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Passing, Winning, and Optimization

2010 September 3
by Brian Goff

One of my favorite sites, Advanced NFL Stats, recently posted compelling evidence on “Passing = Winning” in the NFL.  As ANS observes, announcers, including former players and coaches, love to wax on about the importance of running.  He offers a specific example:

Just last season, Brian Billick, who was the offensive coordinator for the most prolific passing offense in history, told the audience of NFL Network’s Playbook NFC that the real secret to the Saints’ success was their running game. Right.

ANS then goes on to offer simple regression evidence showing the much tighter relationship between passing efficiency and wins as well as multivariate regression evidence taking account of other influences while showing the same thing.

ANS is not just a number cruncher.  He offers useful insights appealing to economists:

Theoretically, running should be just as important as passing due to game theoretic considerations. That’s what is loosely meant by the adage “the run sets up the pass” and vice-versa. But despite this well-worn cliche, coaches and coordinators simply overdo the “setting up” part by over-playing the run on both sides of the ball. It’s no different than a boxer who jabs too much.

Even though game theory is applicable, even simpler decision models of running and passing would support an equal incremental effect kind of solution.  So why do we not see expected values for a run and a passing closer together.  ANS may be right in attributing it to coaching habits– there are examples of attachment to traditional practices in coaching.   The silly statements of  the announcing crowd would seem to bolster this view.  Before we settle on that conclusion, however, more investigation is needed.  The idea of equalizing expected values of running and passing assumes that the impacts of each are independent.  If running does help “setup the pass,” then the optimal combination (the maximum output) is not necessarily where they equal each other.  Instead, the seeming loss of yards gained on the run may be more than offset by an increased impact on yards gained on pass plays.  I ran across a working paper the other day by Gibbons and Serrato providing evidence from re-examining 10 prior AER studies, suggesting that leaving out interactive effects can make large differences in results.

2 Responses
  1. Greg Pinelli permalink
    September 4, 2010

    Running IS just as important as passing..it is simply a matter of when it’s used. This is what happened…
    30 years ago defenses that played 4-3 made it possible for offensive linemen to overmatch a system by leading with a blocking back..once a seam was breached the payoff became outsized because 3 linebackers were at a distinct disadvantage…during this time offensive linemen became larger and larger..and less mobile..pulling guards were rare and sweeping the ball very tough to do…

    Along comes the 3-4..just in time to make big, immobile linemen great for pass blocking and a large question mark in run blocking..now a nose tackle simply stuffs the line and 2 outsized inside backers crush the run..welcome to the new NFL. Passing now sets up the run..and Drafts make mediocre college quarterbacks prize bulls…so what’s the upshot of this???

    If I’m a GM my take is to go counter to the coaching-drafting herd…I get huge tight ends..agile offensive linemen and merely competent potential quarterbacks who can throw a consistent 15 yard pass.. I bring in really tough college blocking backs and a running back system where 2 guys share the carries.

    The 3-4 now must cheat closer to the line..and my 15-20 yard thrower starts to look very impressive by the 2nd quarter…that..and I’ve saved 40 million on a pipe dream from LSU or Oklahoma or Texas…schools that have NEVER produced a single great NFL quarterback.

  2. Duane Rockerbie permalink
    September 5, 2010

    There is a growing literature on passing versus running and other game-level coaching strategies. An example is this paper from a few years ago. It takes the position that a coach choosing plays is like a portfolio manager choosing between different investments, although the returns on the investments are assumed to be independent. One could set up the model so that they are not.

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