Press Check: Second Down Rushes After First Down Incompletes

by Aaron Schatz

I love Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback column at  I've been reading it since he wrote it at  I love the humor.  I love the haikus.  I love the cheesecake photos.  I love the way he notices missed blocks and blown coverages that no other football writer mentions.  By the way, have I also mentioned that I love the articles he writes for The New Republic, as well as the political blog he keeps on their website?

So I feel a bit strange that the first time I decide to fact-check a football writer, I'm fact-checking Easterbrook.

In today's column, Easterbrook proclaims one of his Immutable Laws of Football: Clang on First Bars Run on Second.  He writes, "Teams that throw incomplete on first down feel they must run on second down; defenses know this; the second-down rush is invariably stuffed; suddenly, it's third-and-long. Coaches planning to call the totally obvious rush following an incompletion on first down might as well tell the officials they are waiving their second down and will proceed directly to third-and-10."

It makes some sense.  Unfortunately, in order to prove his point he falls into that dreaded trap of determining that one week's events tell you the immutable truths of football.  He measures three specific games from this weekend (Saints-Titans, Jets-Pats, and Vikings-Lions) and notes that "there were 12 incompletions on first down that were followed by rushes on second down; the runs netted just 9 yards."  He then notes that "TMQ will track this stat through the season to see if it's a representative outcome."

Gregg, my man, why didn't you just ask me?  I've got this little database here, you know...

One of the things I've been meaning to do on this website is to test the various proclamations of football writers, so I decided to test out Easterbrook's immutable law as my first Press Check.  I went through all of the 2002 play-by-play data, isolating all second down plays.  I included only plays where the game was within 8 points either way, since Easterbrook himself says the law does not apply during blowouts and uses only close games as a check.  Since the immutable law applies to straight rushing plays, I took out all rushing plays by quarterbacks and wide receivers, leaving only running backs and fullbacks.

The results?  Rushing after a first down incomplete pass isn't the best way to achieve success on the football field, but it isn't stuffed as constantly as Easterbrook makes it sound.  This table presents the results of second down plays that followed first down incomplete passes last year in close games, including the average yards gained, the average yards required for first down, and the percentage of plays that were "successful" according to the rules of our VOA formula -- plays that gained 65% or more of the yards needed for a first down.

Average yards 4.6 5.4
Average yards to go 9.9 10.1
Successful plays 26% 36%
Total plays 564 703

Hmmm.  That doesn't look so bad, does it?  Averaging 4.6 yards isn't going to get you a lot of third-and-shorts, but it isn't exactly "tell[ing] the officials they are waiving their second down and will proceed directly to third-and-10."

OK, what about a comparison to other second down plays?  The next table presents the results of second down runs in close games split into three different groups: following incomplete passes, following complete passes, and following rushes or penalties.  For fun, we'll one more percentage to this table.  Let's call it the STUFFED! percentage, representing how often a play gets less than 25% of required yards for first down -- in other words, on second-and-10 after an incomplete pass, runs of 0-2 yards.  Anthony Thomas, please pick up the white courtesy phone...

Average yards 4.6 3.6 4.0
Average yards to go 9.9 4.2 6.7
Average gain in % of yards to go 47% 87% 60%
Successful plays 26% 50% 42%
STUFFED! 38% 28% 32%
Total plays 564 654 1629

So, only 38% of rushing plays on second down following a first down incomplete pass get stuffed for two yards or less.  I hate to say this, but I don't think TMQ's immutable law is that immutable.  That being said, see that 4.2 average yards to go number after a complete pass?  See that an average of 87% of needed yards are gained on a second down run after a complete pass?  That, folks, is why passing the ball on first down is a very good way to win football games.  Provided you complete the pass more often than not, of course.

Perhaps as this season continues, and TMQ tracks his immutable law, we'll find that the numbers disagree with what we've found above.  Based on 2002, however, Clang on First does not necessarily Bar Run on Second.  Although I definitely still agree that Coach Wearing K2 Survivor Gear Does Not Equal Victory.


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