Is Borges TRYING to do this on first down?
Much has been made of Al Borges using first down much like the CFL uses fourth down. I wanted to know exactly what has been happening to us on first down this year. Is the play-calling really that bad, or is AB hamstrung by a turnover-prone QB? How stubborn is the play-calling? Are we a bad passing team on first down?
What's open for debate is whether or not Hoke is mandating the first down MANBALL attempt. What's not open for debate are the results:
Chart? Chart of 1st down rushing attempts. NYP = Negative Yardage Plays
This is the story you know. For me, it was even worse than I thought in one respect (NYP%) and better than I expected in another (YPP). The 3.5 YPP feels high, but that's because nearly one in five times we go backwards. And, 11 more times, we gained nothing. That means that 27.3% of the time--more than one in four plays--we end-up in 2nd and 10 or longer. Those are drive killers.
But that average still feels high...what's brining it up? Glad you asked. Gardner has only had one NYP on his first down attempts, and averages 4.9 YPA when he runs it. When you add in the WR runs with DG, the YPA jumps to 6.6. What this means is that if you remove the 21 attempts by non-RBs on first down, you end-up with 2.9 YPA. That's more like it.
So, 59% of the time, we're running our RBs on first down, and averaging 2.9 YPA. Even that sounds good (isn't that three yards and a cloud of dust?) until you remember that only TWO of the NYPs happened between the QB/WR carries, and there was one bad snap. That leaves 22 NYP out of 110 RB attempts--an even 20%--that we go backwards with our RB on 1st.
Want me to make it hurt more? Okay. Add-in the zero yardage plays, and it's 33/110 (30%) NYP. Yep. We have a 30% chance of ending-up in 2nd and 10 or longer when we run with a RB.
Should we be passing more? I really wasn't sure about this. Can we trust DG to be throwing on first down? There's only one way to know...
THIS! This is much, MUCH better than I thought it would be. In fact, it's TOO good (I'll explain in a moment). We only pass 29.4% of the time on first down, but man, does it work. We average a ridiculous 12.6 yards per play (this includes scrambles), have only 14 incomplete passes (25%), and DG is MUCH less turnover-prone, throwing INTs at a rate of only 3.6%. There have been only three negative plays (sacks or TFLs).
It is obvious that our tendencies set us up for big passing plays on first down. But is it worth it? To end-up in 2nd and 10 or worse 30% of the time we try MANBALL? We end-up at 2nd and 10 (or worse) 34% of the time when we throw (including INTs), so the risk is almost exactly the same. The reward is more than four times better. That's a good investment.
The reason I believe these numbers are too good is that they indicate that our run tendencies on first down are so strong that there is wide open space to be had in the passing game. I'm not telling you anything you didn't already know, but now it's quantified into a ridiculous 12.6 YPP.
This is a problem because it means that defenses are staying in stacked fronts against us and betting we simply won't even try to pass. We aren't good at run-blocking, but we're REALLY bad at run-blocking against stacked fronts. Against both Akron and UConn, the running game took off when the defenses backed out of their stacked fronts when they had the lead late.
And what about those two INTs? Both were on go routes way down the field. AB dials-up bombs on first down, which is fine, but I think it's clear there's room for some short-to-intermediate stuff.
Furthermore, if you want your QB to stop turning the ball over, stop putting him in 2nd and 3rd and long--ALL of DG's INTs have come with distances of 5 yards or more to go.
TL;DR - While passing more on first down is likely decrease its effectiveness, it is still FAR better than running with our RBs, and it should open-up some space to be better at that.