Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Passes And Rushes Are Not Equal, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Accept Andy Reid's Play-Calling

Let's get this out of the way first.  Football is a very complicated game, probably the most complicated and hardest to understand of the four major American professional sports.  There are so many positions and so many moving parts that it is difficult to breakdown at an advanced level.  I don't claim to know everything.  I am certainly not as smart as analysts such as Aaron Schatz (Football Outsiders), Bill Barnwell (Grantland), Brian Burke (Advanced NFL Stats), among many others.

But there is something that puzzles me.  People seem to be making a big deal about Andy Reid's play-calling. and I can't figure out why.  Well, actually that's a lie.  I can figure out why.  The reason being is the old-school belief* that it is necessary keep a run-pass balance to keep a defense off-guard.  It stands to reason that if you overload pass or run too many times, you become predictable.  And once you become predictable, defenses stop you.  After the game, many people lamented Andy Reid's lack of a pass-rush balance.  But the argument for pass-rush balance is predicated on the fact that passes and rushes in today's NFL are created equal.  Unfortunately for the old school, this is not true.

*This is not meant to single any person or group out.  From fans to coaches to front office personnel, this way of thinking is seen all throughout football.  There are even some very intelligent people who happen to follow football and believe in this way of thinking.  Even I distinctly remember writing two years ago that the key to beating Green Bay in the playoffs was to run the ball more.  On the other side of the coin, I do suspect that the Eagles organization is a bit more new school in their way of thinking, but I have no direct proof, and the Eagles Front Office is notorious for their lack of transparency. 

Passes and rushes in today's NFL are not created equal.  It has been often repeated to the point of cliche that the "NFL has become a passing league."  And while some cliches are annoying and impossible ("giving 110%"), the one about the NFL being a passing league is actually rooted in truth.  According to a study done  in 2010 by the aforementioned Brian Burke of Advanced NFL stats, pass plays are more efficient than run plays. You can check out historic patterns by clicking on the above link, but last season, teams averaged a net 6.3 yards per pass play* to 3.3 yards per rush play.  Not only that, but last season, NFL teams averaged 34.9 pass plays per game to 26.1 rush plays.  So not only do teams on average gain more yards per play throwing the ball, but teams on the whole have been passing the ball more and more in recent seasons.

*includes sacks and minus forty yards per interception

But all this said, with the uptick in passing plays being called and net yards per pass play, wouldn't it stand to reason that defenses will start gaming more for the pass now, thus leaving more holes up front for the running game, thus leading to the running game becoming a sort of market inefficiency for teams to exploit if defenses place less focus on them?  Well, this would stand to reason, but no one has ever accused NFL people of consistently following along the lines of reason. To quote a couple paragraphs from the study linked above.
Defenses appear to stubbornly focus on the run, making certain that they keep running efficiency under control. But this focus comes at the expense of passing efficiency. Defenses are happy to let passing efficiency 'be what it will be' in their pursuit of stopping the run.

Defenses may not have a choice. Perhaps once running efficiency gets much over 4 YPC, stopping an offense becomes extremely difficult. With 3 tries to get 10 yards, perhaps 4 YPC is a magic number that the basic rules of football dictate. It could be that run defense is simply inelastic. The way modern defensive schemes are constructed, defenses are unable to shift toward stopping passes more effectively. Whatever the reason, defenses appear either unable or unwilling to adapt.

If this is true, there is little doubt that offenses should take better advantage of the current imbalance by passing more often, specifically on first and second down outside the red zone. Offenses should force defenses to respect the pass more and more until they respond, thus allowing runs to become more productive. If defenses are unable to respond, it's possible that passing in certain situations has become a 'dominant strategy.'
 Again, I encourage you to read the whole study to see how exactly Burke led up to that point.  In fact, Burke re-visited this of a couple weeks ago, and reached this startling conclusion, among others.
The league's run pass balance should probably be closer to 15% run 85% pass than the 40/60 split it's been in recent years.
There are some legitimate concerns about this, and Brian Burke addresses them in the post.   Among them health of the QBs enduring such rigor, and teams catching up with such an extreme pass heavy strategy.  I don't want this post to be a complete re-telling of Burke's work here, so I will direct you to the link where you can read it for yourselves.  But first, I will add that you may see some very good teams with winning records have a fairly high number of running plays.  This is due to situational play-calling.  It is important to remember that many good teams will run the ball because they are winning (to kill the clock), not the other way around.*

*In other words, the statement, "good teams win because they run the ball more than normal" is false.

Instead, I want to relate all of this to Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles.  Michael Vick, as we all know by now, threw the ball 56 times Sunday afternoon in Cleveland.  Now granted, the Eagles ran an absurd 88 plays in that game*, so the pass percentage only comes out to 65.9%.

*This is close to the equivalent of a game and a third.

Most will obviously look at it and think "this is way too high."  It is also true that Cleveland's run defense was more than depleted.  Perhaps this was an instance where the Eagles were right to run the ball more than 15% of the time.  Perhaps they should have ran more.  Probably not.  The Eagles ran 34.1% of the time as it already was.  If anything, they probably ran too much.  All teams in the NFL do.  More than likely, the issue in this game was with Michael Vick's performance.  League average pass completion last season was 58.8%.  Vick's pass completion on Sunday was 51.7%.  League average net yards per pass play last season was 6.3. Vick's net yards per pass play on Sunday was 3.2.  If one is searching for the major reason why the Eagles struggled, this is it.*

*Not quantified above, but the Eagles had 12 penalties for 110 yards while the Browns had only 3 penalties for 25 yards.  This did not help matters either for the boys in midnight green.

As always, it is important to not jump to conclusions after one regular season game.  Even more so than normal in this instance where Vick saw as little action as he did in the pre-season.  But when a passer is that far below average in a game in a passing league, no amount of running the ball is going to save the team, regardless of how good LeSean McCoy is.  If there is a bright side to Vick's performance, it is that his career completion percentage in Philadelphia is 60.3% and his net yards per pass attempt in Philadelphia has been 7.5, both above league average.  There has been nothing yet to indicate that Michael Vick won't bounce back to his post-prison norms.  If after at least three more games there has been little rebound in Vick's numbers for this season, then there may likely be legitimate cause for legitimate concern.

In the meantime, it probably would not hurt to dial up a greater percentage of pass plays in the upcoming games.

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