For A Passing League, The NFL Still Doesn’t Pass Enough

The 3-point revolution in basketball was driven in large part by the finding that the three has a higher expected value than a midrange jump shot.15 While the math is simple and clear, the revolution didn’t occur overnight — or even in the first few decades after the 3-point line was introduced. Because those longer shots don’t go through the hoop as often as midrangers, missing a shot feels like failure. There is a slightly counterintuitive aspect to it.
Now imagine a world where 3-pointers aren’t simply worth more as measured by expected points, but where they also go through the hoop more often. The benefits of the three would be stunningly obvious. We might even question the competence of coaches and teams that didn’t attempt them as much as possible.
That’s where the NFL is currently living. The NFL is a passing league that somehow doesn’t pass enough. NFL teams know the medicine works yet stubbornly refuse to take a clinically effective dose.
To be clear, teams are certainly passing more often than they used to. Leaguewide passing attempts per game have risen from 32.3 in 2008 to 34.2 last year, and the increase in volume has not been accompanied by a decrease in efficiency. Leaguewide yards per attempt have increased slightly from 6.9 to 7.0, and more touchdowns are being scored by passing relative to running than at any time in league history. Completion percentage is up from 61.0 percent to 62.1 percent, and the interception rate has fallen from 2.8 percent to 2.5 percent. Yet despite all these positive indicators, teams remain unwilling to break old habits and throw in many classic rushing situations.
The biggest culprit is first down, the most traditional run situation. It’s here where NFL coaches are consistently missing an opportunity to pass, particularly against defenses that have stacked the box or are playing at least seven defenders close to the line of scrimmage. I’m calling these situations FANS — First (down) Against Neutral or Stacked (boxes). FANS includes plays in which the defense brings extra men close to the line of scrimmage, clogging running lanes and daring the offense to run the ball. I analyzed plays from the 2017 season using men-in-the-box data from analytics firm Sports Info Solutions and play-level data courtesy of Ron Yurko, a Ph.D. student in statistics at Carnegie Mellon University. To more accurately represent regular game play and eliminate noise, I limited the sample to snaps outside the red zone when the opposing teams were within 7 points of each other.
With seven to nine men near the line of scrimmage and the subsequent dearth of extra defenders in the secondary, we’d expect passing to be effective in these situations. That’s just what we found. Last season, 30 of 32 teams were more successful passing than running on FANS as measured by success rate.16 And passing wasn’t just a little more successful than running. The difference in passing success was large: 27 teams had a success rate that was at least 10 percentage points higher when passing on FANS than running; 14 teams were more than 20 points better. The league average difference of 19.3 leaned wildly toward passing.

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First and 10? Time to pass
NFL teams’ expected points added per play and success rate when running vs. dropping back for a pass on first and 10 facing seven to nine men in the box, 2017

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RUNS
DROP-BACKS

Team
EPA/play
Success Rate
EPA/play
Success Rate
Diff. in success rate

Tampa Bay
-0.18
26%
+0.37
64%
+38

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Atlanta
-0.22
30
+0.37
65
+35

Houston
-0.20
25
+0.28
57
+32

Washington
-0.22
24
+0.28
54
+30

Baltimore
-0.23
27
+0.26
57
+30

Minnesota
-0.19
31
+0.10
59
+28

Broncos
-0.16
25
+0.15
52
+27

Steelers
-0.21
28
+0.11
54
+26

N.Y. Jets
-0.12
25
+0.16
50
+25

L.A. Chargers
-0.20
29
+0.60
53
+24

San Francisco
-0.10
32
+0.23
56
+24

N.Y. Giants
-0.08
34
+0.05
57
+23

Oakland
-0.34
21
+0.03
43
+22

Tennessee
-0.19
26
-0.03
48
+22

Carolina
-0.27
30
+0.06
49
+19

Arizona
-0.20
30
+0.19
48
+18

Jacksonville
-0.01
33
+0.37
51
+18

Kansas City
-0.07
28
+0.07
46
+18

Miami
-0.18
27
+0.18
45
+18

Buffalo
-0.21
30
+0.12
45
+15

Cleveland
-0.11
29
+0.07
44
+15

Cincinnati
-0.17
27
+0.06
42
+15

Dallas
-0.08
37
+0.23
51
+14

Seattle
-0.24
25
-0.26
38
+13

New Orleans
+0.03
38
+0.21
49
+11

Detroit
-0.21
26
-0.18
36
+10

Green Bay
+0.02
33
-0.10
43
+10

Chicago
-0.27
29
-0.38
38
+9

New England
+0.04
44
+0.32
47
+3

Philadelphia
-0.05
43
+0.03
44
+1

Indianapolis
-0.04
32
-0.15
30
-2

L.A. Rams
-0.09
43
+0.10
40
-3

Source: Sports Info Solutions

Even accounting for the potential negative outcomes of a dropback like sacks and interceptions, passing on FANS keeps a team “on schedule”17 in the down and distance more often than a run. Incredibly though, there were 31 NFL teams last season when facing this situation on first down — looking down a defense that was clearly gearing up to stop the run — that chose to run more often than they passed. Here’s the same table as above, now sorted by the frequency of play type.

The NFL can’t quit the first-down run
Share of plays in which NFL teams ran vs. dropped back for a pass on first down when facing seven to nine men in the box, 2017

Share of plays

Team
No. plays
Runs
Dropbacks

Chicago
98
71%
29%

Oakland
80
70
30

Dallas
112
70
30

Washington
104
69
31

Carolina
94
69
31

Houston
109
67
33

N.Y. Jets
106
66
34

Buffalo
124
65
35

Cleveland
85
65
35

N.Y. Giants
97
64
36

Jacksonville
110
64
36

Indianapolis
114
64
36

Minnesota
94
63
37

Arizona
104
63
37

L.A. Chargers
100
62
38

Tennessee
128
61
39

Tampa Bay
90
60
40

San Francisco
119
60
40

Detroit
53
60
40

Broncos
63
59
41

New Orleans
79
59
41

Green Bay
76
59
41

New England
79
59
41

Cincinnati
74
58
42

Baltimore
91
57
43

Steelers
78
55
45

Kansas City
79
55
45

Miami
56
54
46

Seattle
76
54
46

Atlanta
94
53
47

L.A. Rams
49
51
49

Philadelphia
60
45
55

Source: Sports Info Solutions

The only team in the NFL that passed more often than it ran in this situation was also the only team to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Doug Pederson and the Eagles broke from the flock and dropped back to pass the ball 55 percent of the time — which was in some ways part of a larger strategy to break from convention. “A lot of NFL coaches have traditionally been averse to taking risks,” Pederson writes in his new book, “Fearless.” This desire to zig when the other teams were zagging showed up in Philadelphia’s fourth-down conversion attempts and two-point tries — two darlings of the statistical community.
What about other more traditional passing downs? Second-and-long certainly qualifies. The league still runs as much as they pass on that down and distance, with just four teams boasting a higher success rate rushing than passing.

How often teams pass vs. run on second-and-long (7 to 10 yards) when facing a stacked or neutral box, 2017

Play Type
Success Rate
EPA/play
Usage

Run
27%
-0.20
50%

Dropback
46
+0.10
50

Difference
+19
+0.30
0

Source: Sports Info Solutions

The average rushing success rate on second-and-long for the league is just 27 percent verses 46 percent for passing, a massive difference. The average of 18.7 percentage points in pass-run differential is only slightly lower than the 19.3 percentage points on first down. And this is despite teams passing 11 percentage points more often than on first down.
If we combine the two down-and-distance situations, a clear picture emerges showing the NFL’s reluctance to actually pass when the situation warrants it.

Even adding second-and-long, most teams are still running
NFL team success rates by play type on first- and second-and-long facing seven to nine men in the box, 2017

Runs
Dropbacks

Team
Share of plays
Success Rate
Share of plays
Success Rate

Oakland
69%
23%
31%
49%

Chicago
68
31
32
41

Buffalo
65
29
35
43

Carolina
65
28
35
52

Dallas
65
33
35
45

N.Y. Jets
64
24
36
51

Indianapolis
62
28
38
35

Jacksonville
62
29
38
46

Cleveland
61
31
39
39

Tennessee
61
27
39
47

Washington
61
27
39
58

Detroit
60
22
40
40

Arizona
59
28
41
47

Green Bay
59
32
41
41

Pittsburgh
59
32
41
51

Houston
58
23
42
53

Minnesota
58
31
42
57

N.Y. Giants
58
33
42
57

Denver
57
28
43
54

L.A. Chargers
57
29
43
53

Cincinnati
56
26
44
38

New Orleans
56
33
44
50

Atlanta
55
29
45
63

Baltimore
55
26
45
52

New England
55
44
45
49

San Francisco
55
32
45
50

Miami
54
26
46
48

Tampa Bay
54
26
46
59

Seattle
53
24
47
39

Kansas City
52
33
48
45

L.A. Rams
49
43
51
37

Philadelphia
47
40
53
44

Source: Sports Info Solutions

The choices made on early downs are meaningful. The Oakland Raiders won six games in 2017 while leading the league in share of rushing on first- and second-and-long against a crowded box, at 69 percent of the time. If the Raiders had instead passed on 60 percent of those occasions, they would have seen a swing of 19.5 expected points, good for about half a win.
Sometimes gains from passing aren’t absolute gains. Poor offensive teams can benefit from passing even if only to mitigate against the greater loss from running the ball. Last year, the Tennessee Titans employed a run-first, smash-mouth offensive strategy that saw them rush in these FANS situations 61 percent of the time. Both running and passing plays were losing propositions for them, but passing was still the least worst option. Had they flipped the script and passed 61 percent of the time, the Titans would have saved themselves 7 expected points, good for about a fifth of a win.
Thursday night, the Atlanta Falcons kick off the NFL season against the Eagles in an NFC divisional round rematch. Last season, Atlanta was successful on a league-leading 63 percent of passing plays on first-and-10 and second-and-long against neutral or stacked boxes. The Falcons also led the league in pass-run success differential at 34 percentage points. Inexplicably, they ran the ball more than half the time. Had the Falcons passed at a level commensurate with their success rate, they would have earned 35.9 more expected points over the course of the year, good for an additional win.
Like most of the rest of the NFL, Atlanta can improve its chances greatly by taking a page from the Eagles. On Thursday, we’ll see if they learned from their adversary this offseason. In the league that struggles to embrace change, it’s no sure thing.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.