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Abandon All Runs Ye With Stacked Boxes

Do the Eagles throw out the run when trailing?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The typical talking points of running to “impose your will” or running to “set up the pass” all sound fantastic, but they are archaic and unquantifiable when the ideological rubber meets the analytical road. All of the statistical analysis points to the pass as having a higher success rate across the board and that fact is becoming more widely accepted by analysts and coaches alike. Despite the every growing snowball of evidence, there are still some pearl-clutchers to persuade, evidenced by Seattle Seahawks’ coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s recent tirade about running the ball every snap until the offense makes a first down.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. In the last 10 years plus, no team other than Schottenheimer’s 2009 New York Jets ran the ball more than 600 times in a single season. The modern offense is about deception and exploiting match-ups, not “run the football when people know you’re going to run the football” as Schottenheimer said. But that’s the Seahawks problem now, so I digress.

Diving into a specific point of contention within this overarching theme, coaches tend to come under fire when they abandon the run when they go down in a game. Head coach Doug Pederson received plenty of flak for that in his 2016 rookie campaign and even early on in this season after the 27-20 Week 2 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

So is “abandoning the run” a real thing? Sure, but it is it as important and detrimental as traditional thinking would suggest? I recently came across a tweet related to this subject from an analyst with access to years of incredibly detailed data from Sports Info Solutions.

Boom, so the data shows that the Eagles throw the run out the window when they trail, right? That’s a bad thing, right? Well, not when the success rate is higher for passing not only league wide but for the Eagles too. Not when there are examples like the Chicago Bears, who had a success rate twice as high when passing and still ran the ball twice as much as they passed. There’s also more to the story regarding how the Eagles call the game when trailing.

What I found when I separated the 1st & 10 and 2nd & 6-10 data, using essentially same parameters (sans men in the box and narrowing the trailing score down to 16 points), is that the two pieces of data that formed this table directly conflicted each other. Throwing in all 2nd down data while trailing further muddied the picture.

So why do Eagles run more frequently and with a higher success rate on 2nd & everything and 2nd & long than on 1st down? Why is the data in conflict with the aforementioned table from Hermsmeyer? It’s simple. Box numbers. Hermsmeyer’s data reflected run:pass ratios for only 7, 8 and 9 man boxes.

Without getting to far into the math, it’s reasonable to assume that the data I collected from multiple sources points to the Eagles not running into a box numbers disadvantage, rather running at a very high rate when they get 6 or less defenders in the box. The more advantageous the box numbers, the more likely it is that they run, and the more likely it is that they succeed.

With a team that runs “Posse”/11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) 5% above league average on 2nd down and has the 7th highest 11 frequency on 2nd and 6-10 yards to go, it’s safe to assume they are seeing a lot of nickel and a heavy dose of lighter boxes in that scenario. This is especially true when facing a deficit. The defenses are more keyed into stopping the pass while the Eagles ramp up their 11 personnel usage to 73%. Even in that situation, the Eagles run nearly as much as they pass.

This educated assumption is further bolstered by two other factors. For starters, running into a numbers disadvantage has predictable results. Success rates for both run and pass swing approximately 5% league wide from 6 to 9-man boxes. The difference in the run game for being minus one blocker for what the defense is presenting is roughly a full yard per carry. The Eagles understand this; as the second factor comes straight from the horses’ mouth, head coach Doug Pederson talked about the thought process behind a run-pass option during his insightful NFL Game Pass Film Session.

“When it’s a true 7-man configuration… now we have the numbers we want to take advantage of the throw.” - Doug Pederson

It’s that simple. The idea of running to be successful by using simple math has proved much more effective and if you happen to impose your will in the process, that’s just an added bonus. So when the Eagles are down a score in a tight game and come out in the second half with three straight passes, take a look at the box numbers before you tweet out “why are we abandoning the run?!” When the advantage is there, the Eagles will take it because ultimately it’s better to abandon the run than to abandon success.

(Author’s note: special thanks to Josh Hermsmeyer for releasing his SiS findings for public consumption)

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