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The Running Game Is Only Mostly Dead

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Recent years have seen an explosion in the NFL passing game, and emerging analytics demonstrate that teams that throw the ball more, win the game more. So does this mean the run no longer matters? That’s not entirely clear. We talked with The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen, who has gone deep on analyzing the value of the run in today’s NFL.

Transcript

Ben Shields: The 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars were one of the more surprising success stories in recent NFL history. Thanks in large part to a dominant defense that stymied opponents week after week. But despite the roller-coaster ride at quarterback that was Blake Bortles, the offense packed quite a punch as well with a league-leading rushing attack led by Leonard Fournette. The Jags rode the throwback ground-and-pound technique to 10 wins and a berth in the AFC Championship Game against the dynastic New England Patriots. On a cold January evening in Foxborough, Massachusetts, Jacksonville’s game plan was working to perfection. The Pats, stacking the box to defend the run on nearly every play, were being carved up on play action by Bortles, who could’ve been mistaken for the Hall of Famer on the other sideline in the first half. With a two-score lead early, it looked like the Jaguars could pull the upset.

Paul Michelman: But whether it was fear of a Bortles’ meltdown or a stubbornness to the strategy that got them so far, the offense collapsed into a puddle of predictability. Instead of mixing things up, the Jags just kept trying to establish the run on first down. Six of the seven Jacksonville second-half drives opened with a Fournette run of two yards or less, leading to an abundance of third and longs that Bortles could not convert. The second-half totals: 15 carries for just 41 yards, a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead blown to New England, and a bitter end to an unexpected season. Time and again, the Jaguars tried to stick with their bread and butter, but in the end, their reliance on the run left them burnt. I’m Paul Michelman.

Ben Shields: I’m Ben Shields, and this is Counterpoints, the sports analytics podcast from MIT Sloan Management Review. In this episode, we’re taking a closer look at one of the gridiron’s greatest debates: to run or not to run.

Paul Michelman: This era in the NFL is like nothing we’ve seen before. The passing game has exploded in both quantity and quality, and the emerging analytics are showing that teams that throw the ball more, win the game more. This new development has led to the marginalization of the running back — and not just statistically. Just ask Le'Veon Bell.

Ben Shields: But are these analytics truly predicting the end of the RB1 as we know it? After all, those pesky Jaguars still made it one step away from the Super Bowl with their run-heavy system. And even the usually pass-happy Patriots lifted the Lombardi Trophy this past season after a historic run of performances on the ground by Sony Michel. Passing may be the way of the future, but how teams can successfully figure out the role of the running game and how they can interpret the growing data surrounding it, could be the key to the next great dynasty. Paul talked with The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen, who has gone deep on analyzing the value of the run.

Paul Michelman: Ted, thanks for joining the show.

Ted Nguyen: I appreciate you having me on.

Paul Michelman: You bet. So in the NFL, as you note in your excellent article for The Athletic, some coaches just can’t help themselves. They cling to this ingrained belief that establishing the run equates to victory, even though in this pass-happy era, the analytics show otherwise. So let’s begin there with the data. What do the analytics say about the importance of running the ball and how, if at all, that’s changed?

Ted Nguyen: Yeah. There’s this old idea that if you run the ball, if you’re the more physical team, then it’s going to lead to wins. It’s going to lead to you beating down on opponents and all that. But just looking at the data over the years, a lot of the analytics experts have concluded that passing just has become a lot more efficient than running the ball. Some of the conclusions they’ve come to [are] offensive scoring in the NFL has increased over time, and that correlates with passing that has increased over time. And I think a lot of that has to do with the rule changes to make passing easier. Quarterbacks are becoming better; they’re getting better coaching at the lower levels. So it’s becoming more efficient. And the data on the stats [shows that] passing is just a much more efficient way of moving the ball than running right now.

Paul Michelman: Yeah, so I think that’s shown pretty clearly, and that’s been established for quite some time. But it’s still another extension of that to say that the run doesn’t matter, right? Or the run doesn’t matter in setting up the pass.

Ted Nguyen: It’s actually becoming a lot more accepted even within NFL circles that you don’t need to run the ball for play action to work. And I think that’s one of the big arguments for running the ball is that you have to run the ball to set up play action. But the data has shown that you can still have an effective play action game without “establishing the run.” Because linebackers and defenses — it’s so ingrained for them to have to defend a run. When they see a possible play fake and they see gaps opening up, they’re trained to have to stop that run and move forward. And even if you don’t establish the run, that kind of training is going to make them move up, and that causes your play action to still work.

Paul Michelman: So how does the data actually demonstrate that the play action isn’t as affected by the run as we think?

Ted Nguyen: Ben Baldwin is the guy who really has spearheaded this argument, and he was the first guy who I’ve seen make this argument. And he subtracted the difference between play-action effectiveness and a team’s drop-back effectiveness. He compared that with rushing success rate. He compared that with total rushes and rush percentage. And he found that there was no correlation between those three things and play-action effectiveness versus drop-back passing.

Paul Michelman: Right. So he was using player tracking data for that?

Ted Nguyen: No, Josh Hermsmeyer was the one who used player tracking data to prove that. He was looking at the linebacker movements, and he found that even if you keep using play action over and over again, the linebacker that he was keeping track of kept moving forward towards the run, even when they were using play action over, I think, 12 times. And after that, the data got kind of wacky, but that’s still a large number.

Paul Michelman: So is the linebacker kind of the key determinant in the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the run? I mean, what about the rest of the defense and how they’re impacted?

Ted Nguyen: Yeah, I think when you’re running play action, the linebacker is the guy that you’re trying to move. Obviously, you have protection. You’re trying to have defensive linemen stay at the line of scrimmage and defend a run, too. There [are] some play actions that will target safeties. But most play-action plays are trying to target linebackers. You’re trying to hit that void behind linebackers by having them move up. So that is the guy that you’re mainly targeting on most play-action concepts.

Paul Michelman: Got it. And is the play action really what it’s all about in this argument? Is the deep ball not really relevant to the run?

Ted Nguyen: I think, overall, that passing the ball deep and passing the ball more is more efficient and will lead to more scoring if you do it a lot more than running the ball. But it’s also debunking that argument that you have to establish the run for play action to work. And play action has been shown or proven to be one of the most effective ways to move the ball.

Paul Michelman: You kind of sum up the arguments from the analytic side in your article with a set of pretty interesting recommendations from the analytics community. Let’s run through those. So the first was: Don’t invest heavily in your run game, because it doesn’t correlate to winning. OK, I think we’ve established that pretty clearly. The second: Use more play action, because it’s more effective than drop-back passing and is proved to work without having to establish the run. Again, you’ve walked us through the data on that. The next one seems kind of obvious to me, but maybe I’m missing something: Don’t run the ball into eight-man boxes.

Ted Nguyen: It may seem obvious to you, but you know, there’s still coaches that will run into eight-man boxes, and they’ll bring in more blockers to account for the extra players. But what you’re doing is condensing your formation. The defense condenses with it. The old belief was that if you have enough blockers, it doesn’t matter how many people are in the box. But data has shown that running into eight-man boxes just doesn’t work. And I think a part of that has to do with the fact that even if you’re bringing in more blockers, you’re asking [for] more things to go right. So you need those eight blockers to execute their assignments correctly to get consistent yardage because [of] an eight-man box. Whereas, it’s easier to rely on maybe five guys [making] five blocks correctly and running the ball that way. So with more blockers, even if you have enough to account for everybody, you’re asking for more things to go right — or you’re relying on the fact that you need more things to go right during that play, if that makes sense.

Paul Michelman: Are you less likely as an offense to see eight-man boxes today or has that not changed?

Ted Nguyen: It depends on the situation and depends on the type of team you are. For example, if you’re the Cowboys, and you have Ezekiel Elliott, and teams know that you’re not a great passing team, then they’ll load up eight in a box. Also, just the fact that the Seattle Seahawks made their Cover 3 defense so in vogue now, and... you automatically have eight in a box when you’re running Cover 3. You know, teams are seeing more eight in a box just because of that alignment... becoming kind of the in-vogue defense now.

Paul Michelman: So the fourth recommendation is: Test the limits of passing and don’t force the run unnecessarily.

Ted Nguyen: I think that the analytics community wants to see a team really air out the ball and test the limits of how much you can pass without running the ball (or running the ball at a minimum). And I don’t think we’ve seen a team really push the limits throughout the season. We might see it with the Arizona Cardinals this year with Kliff Kingsbury coming in with his Air Raid offense. I think that they want more teams to do this, and that way, they get more data and see how far you can push the pass game.

Paul Michelman: And I should add in that recommendation, you quoted the word “unnecessarily.” Right? And that’s key, right? Because we’re redefining what that means in this context.

Ted Nguyen: Exactly.

Paul Michelman: No. 5 is: Use the pass to set up the run. Run when defenses start to adjust to pass.

Ted Nguyen: I think the old notion is that you need to run the ball and get defenses closer to the line of scrimmage and then you could pass. But the analytics community is suggesting that you pass, pass, pass — and once the defense softens up and gets guys away from the line of scrimmage, plays more two-deep defenses — that’s when you run the ball. So it’s kind of the opposite approach of what’s been going on.

Paul Michelman: No. 6: Deception in all its forms is the most important element in offense.

Ted Nguyen: [It’s] not the team that’s most physical and will ram its head against the wall that’s going to be the most productive offense. It’s the teams that know how to use deception, that know how to beat tendencies or get around tendencies — those are the teams that are going to move the ball consistently.

Paul Michelman: And the last recommendation from the analytics community that you cite is: The run game is valuable in short-yarded situations in the red zone and for running out the clock.

Ted Nguyen: So the numbers have shown that this is where the run game is valuable. Running the ball in short yardage is much more effective than passing the ball in short yardage and in the red zone as well. And, of course, at the end of games, you don’t want to take risks with passing the ball too much. At the end of the game, you’ve got the lead — you want to run the ball and secure it and just keep the clock moving.

Paul Michelman: Great. So now let’s look at the counterarguments — or the counterpoints (since that’s the name of our podcast). You found plenty of people within the game who not only value the run but have pretty specific arguments for doing so. Right?

Ted Nguyen: Yeah. And one quick counterargument to that last point is: Can you be a good short-yardage running team if you don’t run the ball consistently? So if you don’t get the practice running the ball, and you’re not doing it with some frequency — can you just all of a sudden become a good running team in these situations?

Paul Michelman: Are there any teams that actually have shown you can?

Ted Nguyen: There was a Detroit Lions [team] who — I think Warren Sharp mentioned them in one of his articles — they just didn’t run the ball at all. They didn’t have the personnel to run the ball. And in the short yardage situations where they needed to, they couldn’t convert. And that was one of the downfalls of their offense that particular year.

Paul Michelman: Got It. So we’re kind of confident in the negative. It’s possible somebody might prove it not true, but there’s no one who kind of leaps to mind. So what are some of the arguments in favor of the run?

Ted Nguyen: Less risk of a negative play. And a negative play could be a turnover, lost yardage, and a sack. And if you get sacked in a drive, there’s a high chance that that drive will eventually end because it’s hard to make up that lost yardage. In 2008, a turnover occurred almost five times more on a pass play than a run play. So even though passing the ball has become more efficient, the inherent risk of a turnover is still there. So I think that one of the biggest arguments is just trying to bring down the risk of a negative play.

Paul Michelman: Are those the kind of core arguments? What else do run proponents in the NFL have to say?

Ted Nguyen: So you also have to disarm the pass rush as they say. So when you are just passing the ball over and over again, defensive linemen don’t have to worry about the run, and they could just rush upfield. One of the biggest mismatches that’s on the football field is the offensive linemen against defensive linemen. Offensive linemen are a lot less athletic than their counterparts, the defensive linemen, who are some of the biggest freaks on the field. So when you lose that advantage of deception, the defensive linemen know you’re going to pass every play. And they know that they could just do one thing, which is rush upfield. It makes life a lot harder on offensive linemen, which is why you want to run the ball and keep them second-guessing, keep them at the line of scrimmage. And there’s another argument which I think is not proven and it’s harder to prove, but coaches really believe that after a while if you run the ball, it wears out on defensive linemen and makes pass rushing harder later on in games.

Paul Michelman: OK, what else?

Ted Nguyen: OK, so there’s an argument that was made from a coach from an analytics-driven team that when you’re looking at a lot of the statistics that show that passing is much more efficient than running, you’re looking at averages. And with averages, it could be swayed a lot with big plays in the pass game, even though it could have two incompletes and all of a sudden a big play in the pass game. And that kind of sways the averages. And he suggested looking more into median and mode statistics. Some people talk a little bit about this, but I haven’t seen very comprehensive studies. And I suspect if you do look at median statistics, you’ll see that the efficiency is a lot closer between passing and rushing. But obviously passing will be more. But with less of a risk of a negative play in rushing, I think that it does bring up the value of rushing a little if you look at it that way.

And another argument that can be made is that... when you’re running the ball, it forces different personnel to be on a field. So you’re forcing bigger defensive tackles. They can’t rush the passer as good as the smaller defensive tackle on the field. You’re forcing the defense to put bigger linebackers on the field and they might not be able to cover your tight end. Those things are unquantifiable or at least I haven’t seen a way where you could measure that. And also there’s the game theory argument where you’re not trying to maximize yardage on every single play. There’s plays you run for different reasons and to set things up for later.

Paul Michelman: So you’ve got a really data-rich argument on one hand, as you would expect from the analytics community. Right? And you’ve got some pretty interesting counterarguments to that on the kind of football side that don’t, at least at the surface, have a lot of data behind them, but they sound really logical. So where do you come out on this?

Ted Nguyen: Yeah, you don’t need to run the ball to win, but I do believe that there is value in the run game. So I don’t think that teams should just abandon the run and make it a second thought. I think that you have to build your pass game first. That should be the number one worry for every team. They have to find themselves a good quarterback, surround themselves with weapons, and really invest in their pass game. But they can’t lose sight of building an efficient run game. So... part of your team building is you have to figure a way to run the ball, but you’re not going to invest heavily into it, if that makes sense.

Paul Michelman: So is there any world where a running back, no matter how great he was in college, should be the second pick in the NFL Draft?

Ted Nguyen: I think picking a running back in the top 15 just doesn’t make sense in today’s NFL, unless somehow a team that’s a top contending team somehow has a pick in the top 10, maybe through a trade or something, and they think that a running back can really take them over to top. And if they do pick this running back, he has to be a good receiver and has to be able to contribute in the pass game. He can’t just be a two-down back that can rush but can’t catch. So I think it makes sense in that context. But I don’t think it makes sense to pick a running back when you’re rebuilding, because — one, teams that are rebuilding normally don’t have a great offensive line. The analytics have shown that running backs are very reliant on their offensive line. It’s hard for them to make plays when they have a bad offensive line no matter how good they are. And two, if you’re a bad team, you’re not going to be running the ball a lot, because you’re going to be passing to catch up, and that kind of devalues the running back. So it doesn’t make sense for bad teams to pick running backs early in the first round, in my opinion.

Paul Michelman: So beyond kind of being careful about where you spend your draft picks on running backs, and maybe making sure the running backs you do pick (at least the ones high up) can also be a factor in the running game — how else might these findings impact kind of long-term planning or roster construction for teams?

Ted Nguyen: I think that it also affects whether they want to pay running backs, good running backs, that are on the team — [whether] they want to give him that second big contract. And I think we’re seeing a lot of these issues arise now with running backs. For example, Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, he wants to get paid a lot of money. You know, maybe 10, 15 years ago, Jerry Jones would have given him a huge contract without even thinking about it. But now it’s becoming a huge point of debate, and they’re probably negotiating and even thinking about whether they want to pay Elliot or not. Then you have Melvin Gordon, who is a very good back with the Chargers — he’s holding out. And then we had the Le'Veon Bell situation last year. So yeah, with these backs that are coming up on their second contract, it’s really affecting them and how much they’re getting and how much they think they should be getting.

Paul Michelman: Yeah, it’s tough out there for NFL running backs. I mean, I say that a little bit tongue in cheek, but already they have some of the shortest careers in the game. And now we’re basically saying they’re not that important. So if I was a kid getting ready to play Pop Warner, I sure wouldn’t let them put me in at halfback. Ted Nguyen, thank you very much.

Ted Nguyen: Appreciate you having me on.

Paul Michelman: This has been Counterpoints, the sports analytics podcast from MIT Sloan Management Review.

Ben Shields: You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, and wherever fine podcasts are streamed. If you enjoy Counterpoints, please take a moment to rate and review the program on Apple Podcast.

Paul Michelman: Counterpoints is produced by Mary Dooe. Our theme music was composed by Matt Reed. Our coordinating producer is Mackenzie Wise. Our crack researcher is Jake Manashi, and our maven of marketing is Desiree Barrett. We also want to express our deep gratitude to Jinette Ramos, Richard Marx, Michael Barron, Deborah Gallagher, Lauren Rosano, Ally MacDonald, Jenny Martin, Judy White, and Sean Brown, whose efforts make this show possible.