Should You Ever Run The Ball?

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years over teams not passing the ball enough. The infamous 4th and 5 run play from last season comes to mind as a recent example of the at-times hostile debate between run and pass. So what does the data tell us? We looked at the yards gained on run and pass plays in different down and distance situations. This is what we found.

Average yards gained broken down by play type for each down, based on yards to go. As you can see, there are very few situations where rush plays gain more yards. Based on data from all D-I teams from 2016 – 2018.

So, red represents the average yards gained on a pass play, and blue represents rush plays. As you can see, there aren’t too many situations where a run play is going to get you more yards. We can ignore most of the 1st down data because there were very few instances where you would have a 1st and 7, or a 1st and 1 (this is how a 1st and Goal from the 1 yard-line situation appears in the data). That being said, throwing on 1st and 10 is the move.

Starting with 2nd down, you should pretty much always be throwing. Which kind of makes sense. If you are in 2nd and 10, it doesn’t make much sense to try to run the ball and leave yourself in a likely 3rd and long. If you are at 2nd and 1, defenses are probably expecting a run play, which makes for the perfect time to chuck one down field.

3rd down is where it gets more interesting. The further you have to go, the closer runs and passes get to averaging the same yards per attempt. That being said, either one is unlikely to get you a 1st down, as both a pass and a run on 3rd and 10 average only 6 yards of the needed 10. Once again, defenses are selling out for the run on 3rd and 1 – it is the least efficient situation to run in on 3rd down – so it makes for a good opportunity to take a shot, or at least pick up a first down on a pass play and avoid getting stuffed at the line.

4th and 1 poses by far the biggest discrepancy, and while fans may yell at their TVs if you throw an incomplete pass on 4th and 1, you may be able to defend yourself as a coach if you show them this chart. That being said, your 4th and 1 run play is averaging almost 3 yards, which is more than enough to move the sticks. One of the few instances where running the ball makes complete sense is interestingly on 4th and 4 (sorry James Franklin, it’s not 4th and 5).

Now of course, this has to be adjusted slightly based on the skillset of your team and the opponent you are facing that week. If you’re Army, you probably aren’t that great at throwing the ball. So you have to take that into account when making your decisions. Let’s take a look at their chart (prepare yourself – it’s insane).

Army has only bothered to pass on 2nd and 1, 3rd and 1, and 4th and 1 one time each.

Take a second look at the y-axis. Yeah, it goes up to 40. That’s because Army passes so little, that when they do, it catches defenses off-guard and they gain up to 40 yards on the play. Now that 4th and 3 that I’m referring to was only one play, so you have to take that for what it’s worth – we’re looking at an average of 1. Still, we see across the board that when they do pass, especially in short yardage to go situations, it seems to pay off whether its 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th down. This isn’t to say that Army should pass the ball more, because they will quickly lose this advantage of huge gains on pass plays, and if they up their pass game, their average is bound to drop. However, it is an important weapon to have in their back pocket.

So how do you know when you are passing the right amount? Ideally, once the right mix of passes and rushes is found, all of these bars will be even. That means that each rush and pass will average the same amount of yards. It makes sense, because the more you pass the ball, the more defenses protect against the pass, and the more vulnerable they become to a run or a draw play. So as passing becomes the norm, run efficiency will improve until they reach an equilibrium.

Just look at a little over 10 years ago until 2015, the game was eerily similar.

Coaches have made a few changes to their philosophy over the years, but for the most part the game remains unchanged even though all that red represents opportunity.

Less than 10 years ago, the disparity was a bit larger, but mostly the same – this implies that coaches still have room to grow. The argument was slightly greater for the pass, probably because coaches were running more often and defenses were prepped for the run. Now there are two reasons that could be the case:

  1. QBs were much less accurate and receivers didn’t catch the ball. So coaches trusted the run more.
  2. The rules favored running the ball over passing.

So for point number one, I checked by looking at QB completion percentage. From 2008-2015, QB completion percentage was 60.35%. From 2016 – 2019, completion percentage went up to 61.1%. Now this may seem like a small blip, but in the grand scheme of 128 teams over 8 years and 3 years respectively, that is a significant bump. So option 1 has some weight to it.

Option 2 we’ve all been able to see over recent years. Refs are calling a tighter game and it’s harder than ever to be a defensive back. The combination of targeting penalties, hits on a defenseless player over the middle being outlawed, stricter pass interference calls, better offensive playcalling, and the redefinition of a catch have made passing a much more viable option in today’s game.

Last, let’s look at Penn State, a fairly balanced team over the past 3 years (they’ve passed on 46.4% of plays).

Penn State is a team that has slightly favored the run, and in some situations (like 3rd and short), you can’t really blame them.

Penn State has had a lot of success on the ground in the past 3 seasons (partly due to one Saquon Barkley). As a result, they see a few more cases for the run than your average D-I team. Particularly, 3rd and short poses a good opportunity for a run-play, and somehow 4th and 3 is the best opportunity (once again, not 4th and 5 James). This is only on 2 data points for the run and 5 for the pass, so really too small a sample size to draw any conclusions from.

The best places to make some inferences are on common downs like 1st and 10 and 2nd and 10, where we’ve got over 1000 and over 200 plays, respectively, over the past 3 years. In each of these scenarios, the pass favors the rush, more so on 1st down than on 2nd down.

Overall, some of the spots where Penn State need to pass the ball more are on:

  • 2nd and 5 – 5.3 Yard Difference – Over 60 Attempts
  • 2nd and 9 – 6.2 Yard Difference – Over 50 Attempts
  • 3rd and 1 – 8.2 Yard Difference – 39 Attempts (Rushed on 35)
  • 3rd and 6 – 5.7 Yard Difference – 37 Attempts

Of course, if you are just trying to pick up the 1st down, running on 3rd and 1 is a pretty safe bet. On average, Penn State picked up 3.5 yards on a 3rd and 1 rush, which is more than enough to get a fresh set of downs. However, it is worth considering a pass play to catch the defense off-guard and pick up a bigger gain, something this team is all too desperate for after the Week 3 struggle vs. Pitt.


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