or even higher, just to see if defenses truly adapt to not biting on play action fakes. There has to be an equilibrium point somewhere, I just don't think that any team has reached it yet.

Pressure rate is another that's very intuitive. Sacks are relatively rare, pressures much less so. If you look at a players or a teams sacks, you're just looking at a smaller sample size than if you look at pressures. An interesting equivalent would probably be catches given up by a cornerback, as opposed to a much harder to measure "coverage stickiness" per snap. Smaller vs higher sample size.

What's more surprising to me is the lack of correlation between how a team ends the season, and how they do in the playoffs. I would think injuries alone would have made that a bigger deal that it turns out to be.