Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

21 Nov 2005

Two Coaches Take Risks, and Earn Rewards

Using the recent last-play victories by the Chiefs and Bucs as a backdrop, David Leonhardt makes the case that "N.F.L. teams have better luck in short-yardage situations when they run the ball." Still, Leonhardt concludes that, "Gruden and Vermeil aside, there is not much evidence that coaches are figuring this out. They have called a pass when they need only a yard roughly as often this season as in past years," even though "70 percent of running plays in those situations have picked up the first down, [while] only 56 percent of passes have." Thanks to Rich C. for the pointer. (free registration/bugmenot required)

Posted by: P. Ryan Wilson on 21 Nov 2005

8 comments, Last at 23 Nov 2005, 1:49am by Josh


by Ryan Mc (not verified) :: Mon, 11/21/2005 - 11:49am

I'd add that I think the simple QB sneak is the most under-appreciated play in football. In 15+ years of watching football I think I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen a sneak fail on 3rd/4th and 1.

by doktarr (not verified) :: Mon, 11/21/2005 - 11:58am

Leonhardt notes:

The best argument for running may be the simple fact that good teams call fewer passes in short-yardage situations than bad ones. Last season, playoff teams called a pass on 20 percent of fourth-and-1 plays. Teams that missed the playoffs threw the ball 24 percent of the time. The difference was similar in other recent seasons.

Here I see a bit of a selection bias. If your team is physically dominating the line of scrimmage, then it's a lot easier to trust your guys to push for a yard in an obvious running situation. And better teams tend to be better in the trenches.

So it's less that calling more runs in short yardage makes you a beter team, and more that being a better team leads to calling more runs.

That said, his overall thesis - that short yardage should be more slanted to the run - seems right.

by Becephalus (not verified) :: Mon, 11/21/2005 - 12:07pm

I am not sure 20 vs 24% is a large enough difference with that sample size to draw any firm conclusions whatsoever. The obvious thing is to just run the numbers and see what they say. Most reasonable people think they will say that passing plays are more likely to get you a large number of yards but are also more likely to get you zero or negative yards (exactly what you don't want in this situation).

Of course as with everything in football defenses know this so the slight (say 7%) advantage (in percentage of plays which gain at least 1 yard) the run has over the pass can be completely negated by the defense stacking the line in which case you are probably better off passing.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Mon, 11/21/2005 - 3:06pm

There's a problem with some people (such as TMQ) going overboard on their whole "You have to run in short yardage!" schtick. Yes, a short yardage run converts more often than a short yardage pass. HOWEVER, if you run 100% of the time in short yardage, your chances of converting via run will steadily decrease because other teams will stack 11 in the box because they know with 100% certainty that you will run. Now, if you throw 5% of the time, they might stack 10 in the box. If you throw 20% of the time, they wouldn't dare stack more than 8 or 9. If you throw 50% of the time, they probably won't even stack at all.

The question isn't just "what gives me the best chance of converting THIS short yardage situation", it's "what gives me the best chance of converting this and every subsequent short yardage situation". Coaches throw in short yardage sometimes because they are deliberately reducing their chances of converting this time to raise the probability of converting every other time for the rest of the season. It's a balancing act, throwing just enough to maximize the percentage of the time that a run will succeed.

At least, that's how it works for the more grounded coaches, like Cowher, Shanahan, and Fox. Some coaches, like Reid and Mike Martz, are just too in love with the pass for their own good.

by Basilicus (not verified) :: Mon, 11/21/2005 - 5:06pm

This was in no game more glaring than in the two-point conversion attempt the 49ers made to tie the game yesterday. Hicks had been running well all day, had just bulled in for the TD, and what'd they do but drop Ken Dorsey back. I'm sorry, but given the choice between relying on a hard-running back who'd been solid all day and Ken Dorsey, I'd choose the back every time. In my opinion, it was one of the worst single play calls I've seen this season.

by mshray (not verified) :: Mon, 11/21/2005 - 6:27pm

Basilicus, I agree with you in principle, but look at that play again & I think you might reconsider. The Seahawks had a lot of people in the middle, clearly ready to charge at the first sign of a straight-up hand off. And Hicks got 72 of his 83 yards on 2 carries. The other 11 yards on the other 9 carries included (rather obviously) several negatives or zeros. In fact the play call worked beautifully but Dorsey (who until then had maybe the best game of his short career) freaked out. He thought he had pressure, threw early without setting up properly and short-hopped it badly to a guy who was only somewhat open. But if you look again you'll see RB Terry Jackson sitting in the right flat on about the 3 1/2 yard line & the only defender within 10 yards is running full speed away from him covering the WR. If Dorsey had calmed down for 2 tenths of a second & looked to his right he'd have tied the game & we'd all be talking about how well that play worked. Granted they might have play actioned it, but anytime you get someone that wide open in that situation & fail to score it's somebody other than the coach's fault.

by Basilicus (not verified) :: Mon, 11/21/2005 - 11:45pm

Point taken. I hadn't looked at the play that closely - I just remembered my immediate reaction. And I tuned in on the game a bit late, where the announcers were saying Hicks had been dominating every single carry, and though announcers usually exaggerate, Hicks looked like he was quite solid in the last part of the game that I saw. Still, Dorsey panicking - whether the play was a good play or not - is exactly why I wouldn't put the game in Dorsey's hands. In other words, I still think the call itself was very questionable considering the talent on the field.

by Josh (not verified) :: Wed, 11/23/2005 - 1:49am

I agree with the basic point, teams should go for it and run in the situations of the past two weeks at the goal line. However, one qualification I would make is that there may be a significant difference between the success rate on 3rd or 4th and 1 or 2, and 3rd or 4th and goal from the 1 or 2. Elsewhere on the field, the defense is mainly concerned with stopping a 1st down, but also must worry about giving up a big play, so the defensive back will be a little further back. This could suggest that success rates at the goal line would be somewhat lower when running. Are there numbers on this? Just from watching games, it does seem that teams get stopped more at the goal line then on 3rd or 4th and short elsewhere.

Still, I agree that even with that, it pays to go for it in those goal line situations we've seen in recent weeks