Packing the Stats: First Down Balancing Act
There has been some frustration among Green Bay Packers fans lately about the run/pass ratio from the offense on first downs. During the lukewarm win against the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday, Mike McCarthy seemed to consistently call running plays on first down. Frustration with the predictability of the calls started to seep into the ever-watchful fans, and it became just another part of the team’s so-called “moral loss.”
Now, I have been slowly tracking a good number of statistics during the past eight weeks, most of which I haven’t even gotten into analyzing. One thing I do after each game is log every offensive play: the down, distance, yardage gained, how it was gained, who gained it, and the outcome. From there, I can gather a whole bunch of raw statistical information, a lot of which isn’t available on the popular NFL statistical websites.
One thing it has allowed me to track is the run/pass ratios on a down-by-down basis, which I have presented below. Now, in the following data, I have not accounted for plays in which penalties have been accepted, since a good number of times they are pre-snap penalties. This adds a little bit of error to the numbers, but it should be nothing of significance.
The first thing I want to show you is the total number of called runs and passes, as sorted by down and distance (click the image to enlarge):
If there was any doubt about which team we are analyzing, they are put to rest when we see just how much the offense is passing the ball. It’s no secret that Mike McCarthy trusts the arm of Aaron Rodgers more than his running game – and so he should. It’s their biggest and most reliable weapon.
However, there are some significant trends in the data. First and foremost, Mike McCarthy is actually pretty “balanced” when it comes to calling runs on first downs. In fact, the offense has passed the ball a few more times overall than they have run it in such situations.
The real “imbalances” come in later downs, as the offense tends to throw it more as the down increases. Running plays are only called 11.7% of the time on third downs, and if you take out the third-and-short distances, it drops to a measly 4.6%.
This, of course, makes complete sense. We already noted the obvious fact that the Packers’ strength is in their passing game, so they’d want to call plays that have a higher chance of success. Even in short yardage situations, passing the ball gives Green Bay a better chance of converting than if they were to run it.
Let’s take a look now at some of the weekly run/pass totals from individual games:
Notice something about the Jacksonville game? Yeah, a perfect 50-50 split on first down.
Now, to be fair, two of those passing plays on first down against Jacksonville were in the red zone from the 4-6 yard range. Still, a 13-11 split of runs to passes isn’t a gigantic imbalance that we should be fretting over.
Frankly, Mike McCarthy should be praised for the balance he’s fought to achieve since the beginning of the season. He was extremely pass-heavy on first down against the 49ers, and with the exception of Chicago, he didn’t start to become consistently balanced until the past four games. (What is remarkable, as well, is the fact that no running plays were ran on second and third down against San Francisco.)
Another interesting fact is that the Packers lost three of the top four games in total pass ratio: San Francisco (85.0%), Seattle (71.6%), and Indianapolis (69.0%). The exception was New Orleans (69.4%), though we all know how close that one was.
For our normal disclaimers, we do have to note that the opponent and even the in-game adjustments account for the types of calls made by Mike McCarthy. They will develop a game plan based on the opposing defense, and if they feel the running game will have more success, then they might rely on it more. We also can’t forget how field position affects strategy, as well as the audibles called by Aaron Rodgers at the line based on his pre-snap judgments.
What we really have to remember is that our memories can deceive us. Negative things will stand out more often than the positives, especially in a loss or in a game where the team seemed to underperform. With the running game struggling like it did, it’s no wonder fans became frustrated with the number of times they were handing it to Alex Green, and that probably affected our assessment of McCarthy’s play calling.
Truth be told, I actually felt like they were running a lot on first down, too. Then again, maybe it’s just that we’re so used to them passing so much that we see increased rushing attempts as more than what they are. Whatever the case, the statistics should at least help us calm our nerves about McCarthy’s play calling balance on first down.——————Follow @ChadToporski