Offensive strategy changes based on field position - particularly near the goal line - but at what point on the field is it actually better to run than pass?
In When to Pass and Run in the NFL (read that later) I showed that in most situations analytics say to pass the ball. The only exceptions where running was as good or better than passing on average were 1st-and-5, 2nd-and-short, 3rd-and-short, and 4th-and-short, but that only looked at down and distances and ignored field position completely. Any football fan or coach knows that field position also matters. Let’s figure out just how much it matters, and what offenses can do about it.
This chart shows all red zone plays from last season. The yellow line on the left represents the end zone, and the yards away from the end zone are displayed on the bottom. What it shows is that passing the ball (red line and red dots) is slightly better in terms of expected points added per play - the analytics’ gold standard metric - compared to run plays (blue line and blue dots) up until approximately the six-yard line. This result was not a surprise to me.
It’s simply harder to pass in the red zone, particularly inside the five-yard line. There’s less space for the offense to operate, and defenders know they can’t be beat deep given the back line. Because of that, a large portion of the playbook can be thrown out the window. Quarterbacks in these near goal-line situations are primarily left with two options - let a pass catcher make a play off a quick read or scramble outside of the pocket while hoping a receiver creates space when the play breaks down, usually along the backside of the end zone or at the sideline. Neither option is great, which is why completion percentages drop near the end zone:
Washington sends four receivers on routes here, but you can see how crowded it is and how few routes are available for each receiver. Dwayne Haskins is forced to throw all the way to the sideline with nobody open because there is nowhere for these receivers to go and there isn’t a check-down option this close to the end zone. Only 52% of passes thrown to the outside were completed inside the five-yard line last season, and we can tick off a few more percentage points for this thrown being this close to the sideline. Overall, I’d encourage sending this play design to the sun.
The Jaguars go full 1956 football on this play. I-formation with an endless amount of awful tight ends. They go play-action (yay) but only have three players running routes initially, and that includes Leonard Fournette coming into the play a little later. Keep in mind that Fournette was 182nd out of 199 qualifiers in success rate on targets last season. Of course, nobody is open. Gardner Minshew buys time by scrambling outside and back into the pocket, but everyone remains covered with so little space to operate. I’d also encourage sending this play design to the sun.
Let’s end on what I believe to be a really good play design for the situation. First off, the Cowboys are in shotgun which has been more effective while running compared to going under center. Yes, including short-yardage runs. Dallas also has three receivers on the bottom of the screen, plus a tight end at the top. That lessens the amount of quality blocks needed for this play to be successful because each defender guarding these receivers are not going to be tackling Ezekiel Elliott on this play. That’s essentially a perfect block. Doing these things all while running inside the five is exactly what a fully analytical play caller would dial up, and I think it makes a lot of sense from a football guy standpoint, too.
2019 Inside-the-Five Passing Percentage
Because analytics show that running the ball is, on average, better than passing when within five yards from the end zone, I wanted to see which teams were galaxy-braining themselves last year by passing too much. It’s no surprise to see the Jaguars and Jets leading the way.
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