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Passing Downs vs. Non-Passing Downs

I found a week-old article over at Sunday Morning Quarterback  that reviews some actual research on the idea that it's important for an offense to stay in good down-and-distance position.  It's kind of an old saw that staying in good down-and-distance is essential for the success, and when you examine the data, it turns out that the old saw is actually correct.

The article goes into a good bit of defining what exactly makes a "successful play", and then examines how often a play is successful when you are in a passing down versus a non-passing down.  Without going into too much detail, a "successful play" on first down is getting 50% of the yardage needed in the series.  On second down, a play is successful if it gets 70% of the yardage needed.  On third or fourth downs, a play is successful if it gets a first down or a touchdown.  

Passing downs are defined at 2nd and 8 or longer and 3rd/4th and 5 or longer.  Crunching the numbers, it was found that offenses have successful plays on "passing downs" roughly 30% of the time.  On "non-passing downs", whether the team actually runs or passes, offenses are successful 47% of the time, or about half-again more often than on "passing downs".  It was also found that teams were more likely to score if they stay out of passing situations.

The statistics also showed, unsurprisingly, that passing plays on passing downs are a lot more likely to result in drive-killing sacks than are passing plays on non-passing downs.  Of course, these findings are all interrelated.  A sack on 3rd down or on 2nd and long is certainly an "unsuccessful play" for an offense.

SMQ celebrates the results thusly:

I welcome this, personally, as an empirical base that bolsters my usual emphasis on keeping the entire playbook open: outside of talent, predictability is the number one killer of offenses, and defenses that stop the run and make offenses one-dimensional are, well, see above. Usually, I invoke this intuitively (or with YouTube videos). Now, there’s research and stuff that puts the difference in high-contrast black and white. 

It is all so intuitively obvious, but what is intuitively obvious often falls apart when you try to quantify it or verify it with actual data.  Here, we find out that it really is important to stay unpredictable.  It really is important to stay in short-yardage situations.  Defensively, it really does start with stopping the run.  Or at least, it starts with stopping first down, which is not quite the same thing.

Hey, there's an idea for another statistical evaluation.  What difference does it make, statistically, when you start a series with a pass versus starting it with a run?

This is one of the things I like about the Crowton-led offense, but it's also one of the things that really worries me about this year.  Crowton is a very unpredictable play-caller, and last year he threw just about everything at opposing defenses, from power running to speed option to deep bombs.  On the other hand, this year we have real issues at quarterback.  Our QBs lack experience, and it may make us a lot more predictable.  We will need to have success running the ball, but we'll also have to avoid being predictable on first and second down.  Darn Perrilloux!