NFL teams should run the ball more on third and short

Look, I know. The modern NFL metagame has moved away from running the ball. You don’t see Jerome Bettis-type running backs roaming the backfield in a Power-I formation anymore. The league has stars like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Patrick Mahomes, who are all quarterbacks. Passing is more successful in general at gaining yards and scoring points. This is a quarterback-driven league. Running the ball is secondary.

Having said that, maaaayyyybe teams are taking the passing thing a little too far in very specific circumstances. Like third and short (3 or fewer yards to go). I created a Tableau viz to show just this.

Playcalling on third and short needs to change

Every single team has more success running the ball than passing on third and short, but only three teams from 2009-2017 actually ran the ball more than passed it. You see just a couple other teams hovering right around the middle near a 50/50 split.

Of course there’s an element of game theory. If teams run the ball more, defenses will expect it more and adjust accordingly. Running the ball more will likely decrease the success rate. But with this kind of imbalance, I think there’s room to increase the overall success rate while running the ball more. I’m not saying every team should go out and find a dude like Jerome Bettis to pound the rock into the defensive line on third and short, but there’s room for guys like Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Kareem Hunt to help their teams.

Data comes from Ron Yurko, who wrote some amazing code to scrape NFL play-by-play data. Ron’s GitHub page for the NFL data is here. You can find Ron on Twitter @Stat_Ron.

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