Pass at Your Own Peril

Taking to the air has become the way of the NFL, but when do we reach the point where teams are passing too much, for the worse? We may already be there

By
Greg A. Bedard
· More from Greg·
One of a few teams not running enough this year, the Bengals' reliance on Andy Dalton cost them against the Browns in Week 4, and it could cost them again this week against the Patriots. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)
One of a few teams not running enough this year, the Bengals’ reliance on Andy Dalton cost them against the Browns in Week 4, and it could cost them again this week against the Patriots. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

The NFL is a passing league, we all know this. When you combine more talented passers and receivers coming up from the college ranks with the quarterback protection and defensive contact rules that put defenses at a disadvantage, it makes sense. It’s been almost too easy to throw.

But the feeling I’ve gotten the past couple of weeks is that some teams have gotten too pass happy, to their own detriment. Teams used to pass because it was advantageous, either because of personnel or scheme—that’s what the defense gave them. Now, teams throw just to throw. And it’s hurting the teams that don’t know their own limitations.

That’s what I’ve thought watching the games. But is that reality? I crunched a few numbers to see whether there was anything to that. The conclusion confirmed my hunch: teams are throwing more, and most are hurting themselves doing it.

So far this season, teams are 61.1 percent pass, 39.9 percent run. A year ago after four weeks, teams were 59 percent pass, 41 percent run. At the end of the 2012 season (since rushing attempts usually increase as the weather deteriorates) NFL teams had a 57.7/42.3 pass-run split.

I wanted to see how teams were affected by their change in balance. I took each team’s average number of rushing attempts through Week 4 in 2012, and compared that to this season. Seven teams have increased their rushing attempts by at least three per game. Thirteen have decreased their rushing attempts by at least three per game.

How has that affected them? To get a rough gauge, I subtracted each team’s 2012 DVOA rating (defense-adjusted value over average—a formula that breaks down every NFL play and compares that to the league average based on situation) from Football Outsiders to what they’ve posted this season. I used overall DVOA instead of offensive DVOA because I believe a running game helps all facets of a football team, when you factor in how it, in theory, gives a defense more rest on the sidelines.

bedard-rushing-tableYou can see the results in the chart to the right (red highlights a negative DVOA difference). But here are the highlights:

• Of the seven teams that have increased their rushing attempts by more than three per game, only one (Oakland) has not improved as a team—and the Raiders’ -4.0 percent DVOA difference is not great. The other six have improved greatly, exhibited by a DVOA resurgence of between 16.3 percent and 41.4 percent.

• Of the 13 teams that have gone away from the run by more than three attempts per game, only the Dolphins—who had the largest drop in rush attempts, decreasing their emphasis by 12.8 per game—have improved (5.8 percent DVOA). Three teams have regressed in the single digits in DVOA, while seven have fallen in the double digits.

A perfect example of what a running game can do has been the Patriots. Through three weeks, a struggling pass offense helped keep New England to a 13.7 percent DVOA (11th in the NFL). Despite a lack of dependable targets for quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots had a 60/40 pass-run balance playing three games that were either close or in which they had command of (Bucs). But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in their best victory of the season, the Patriots had a perfect run/pass balance of 31 rushes and 31 pass attempts against the Falcons. As a result, the New England jumped to seventh in DVOA. Their overall number took a dip—mostly because the defense gave up a bunch of yards after the Falcons trailed by double digits—but their offensive DVOA went from –10.7 percent (23rd) to 2.6 percent (15th).

Conversely in that game, the Falcons continued to get more out of whack. In a first half that ended 10-10, the Patriots had 15 rushes and nine pass attempts. The Falcons had 11 rushes and 25 pass attempts. By the end of the game, Matt Ryan had dropped back 56 times, and the Falcons attempted 15 rushes despite the fact that the Patriots could be run on, even moreso after nose tackle Vince Wilfork left less than five minutes into the game. I don’t care if Steven Jackson didn’t play—that’s just wrong, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. So were the 43 pass attempts and 16—16!—rushes in the Falcons’ victory over the Rams, a game in which Atlanta led 24-3 at halftime.

Elsewhere …

• The Bengals were similarly skewed against the Browns. Despite not trailing by two scores until there were fewer than five minutes left in the game, the Bengals had Andy Dalton drop back 44 times, while only running the ball 20 times (four by Dalton). The Browns passed 41 times and rushed 30.

• In a loss to the Bills, the Ravens had nine rushes and 54 passes; Buffalo had 24 passes and 55 rushes.

• In a 13-10 game, the Cardinals and Buccaneers—who both have mediocre to poor quarterback play—combined for 84 pass attempts and 51 rushes. Who exactly on the Buccaneers staff thought it would be a good idea to drop back rookie Mike Glennon 45 times in his first career start?

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• The Texans had great balance as they took a commanding 20-6 lead over the Seahawks. Once it was cut to 20-13 in the fourth quarter, the Texans’ next series went: incomplete pass, sack, short pass, punt. Same score, looking to ice the game, Houston had four Arian Foster rushes for 17 yards, and then Matt Schaub threw a game-tying pick-6.

• The Giants and Steelers are a combined 0-8. They’re also rushing a combined 12 fewer times per game.

• Washington finally won last weekend for the first time against the Raiders. Wouldn’t you know it, it rushed and passed 32 times. In its Week 3 27-20 loss to the Lions, Washington didn’t trail by more than two scores until there was 3:56 remaining in the game. For the game, gimpy quarterback Robert Griffin III dropped back 52 times, compared to 22 rushes (six by Griffin). For the season, Washington is averaging 12 fewer rushing attempts per game.

Sometimes I get the feeling offensive coordinators are just trying to prove how smart they are, and show what cool route combination they come up with next. Nobody cares, and it’s not helping your team. Run the ball more. You’ll thank me later.

First …

Could we be seeing a changing of the guard this weekend in the NFC North? It’s distinctly possible when the Lions (3-1) visit Lambeau Field and the Packers (1-2). Green Bay had the bye week to get healthy and put its disappointing loss to the Bengals behind them. The Packers are going to be hard-pressed to stop the Lions’ offense. Green Bay hasn’t generated much pressure on the quarterback (No. 30 in The MMQB’s pressure rating), and the Lions have protected well (second in pressure rate allowed). So the question is, will Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense be able to keep pace? It will come down to whether or not the Packers’ patchwork line can continue to do a solid job (eighth in our ratings) against the explosive defensive line of the Lions (third in pressure points but 10th when adjusted for snaps). If the Packers can protect Rodgers, and he doesn’t hold the ball, the Lions’ cornerbacks are ripe for the taking by the Packers’ receivers. That being said, in five games against the Lions since 2010, Rodgers has had mediocre numbers (for him): 66.1 completion percentage, seven touchdowns, four interceptions, sacked 12 times and a rating of 98.2. The Packers are looking for their 22nd straight victory against the Lions at Lambeau. A loss would drop Green Bay to 1-3, make for interesting times around the team.

(More thoughts on Page 2)

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19 comments
NesbyGlasgow427
NesbyGlasgow427

Couldn't guess this guy used to write for the Boston paper...can't go two sentences without mentioning the Patriots. Much like Peter King, who I suspect would leave his wife for Tom Brady if given the chance. Perhaps some teams throw more than they should, but the methodology used in this article is flawed.

gauchogaucho
gauchogaucho

This analysis is useless because it doesn't control for game situation. Teams that are losing more pass more. 

arabajyo
arabajyo

teams pass more when they are behind. bad teams fall behind. this data is skewed and silly.

Midcity
Midcity

Don't buy this data at all.  Teams rushing 3 more times per game are doing better...sure.  Teams that get more offensive plays per game do better.  It means they are moving the chains and getting 1st downs.  How many of those same teams are also averaging more plays per game than last season?  

And for the teams that run less doing worse, look at their defense and turnovers.  How many of those teams threw less last year while running the clock out late going for a win last year.  If those same teams are struggling, they likely have #1 fewer plays overall and #2 favor the pass to keep time on the clock.

gary41
gary41

Agreement on minor points aside, this discussion was very much appreciated.  Thanks......  

Dman49er
Dman49er

Sure the article may have a few areas of contention but I agree with the sentiment. I think the 49ers are the perfect example of what he is talking about. This is a team with an offense BUILT for a power running based scheme. Kaepernick does well last year so they debut this season as a pass first team. In the two losses Gore ran less than 12 times......in the loss to Indy he ran 11 times for 83 yards! Most of which in the first half so you can't even argue that the limited running was just because it wasn't successful or because the score was too high. The gameplan had limited running by design......for a team with an offensive line BUILT FOR RUNNING. The next game over 30 run attempts for 200+ rush yards and a win...........go figure. Even then if you break down the game they still had several pass only 3 and out series.....

Yeah some teams are passing too much and not realizing their strong running game sets up their ability to pass, read option etc etc...

smoothio
smoothio

This has instant credibility problems.  39.9% run + 61.1% pass = 101% of plays.  You can't publish a metrics-based analysis, start off with that, AND THEN expect me to buy into the rest of this. 

gcallah
gcallah

You haven't asked which came first? Perhaps the teams running less have lost a back or offensive lineman, and vice-versa. So it may be the loss or gain that is causing the change in record AND the change in the amount of running.

skanee00
skanee00

The "are they going to run or are they going to pass" question is what makes football interesting.  Back when the NFL was 50/50, it was perfect.

crymeariver
crymeariver

This is misleading, and MMQB can do better.  If you are discussing run-pass choices and fail to mention simple game theory and average yards per play, you are missing something.  In football, the more yards you get, the better - you increase your chance to score points.  Delta-DVOA from 2012-2013 is a convoluted proxy for breaking down how changes in play calling ratio changes outcomes, since we have a huge wealth of actual data on this.  Further, you back up your point with ridiculously small samples and data chosen after you'd already decided your conclusion.


Pass plays in the NFL gain significantly more yards than runs (even factoring in negative yards from sacks as well as the increased risk of turnovers).  Most NFL teams would benefit by passing more, as they would gain more yards per play.


As you mention, the % of pass plays has increased from 2011-2013.  And despite these supposedly poor choices made by offenses, scoring has increased across those three years as well (22.2, 22.8, 23.0).  In fact, the long-term trends are much clearer; over the past 30 years, pass plays per game have increased, rush plays per game have decreased, and the major offensive metrics (points, yards) are increasing over that same span.


My takeaway from this isn't that teams need to run more to improve their chances to win - it's that teams need to do a better job of stopping their opponents from passing so effectively.

RobertSmith
RobertSmith

Cause and effect.  Being behind causes a team to pass in order to catch up.  Teams that lose tend to pass a lot.  Teams that are ahead try to run the ball and use up clock.  

RobertSellers
RobertSellers

The analysis is done wrong.  Teams that are winning run the ball to shorten the game and protect their lead.  IF teams are running the ball to little then yards per play would be down on passing attempts and yards per play would be up on running attempts.  

What gives a defense rest is getting first downs and yardage.  Running three times and punting doesn't rest anyone.


atsherm1
atsherm1

The NFL said a long time ago that they wanted a faster, more exciting, higher scoring game.  I think watching an entire game played on the 50 yard line is painful and slow to watch, but the hardcore fan appreciates the strategy and feeling out for that ONE big play that winds up being the death stroke.  The casual fan, in my opinion, has the attention span of a knat and would rather be playing on their phones than watching the game.  Unfortunately, casual fans far outnumber hardcore fans which is part of the reason the NFL is where it currently sits.

OK
OK

"Taking to the air has become the way of the NFL, but when do we reach the point where teams are passing too much, for the worse? We may already be there"

NO bleepin' bleep, Sherlock Bedard.

What is the specific quotient of butt-sucking moron that it takes to land a gig at SI these days?

lionoah
lionoah

A few points:

I think the league rules that have made passing the ball easier (protections for the QB's and wide receivers) don't necessarily change the dynamic of play calling. Seems to me those rules help out the elite QB's (Manning, Brady, Brees) but other teams are trying to get fancy with average players.

Situations and down and distance remain at the core of whether to call a run or a pass. Using the passing game as the de facto running game can work if you got Tom Brady (or Peyton Manning) going to Wes Welker. Again, lesser talented personnel cannot do the same things as the elite and need to stick to the fundamentals of the game. A strong running game affects the entire team game.

Because everyone is big and strong and fast in the NFL, execution is paramount. Teams can use the run to set up the pass, conversely you can use the pass to set up the run. No matter how you get around to it though, the end of every game comes down to the basic scenario of gaining first downs and moving the clock for the team in the lead, and preserving time for the team that's losing. For most teams who are winning (those without elite QB's) in these situations, this comes down to effectively running the ball. 


BY
BY

This is a chicken/egg kind of question. To say that offensive coordinators are more interested in showing off than winning is one of the stupidest things I've ever heard. In an ultra-competitive environment, what is more important than winning.....especially when guys get fired all the time? Now we know why this guy is a writer and not a coach.

CJ101
CJ101

Or maybe the bad teams are so far behind, they have to throw in the second half?

Joebuckster
Joebuckster

@gary41 This is weak, and about what I'd expect from Peter King and Co. These people are not football minds, they are fans who happen to be journalists. When I want real analysis I go to sites like CHFF or Profootballfocus. I don't know why I keep clicking on these MMQB links - the analysis is pedestrian. I guess it's just because I'm starving for anything football. These guys only understand the surface optics, and aren't great writers anyway...

dbum
dbum

@crymeariver I like the argument your making but rushing to set up the pass and play action is an important part of the game. the teams that are doing well and going deep into the playoffs are those that maintain some semblance of balance. 

running may gain less average yards but they are also at lower risk to turn overs and they make those linebackers and defensive backs hesitate just an extra second or two when you play action after you've shown your willing and able to run, which gives the receivers the added space they need. along with that, running also adds an important physical element to the offensive lineman play, where they are actively running into the defenders to push them down field, versus in passing where they have to sit back and wait for defensive lineman to engage. offensive lines that are charged to run block more often usually play nastier than in pass first offenses.

a lot of the rule changes the nfl has made in recent years has obviously benefited the passing attack, presumably because the league feels that this makes the game more exiting. call me old school but i find watching alfred morris or marshawn lynch knocking down defenders to be very exiting. 

but besides all that your point is well taken, in todays nfl pass is first. their is no position as important as the QB. next to him though youve got to have your foundation intact, which are the offensive and defensive lines. it all starts up front, if the line isnt set you cant do anything.

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