If I read one more of these articles in the Baltimore Sun, I think I'm going to throw up.
...Ray Rice consistently ranks as one of the most productive and dynamic running backs in the NFL, capable of eluding defenders on the ground and through the air. He benefits from running behind bruising All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach, who's regarded as the most devastating lead blocker in the game. Yet, the Ravens have fallen to 19th overall in the NFL in rushing yards per game with an average of 104 yards per contest. And Rice ranks 12th on the rushing chart individually with 524 rushing yards...
The article goes on to add:
Blah blah blah. Run more blah. Need to find their identity blah blah.
Ok, I made that second part up. Actually, I have to give the author credit for attempting at least a surface level statistical analysis. But the fetish that sports columnists have with the running game has been one of the most enduring false narratives in the sport of football. It's time to put it to rest. I get that offenses have to run to keep defenses honest and to set up the passing game, but they don't have to run as often as they generally do to accomplish those things.
Let's take a look at offensive Expected Points Added per Play by play type. EPA/P accounts for all play outcomes--sacks, interceptions, fumbles, gains, losses, first down conversions, and so on--in other words, everything. Naturally, an offense would want to do more of the kinds of plays that gain them more and do less of the kinds of plays that gain less. Although this should be intuitively understood, zero-sum game theory proves that the optimum total production is when payoffs are equalized across strategy options.
Teams with high differences between pass payoffs and run payoffs should probably be running more often. And although you might think that teams with higher run payoffs than pass payoffs should be running more, that may not be true due to the passing paradox: Underdog teams that are poor at passing may need to do it more often to generate high variance outcomes.
The table below lists each offense's passing and running EPA per play, their total EPA per play, the difference between pass and run EPA/P, and their proportion of pass plays. I limited the analysis to 'normal football' where the score is relatively close and time is not yet a factor in play selection. The teams are ranked by the difference between pass and run payoffs. Teams at the top of the list should be passing more, and the teams at the (very) bottom should be running more. (Click on the table headers to sort.)
|Offense||Pass EPA/P||Run EPA/P||Total||Diff||Pass %|
Notice that Baltimore is actually doing it right. They're as balanced as could reasonably be expected between run and pass payoffs with a difference of only 0.01 per play. Just because most other teams are doing it wrong, it doesn't mean the Ravens should follow suit. Seattle is another good example. Even though they are on the other end of the spectrum in terms of run-pass proportion, they are just as balanced in terms of relative payoffs.
You could make the case that SF, SL, and CHI should be running more often than they have, particularly SF and CHI thanks to their tough defenses. Otherwise, there aren't any other teams that you can say should be running more often, and many that should be passing more.
The simple lesson here is that when thinking about run-pass balance, you need to consider both payoff and proportion, not just proportion.
Note: You can always see an updated graphical plot of offensive (and defensive) EPA/P for passes and runs here.