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Assessing Football Strategy: Is Running the Football Often Necessary? | The DC Times

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Assessing Football Strategy: Is Running the Football Often Necessary?

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Jonathan Bales

We’ve had so many insightful comments recently, so I wanted to take some time to address some of the issues raised by frequent DCTers in previous articles. All of these thoughts are in relation to the in-game strategy of the Cowboys and other NFL squads. . .

I don’t think David Buehler is being asked to purposely avoid touchbacks. On the two “shanks” from Sunday afternoon, he appeared to simply mis-kick the football. Plus, I don’t see any way Joe D would risk a big return simply for the ability to more consistently pin the opposition at the 15-yard line instead of the 20. Here’s why:

With a 1st and 10 at the 15-yard line, offenses have expected points of 0 for the drive (meaning the average points they score and the average points scored by the opposition following punts/turnovers is about equal). At the 20-yard line, the offense’s expected points are about 0.3. Over the course of, say, 1,000 kickoffs (far more than the Cowboys would conduct in one season, but a fine sample size for demonstration purposes), the Cowboys would “gain” 300 points if they performed the “kick-it-high-and-not-too-deep-and-then-have-perfect-coverage-strategy.”

The problem is that Buehler is incapable of consistently kicking the ball high and not too deep, and the coverage unit is incapable of never missing tackles. Note that, with a first down at the 30-yard line, offenses have 1.0 expected points for the drive. For the short kickoff strategy to make sense, the Cowboys would have to let the return team reach the 30-yard line (and no farther) on 30% of kickoffs or less.

The story doesn’t end there, of course, since the infinitesimal odds of the ‘Boys stopping the return team at exactly the 30-yard line undoubtedly offset the expected points gained from a failure of the return team to reach the 15-yard line. For now, let’s forget kick returns which surpass the 30-yard line but do not reach the end zone and simply factor in kick returns for touchdowns.

If we assume just a 1% touchdown rate, the ‘Boys would yield approximately 70 points on said touchdowns over a 1,000 kickoff sample size. All of a sudden, the kickoff team’s coverage has to get a whole lot better, since they would need to stop the opponent at the 15-yard line on 76.3% of kickoffs (If 763 of the 1,000 kickoffs ended there, the Cowboys would “gain” 0.3 expected points per return, or 228.9 points. The 10 kickoff returns for touchdowns equate to -70 points, while the 227 returns to the 30-yard line add up to -158.9 expected points).

If we would factor in all of the returns which exceed the 30-yard line but fail to reach the end zone, that “success rate” of 76.3% would have to jump significantly, probably to well over 90%. You think Buehler and the coverage unit can stop the return team inside their 15-yard line nine times out of 10? Me neither.


The debate between running the ball versus running effectively continues. You all know I find myself in the latter group, and the numbers seem to support the idea that rushing the football just isn’t as important as it once was. According to Advanced NFL Stats, passing yards-per-attempt is the most important statistic as it relates to winning–or at least the one most correlated to winning–with a strength of correlation of 0.61. Rushing attempts comes in at second with a 0.58 strength of correlation. So rushing the ball frequently leads to wins, right?

Not quite. Remember, these numbers represent the correlation between a specific statistic and winning football games, not necessarily causation. Teams do not win football games because they run the football, but rather run the football because they are already winning. The high strength of correlation between rushing attempts and winning seems to be limited to being just a correlation, not representative of causation. This idea is supported by the negative correlation (-0.17) between passing attempts and winning–losing teams throw the football.

On the other hand, a team’s passing efficiency probably will not increase too much if they are losing. Sure, a defense might play a little softer near the end of games so as to not yield big plays, but the net yards-per-attempt is highly unlikely to be affected as much as the rushing attempts from the team which is winning.

The strength of correlation between rushing yards-per-attempt and winning is 0.18–over three times less than that of passing efficiency. So why run the football at all? The reason I still think rushing efficiency is important is because the majority of the positive effects of a strong rushing game (in terms of efficiency, not total yards) are actually represented in a team’s passing efficiency. We’ve all heard the truism that “you need to run the ball to set up the pass.” While this is far from a necessity, rushing the ball well certainly aids an offense’s ability to throw the football effectively.

So with your permission, I’d like to alter “you need to run the ball to set up the pass” to “you may run the ball, if you would like to do so, and if you can do it with relative success, it should help you perform what really wins football games–throwing the football efficiently.” I don’t think that one’s going to get adopted, but whatever.

So when you hear me say things like “Rushing the ball is only important insofar as it helps to garner big plays via the passing game,” these numbers are the reason why.


Lastly, in my Cowboys-Niners post-game review, I discussed why Jim Harbaugh’s decision to decline a 15-yard penalty on Dallas that would have given his offense a 1st and 10 at the Cowboys’ 22-yard line in favor of a made field goal was a toss up call–meaning neither strategy was significantly superior to the other. A couple readers then asked me how I could claim it was a mistake for Harbaugh to kick a field goal on 4th and 1 at Dallas’ 38-yard line (which I argued was his real mistake). How can a 4th and 1 at the opponent’s 38-yard line be better than a 1st and 10 at their 22?

The reason is the uncertainty built into the field goal. San Fran didn’t know the Cowboys would commit a personal foul to give them an opportunity for a first down, but they also were unaware if David Akers’ would connect on the field goal attempt. The odds of Akers missing the field goal (probably somewhere between 40% and 50%, based on historical kicking data and Akers’ own career success rate in that range) surely trumps the small chance of the Cowboys committing a penalty. The 1st and 10 at the 22-yard line is “worse” in a way than the 4th and 1 at the 38 because the former scenario has three points built into it. To take the 1st and 10, Harbaugh had to take three points off the board. To take the latter, Harbaugh simply would have had to forgo a field goal attempt with expected points in the range of about 1.8. In the end, Harbaugh should have never had to take any points off the board because he should have not been so risk-averse on the fourth down.

Having said all that, I have had a slight shift in my thoughts regarding the decision to accept or decline the penalty on Dallas (once the Niners had already decided to perform a sub-optimal strategy in attempting a 55-yard field goal). When I gave you win percentages in my last article in relation to each strategy (91% for accepting the penalty, 90% for declining it), the time remaining on the clock was not a factor in those numbers. Many people might argue that the Niners were smart to decline the penalty for just that reason, as a 10-point lead with seven minutes to play is almost insurmountable (almost, of course).

However, San Francisco would have had a first down near the Cowboys’ red zone, allowing them to run even more time off of the clock. At worst, they could have drained the clock down to five minutes or less and be left with a kick that would probably be no more than a 35-yard attempt. I’ll take a 95% chance of a 10-point lead with five minutes left on the clock (and a very solid chance–probably around 50%–of making another first down and putting the game almost certainly out of reach) versus a 100% chance of the same lead with 7:30 to play.

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8 Responses to Assessing Football Strategy: Is Running the Football Often Necessary?

  1. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Excellent points – I certainly do agree w/ the accept the penalty, run more time of the clock then attempt a FG from a closer range.

    As far as the Beuhler kickoffs, I do think D asked him to squib one. Why, I have no idea but I find it somewhat difficult to believe that he just miskicked it. Kickoffs are simply not that hard to get airborne (kicking the ball straight may be a challenge but actually getting them into the air is very easy for a kicker). In fact, they’re acutally harder to squib. I doubt Joe D has the thought process, much less the stats, to just plant the ball beyond the end zone every time – I think he thinks he actually gains something w/ the element of surprise associated w/ a squib. I liken it to what I call “random” gamgling – the guy who sits at the blackjack table and make an uncharacteristic LARGE bet on one hand because he “feels” it when the overall odds of winning that specific hand are no different.

    Running vs running more vs. passing effectively. I’m a firm believer that if you choose not to run the ball, you need to have a passing system in place that is SO effective, that running isn’t necessary. The Patriots and Colts (w/ Manning) routinely have that. The Cowboys do not.

  2. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    that’s random GAMBLING (not gamglin)

  3. bW says:

    Although I agree that Beuhler shanked at least one kick (I believe JG even confirmed it) if not more during the niner game, I still think they are at least more times than not having him try to pin them before the 20.

    Otherwise, why ask Beuhler to kick directionally? Wouldn’t he be more likely to kick a touchback kicking straight down the middle….which is a shorter distance than kicking to the corner? Isn’t he more likely to come up short kicking a longer distance while also trying to not kick it too hard out of bounds?

  4. bW says:

    By the way JB,

    In the other article, I referenced a training camp vid in which Coach Joe said they wanted to try to pin em inside the 20.

    I finally found the vid I was referring to:


    at the 12min mark. He mentions how he thinks there will be more balls being kicked high (in general) and then at the end he says they (cowboys) will continue to kick directionally and thinks if they can get teams started at the 15 instead of the 20 they would be in great shape.

    anyway…..not a huge deal.
    Although, it will be interesting to see what happens monday. word is that beuhler has a groin injury. Not sure the extent of if he will play or not…but if not, Bailey will do the kickoffs. and depending on how that goes, beuhler might be out of a job i’d suspect.

  5. Greg says:

    I’ve wondered with Buehler’s unique power why he would not drill a line-drive every once in a while. If he is strong enough to essentially reach the goal-line on a rocket, there are possibilities with a line-drive that could work in Dallas’s favor. While most kickers would end up with a squib, Buehler might be able to keep some air under the ball for a good distance. Certainly if there is any contact with the ball with any of the upfield opposing players, the ball could be more accessible to charging Dallas players depending on the bounce; and the kick return blocking scheme which is designed to spring the most potent kick returner on the team could be disordered. If the ball hits the ground before the goal-line and dribbles or bounces at all, then the seconds gained to allow the Dallas defenders more time to advance to the returner could not be much different than a standard high kick.

    As far as the running game, I think what has been lost in recent years in the NFL is the running game as a legitimate offensive scheme. The running game seems to have been resigned more of a supporting role to the more prominent passing game: its just used to control the clock or set-up an inevitable passing situation. But I feel like the running game, especially for Jason Garrett, does not get enough real strategy and scheming so that there is a possibility to score from any of the running plays (like the passing game has). Instead, its more of a “let’s see how many yards we can get before we have to pass”. To me, Felix may not be the quickest and most twitchy in traffic and certainly is not a power back, but if he has the right lane, he should be able to gash as much yards as a pass to Witten or Austin. I just don’t buy that there’s much interest in fostering the running threat in Garrett’s mind. He’s a QB. His mind works around passing. Its almost like running the ball for Garrett is like an annoying little brother that he is required to supervise and bring along to games because he is supposed to; and so, he waits until the little brother tires out and takes a nap, and then Garrett gets to play his game.

  6. john coleman says:

    Running- I must mention two factors that play into the mix.

    Running as an effective way of salting away a game is minimized by the quick strike ability of todays passing game. Further, not many teams are capable of sustaining a long drive with say 66% running plays. 66% assumes that we pick up the 1st down via the pass or set up a 3rd and 1 with the pass. In addition, the olines are so susceptible to speed rushers, that inline power blockers are not the priority. Thus the run game is adversely affected.

    Secondly- Very few teams have a defense that is stout enough to limit the effectiveness of a quick strike passing game. You have to have great cover CBs and rangy, ballhawk safeties. An above average passrush is also necessary, as almost no CB can cover for more than 4 seconds. Look no further than the Vikings, who have lost big leads 2 weeks in a row, despite a strong running game. Throw in the X-factor of turnovers, or lack of. We all know that the turnover ratio is always plus on serious contenders. Turnovers are the only way to make running a serious tool for salting away games. Defenses simply don’t consistently stop GOOD teams and protect leads.

    I hope I haven’t missed a lot of what I said somewhere above and am being redundant.

    Bottomline to me is that running is largely nothing more than an attempt at slowing the passrush or overpursuit by todays speed. If running happens to be effective it simply changes down and distance for the passing game.

    I will say that football, as it should be, to me, is about our front seven whipping their front seven. In that case, we run it down your throat, and you can’t stop it.

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