In Today's NFL, Conservative Is the New Aggressive

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In Today's NFL, Conservative Is the New Aggressive
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The NFL is a pass-first league, and it seems like it's getting more so every week.

With so many teams using four- and five-wideout sets, shotgun snaps and hurry-up offenses, passing and receiving records have fallen left and right over the past few seasons. Run/pass balance keeps fluctuating, with NFL teams running less often than ever before.

There's something funny about Bleacher Report's Week 10 Power Rankings, though.

The Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are all in Matt Miller's top five; all four buck the pass-first trend with their conservative, power-run offenses. Several other teams—like the Carolina Panthers, New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles—are outperforming expectations due in part to an old-school offensive approach.

What have these teams figured out? Is there something about running the ball that gives these teams an advantage in today's air-it-out NFL?

What about passing? It seems as though today's most successful teams aren't getting vertical nearly as often, despite all the multi-receiver, horizontally stretched formations. Are teams getting conservative throwing the ball, too?

 

Running to Win

NFL researchers, like the folks at Football Outsiders, realized years ago that NFL teams run when they're winning—which is where the old chestnut of "Team X is 9-2 when its running back has 100 yards" comes from.

When teams are winning, they run the ball to kill the clock; running a whole lot doesn't make your team more likely to win. The myth of "establishing" a run game by handing off early and often—even if it's completely ineffective—has been debunked.

However, this makes analyzing the effect running has on winning very, very difficult.

Total rushing yards, attempts and yards per attempt are all skewed by this effect to varying degrees. Looking at stats on a per-drive basis, rather than a total or per-game basis, gives a better idea of how consistently an offense is getting it done.

To isolate running effectiveness, let's look at rushing first downs. It's easy to run unsuccessfully (a four-yard run on 3rd-and-5, for example), but those unsuccessful yards count just as much toward the totals as when a back rips off a four-yard run on 3rd-and-3.

Is there a correlation between how many rushing first downs a team is averaging per drive and whether that team is winning? Yes, per Pro Football Reference, there is:

This shows a significant relationship with a small but present effect size.

The effect size, that "r-squared" value, could be anywhere from zero (there's no effect) to one (rushing first downs per drive are the determining factor for winning). An r-squared value of 0.2069 is not huge, but for something as obtuse as the relationship between average rushing first downs per drive and winning, it's eye-catching.

I'm not a professional statistician; the last time I did an analysis like this, I failed to test for statistical significance. This time I did, doing a tailed t-test to establish the p-value noted on the chart. Statisticians, if I goofed up again, let me know.

Of course, more first downs are always better, right? Maybe there's nothing special about converting first downs on the ground.

So let's check for a correlation between passing first downs and win percentage. Nope:

 

There's no effect here at all; moving the chains through the air more often doesn't correlate with more wins. Moving the chains on the ground more often does, at least in 2013.

Of course, winning and losing in the NFL involves a lot of luck. The on-paper "better team" doesn't always win, and every NFL Sunday, at least one team gets outplayed yet wins anyway. Let's check to see if running effectiveness (as measured in first downs per drive) correlates with the best relative-strength measure I know: Simple Rating System, as calculated by Pro Football Reference.

The effect is even stronger! And again, there was no significant correlation between SRS and more passing first downs per drive. Consistently defeating the defense by running the ball makes for a stronger overall team in a way that frequently converting first downs through the air doesn't.

I also checked to see if there was a significant correlation between SRS and percentage of first downs that came from rushing. There wasn't. So, given the same number of overall first downs, it doesn't make a difference how you get them.

Here's where the idea of balance comes in: A team running the ball hard between the 20-yard lines and passing well when needed will generally win more games than a team that's passing well but has abandoned the run, or one that's running well but not passing effectively.

Here's the top half of the NFL in average rushing first downs per drive—along with their win percentage, SRS, average points per game, percentage of plays that are runs and average yards per carry:

Top 2013 NFL Rushing Teams, 1st Downs per Drive
Tm ▾R1stD/D W-L% SRS  PTS/G Run% Y/Car
Carolina Panthers 0.82 0.625 9.4 25.5 52.2% 4.00
San Francisco 49ers 0.72 0.750 8.4 27.3 57.6% 4.50
Green Bay Packers 0.69 0.625 6.6 29.0 46.6% 5.00
Seattle Seahawks 0.68 0.889 8.5 25.8 54.6% 4.60
Washington Redskins 0.62 0.375 -4 25.4 43.0% 5.00
Philadelphia Eagles 0.59 0.444 -1.3 25.0 46.3% 5.00
Indianapolis Colts 0.56 0.750 6.8 26.8 44.4% 4.60
Buffalo Bills 0.55 0.333 -3 21.0 49.3% 4.30
San Diego Chargers 0.54 0.500 -0.2 24.0 42.4% 3.80
Chicago Bears 0.54 0.625 1.5 30.0 41.3% 4.80
Houston Texans 0.54 0.250 -6.1 18.3 42.4% 4.50
Detroit Lions 0.54 0.625 3.3 27.1 38.1% 3.80
Tennessee Titans 0.53 0.500 0.6 21.6 47.2% 4.10
Oakland Raiders 0.52 0.375 -8.1 18.3 48.9% 5.00
Kansas City Chiefs 0.51 1.000 6.8 23.9 44.7% 4.20

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/years/2013/

As you can see, many of NFL's best pile-moving teams are the NFL's best teams, while some hard-running squads (Philadelphia Eagles, Washington) are being let down by their passing games or defenses. 

 

Power Running, Power Passing?

So what are these running teams doing through the air?

Well, whatever they want.

The Eagles, 49ers, Seahawks and Packers all mix up their power running with aggressive downfield passing; they're ranked first, second, third and fourth in average yards per completion, per Pro Football Reference.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

These teams take a truly old-school approach, keying off their powerful run games with deep play-action passing. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Panthers' Cam Newton, the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick, the Seahawks' Russell Wilson and Washington's Robert Griffin III are all in the NFL's top seven for play-action frequency. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers is 12th.

If the Eagles' and Washington's scoring defenses weren't ranked 21st and 31st, respectively, these teams would be winning a lot more games.

The Chiefs certainly don't subscribe to this theory. At 10.2 average yards per completion, per Pro Football Reference, they rank dead last in the NFL. A funny thing happens when you start adjusting for incompletions, sack yardage, touchdowns and interceptions, though: The Chiefs climb to 22nd-best in adjusted net yards per attempt.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Nobody's throwing it more timidly than Kansas City. But by avoiding sacks and interceptions and throwing just enough touchdown passes, the Chiefs are able to put up 23.9 points per game, ranked right in the middle (16th) in the NFL. Combined with their NFL-best scoring defense, they're third-best in the NFL in scoring differential, tied for sixth-best in SRS—and undefeated.

An interesting wrinkle in the rushing-first-downs chart above: Some of the NFL's most pass-happy teams check in at the bottom of the top 10 and just after. The San Diego Chargers, Chicago Bears, Houston Texans and Detroit Lions all pass first and ask questions later.

Though the Chargers and Lions struggle to gain yards on the ground (both average 3.80 yards per carry), they're still converting first downs on the ground more frequently than most NFL teams. The Bears and Texans are effective rushing teams but don't dial up runs very often.

In all four of these cases, it seems as though these teams are "passing to run," or setting up the defense with frequent passing and chewing up the space underneath. The more effective the passing game, the better this strategy is working.

 

The New Conservatives

It used to be that an "aggressive" offense was a passing offense, but maybe it's time to stop thinking like that.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Yes, passing inherently comes with greater risk of failure (incompletions, interceptions) and greater rewards (yards, touchdowns). Passing more often means rolling the dice more often—an aggressive strategy.

But more passing doesn't mean more aggressiveness—not in today's NFL.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are averaging a healthy 4.1 yards per carry but rank last in the NFL with 4.9 net yards per attempt. Why are they only running it 41.3 percent of the time? They're chasing what other teams are doing, trying to play catch-up—but every time they drop back, they're losing ground.

They shouldn't be pressing their luck; they should be pressing their advantage.

Maybe that's the definition of "aggressive" in today's NFL: Putting the defense in the worst possible situation by forcing it to defend everything. Running the ball with consistency but throwing to all depths of the field. Being unafraid to run when you're losing or pass when you're winning, if that's what you do best.

It's easy to try and "establish the run" when the score's 0-0, and it's easy to open up the playbook when you're down by 14 in the fourth quarter. It takes true aggression to dictate to the defense what you're going to do and then go out and do it.

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