Are we talking about professional football teams or teenagers trying to figure out whether to hang out with the jocks, dweebs, preppies, or wastoids?
Identity has replaced rhythm as the most meaningless word in the NFL. Remember those days when every broadcaster at one point in the game had to say, “The 49ers need a couple of completions here to get into a rhythm"?
What the hell does that even mean?
I’ll tell you. Identity, rhythm, and other nonsensical words are just silly replacements for the word good. The Packers offense is good, therefore it has an identity. Against the Vikings last week, “they found their rhythm.” The Jets offense isn’t good, so they don’t know if they “should have a passing or running identity.” Against the Broncos last night, they “never could find their rhythm.”
On TV, you just can’t simply say a team is good or not good and leave it at that, but that’s all these masters of the obvious really have to say. So football pundits dress up their banal observations with voodoo nonsense so we viewers think they have some sort of deep understanding about the game that we don’t.
Everyone understands that timing is critical in the modern passing game, and I suppose that’s what people could mean when they refer to ‘rhythm’. But they don’t. They don’t explain how a receiver might be coming out of his break a half step too early or how a quarterback might be rushing his drop back. And when they talk about identity, there’s no accompanying analysis about what opposing defenses have allowed, or whether the running game is really any good to begin with. We only get a quick reference to how few carries [overpaid running back] got, and how poorly [unprotected quarterback] did in the most recent game, which was a loss. End of analysis.
I could write a computer program in five minutes to do a better job of identity analysis than any sports page in the country. In fact, I just did.
The table below lists the relative performance of running and passing for each offense. Performance is rated by Expected Points Added per Play (EPA/P). Also listed is each offense’s percentage of pass plays. Building off Carson's earlier idea, all data is limited to plays that occur when the offense’s win probability (WP) is between 0.15 and 0.85. This excludes situations in which a team is either well ahead or behind, forcing a pass- or run-heavy strategy mix.
On the right is each offense's split between passing and running performance. The higher the split, the better the team has been at passing. Negative splits indicate the team has been better off running.
|Team||Pass %||Pass EPA/P||Run EPA/P||Tot EPA||Split|
Normally, game theory considerations would suggest that to optimize overall production, teams at the bottom of the list should tend to run more often and teams at the top of the list should pass more often. In a pure point-optimization sense, that's true. But lesser teams need high variance to beat better teams, and therefore need to pass. It's a paradox that the worse an offense is at passing, the more it needs to do it.
But we can be relatively certain saying there's not much reason for teams near the top of the list to lean more heavily toward running the ball. So before you pen your column about the glorious wonders of smashmouth running games and imposing your will and all those other trite football sentiments, consult this table.
There are many factors--defensive schemes and looks, personnel packages, injuries, play action considerations--that dictate run-pass balance. But if, on average, every run is losing your team points and every pass is gaining your team points, calling for more running makes little sense.