Stop Managing Down & Distance, Part 2: A Wisconsin Case Study

Submitted by The Mathlete on February 20th, 2012 at 1:46 PM

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Previsouly: Parts 1a, 1b, 1c

I have done a terrible job of branding this series. The idea behind it is that football has changed and coaches haven’t. The game used to be about managing down and distance, putting yourself in a makeable third down, and hoping your defense can win with 17 points. Now offenses are more sophisticated at both running and passing. Third downs that used to be virtually out of reach are still tough but more possible and the upsides of going for bigger chunks of yardage on first and second down have begun to outweigh the risks of longer third downs. This changes how both offensive and defensive coaches need to think and how they allocate resources and personnel. Some pieces are now worth more and others less.

The traditional running game used to be the focal point of this philosophy. The traditional running game is the best football tool for limiting variance on a down by down basis. The quarterbacks job is to hand the ball off, throw a couple of beautiful play action deep balls a game, bail out a third down or two, then feed words like "focused" to the media.

As I spent the last several years combing through nearly ten years of play by play data, I kept coming back to the same question: Why do teams run the ball so much? I parsed the data time after time to try and find something I had missed and I couldn’t find it. Of the top individual PAN seasons among QBs and RBs since 2006, only 3 running backs (Boise St’s Ian Johnson in 2006 and Montee Ball and Trent Richardson this year) cracked the top 100. But PAN doesn’t take into account burning the clock at the end of a game. So I switched to WPA (Win Percent Added) which accounts for the clock. Under WPA rankings, Toby Gerhart in 2009 is the only running back to break into the top 200 seasons. 199 quarterback seasons and only 1 running back season.

Now this isn’t to say that a running game isn’t valuable. Of my ten highest rated offensive seasons noted below only Oklahoma, Hawaii and Houston didn’t feature prominent rushing attacks. In fact of the ten, I would categorize 5 as rushing spreads, 3-4 (Baylor is tough to categorize) as college passing spreads and Wisconsin as a traditional run-first offense.

Offense Season EV+
Oklahoma 2008 17
Florida 2007 17
W Virginia 2006 16
Wisconsin 2011 15
Baylor 2011 15
Hawaii 2006 14
Auburn 2010 14
Houston 2011 14
Florida 2008 12
Nevada 2010 12

The running game is alive and well but the traditional running back is harder to justify.

The Wisconsin Case

Montee Ball had an outstanding season and along with Trent Richardson clearly a top 2 back in the country. But was he the most valuable player on his own offense? Here are the traditional numbers for Ball and Russell Wilson

Montee Ball

307 att, 1923 yards & 33 TDs rushing (NCAA record 39 overall TD)

Russell Wilson

225/309, 3175 yards & 33 TD & 4 INT (NCAA record 191.8 pass efficiency)

and the advanced metrics

Montee Ball

+6.1 PAN and 0.10 WPA/Game

Russell Wilson

+11.4 PAN and 0.37 WPA/Game

The Wisconsin offense was a thing of beauty that could have been a national title contender if their –1 defense didn’t lead them to three losses while scoring at least 29 points in each of them.

So who was more responsible, Wilson or Ball? Wilson averaged more yards/play, had almost no turnovers and significantly higher advanced metrics. But let's dig down a bit and compare the two.


Nearly half of all Russell Wilson’s plays (rushes and passes) went for 7 yards or more. Ball had 28% of his plays go for the same distance. For negative plays, they are nearly even with sacks and all Ball without. The area were Montee Ball’s plays went was in the 0-3 yard range, i.e. the manage the down and distance range. This obviously wasn’t a bad season for Ball, it was a great season and he was still dominated by his quarterback in terms of output.

Now this take into consideration down and distance considerations so I put together a similar slide with EV.


Montee Ball had 15% of his plays go for at least a half standard deviation above average. Russell Wilson’s number was twice that at 30% with minimal negative offset.

Looking at a second way, here is there play EV value ranked.


As good as Montee Ball was last year, the offense should have even gone to Wilson, more.

RIP Running Back?

Obviously not as a position but as a premiere position I have a hard time justifying the running back’s historical position as at nearly the same level as the quarterback. Even at their best great running backs at similar value to decent quarterbacks. Two offseasons ago I did a study on returning starters and found that of all positions on the field, returning starts by running backs had the least effect of any position on future team success. Before signing day when I looked at the value of recruiting ranking to future team success, running back recruiting was one of the lowest correlations to future offensive success.

It’s not that running backs can’t be valuable. Montee Ball’s +6 PAN is outstanding. It’s more that a big upside for a running back is rare, hard to predict and is still less than you can get from a quarterback. Of the 29 QB’s and RB’s that were +3 or better last year only five were running backs, the rest were quarterbacks. Running back has become a low marginal production position.

Wrapping This Up Next Week

There is a good argument to be made that Wilson’s success is a byproduct of the attention paid to Ball. It obviously didn’t occur in a vacuum and I have no doubt that Wilson benefited from the attention paid Ball more than vice versa. In next week’s final part of this series we’ll look at how teams can adjust their strategies on both sides of the ball to maximize the new realities.

We now return you to your commitments in progress


Eye of the Tiger

February 20th, 2012 at 11:23 AM ^

That's sort of a given, isn't it?  I don't know a lot of teams in the past 30 years that had an RB who produced more offense than their QB.  

A more interesting comparison would be to see if, at elite schools, top WRs are now producing more yards/TDs/PAN than feature RBs.  


February 20th, 2012 at 12:15 PM ^

Exactly.  Reductio ad absurdum: QBs have higher PAN than offensive guards, so we should stop recruiting so many linemen.  Clearly this is wrong.

There is a tradeoff between defending the run and defending the pass.  Teams that sell out to stop one open themselves up to the other.  I think its reasonable to say that one reason Russel Wilson's numbers look so good is precisely because Wisconsin's running game was so dominant.


February 20th, 2012 at 12:29 PM ^

He says that strong quarterback seasons are often paired with strong rushing attacks, but that quarterbacks still provide more expected value to their teams. I think it would be interesting to do an analysis of quarterback's EV independent of rushing EV, and vice versa. Would it be possible to estimate this?


February 20th, 2012 at 2:00 PM ^

Agree ... and add:  including the threat of Russell himself running.  Russell's mobility was not limited to simply evading pursuit in the pocket.  He had the ability to tuck and run as well (though I don't recall him being used for this as much as, say, Robinson in 2010).


February 20th, 2012 at 12:52 PM ^

Mathlete: please don't take this the wrong way. I respect your methods of analysis and particularly your pure curiosity about the game quite a bit. I would like to know how much organized football you played as a kid. 


February 20th, 2012 at 1:34 PM ^

I have to think they use it as a constraint play. Someone (Seth?) was talking about constraint plays the other day, and you need them. I agree the game has changed, passing is huge, etc. But if the defense knows you're going to pass every down, they "pin their ears back" get after the QB, play nickel or dime, etc. What I'm seeing as your central argument here is that teams run the ball too much. What would be interesting is what percentage of plays should be running plays in order to maximize your offense. Pass plays are typically > than run plays, but you need the run to open up the pass and vice versa. So if teams are running too much, how much is the "right" amount according to the mathlete? That's what I'd like to see this data turn into.


February 20th, 2012 at 4:13 PM ^

Also: a big part of the reason coaches like to hand the ball off is simply to protect their QB from getting hit.  As we've gone to a 12-game regular season, where conference champions are now playing 14 games (bowl included), that's not a small consideration.

The more you put the game on the QB's shoulders, the more likely it is that he'll get hurt.  Personally, I'd rather see Toussaint lead the team in rushing in 2012 than Denard, even though his YPC will probably be lower.  Tailbacks take their share of punishment, obviously, but a tailback only has to be healthy enough to carry the ball.  A QB has to be healthy enough to both carry the ball and throw with pinpoint accuracy.


February 20th, 2012 at 1:51 PM ^

06 WVU = Pat White (running threat), 07 Florida = Tebow (running threat)

I'm wondering if the "QB vs. RB" comparison is somewhat clouded by the emergence of the QB that serves as a primary running threat?  Both teams had RBs, but woe be the defense that failed to account for the QB running the ball. 

Also .. if I'm not mistaken, Borges is quoted as saying "You run for yards, you throw for miles" or something to that effect.  In other words, he gets the passing game angle to this.  But as others point out, there's a question of balance.


February 20th, 2012 at 2:20 PM ^

I think it's a glaring omission to discuss the relative value of Ball and Willson without discussing the basic structure of the offense - run-heavy, with lots of play-action. In other words, a large chunk of the passing plays, of Willson's production, were predicated on the threat of Ball running the ball.

Could an argument be made that a defense is less willing to get chewed to pieces with 5.5 yards-per-play metronomic consistency than shut down the passing game, which will, even with an extremely efficient QB, produce 0 yard gains about 35% of the time?


February 20th, 2012 at 2:30 PM ^

... if your constraint plays are making you efficient or you should just do the efficient thing more.  In other words, it's possible that if Wisconsin had shifted carries from Ball to Wilson, they would have been worse off.  This is a difficult hypothesis to test because it relies on so many interactions and we don't know how to weight them.

One game that seems instructive from the NFL is the Patriots loss to the Steelers (yes, I'm a Steelers fan).  The Patriots pass a lot and exceptionally well; while they have an efficient running game, it's mostly a change of pace, something to do to keep defenders thinking.

The Steelers essentially ignored the Patriots running attack, rushed five and played five defenders in short zones with one deep safety.  They designed their defense to take away the thing the Patriots did most often and succeeded.  (Obviously it helps having great players and having an offense that held the ball most of the day, but the last point is a chicken-and-egg issue.)

I should note that I don't doubt that many coaches, particularly in the Big Ten, are fairly conservative - coaches everywhere are, because the consequences for an anti-conventional tactic that fails are large (namely, getting fired).  It's easy to say that adopting this measure will mean 1% more wins in the long run but not so easy to do when most coaches won't see 100 games to get that extra win.  (It's worse when it's the 3 extra wins in year 6 with 2 extra losses first pattern ... you just won't see those wins often enough.)



February 20th, 2012 at 2:33 PM ^


I issue I see is you have more variables than you can control for.  If you're playing against a Greg Robinson coached defense (complete a Tony Gibson coached secondary), is the traditional runningback obselete?  

Heck yes it is.  Look at that cushion on the corners and how horribly trained the secondary is.  Commence bombing the defense and forget three years and a cloud of dust.  

Are you playing a top defense (Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, insert your choice here for 2011)?  

Suddenly a stable run game is key.  Couple of points:

  • You mention offenses are more complex.  So are defenses.  There are times the D-Coord outsmarts the offensive coordinator.  At that point having the safety net of "3 yards and a cloud of dust" ball is very useful.  You can call your offense around that while you figure out how to adjust your passing game, etc.
  • Repeated pounding of the rock will get the offense pumped up and remove the defense's will to live.  As a high school safety I dreaded going up against the teams with manchild offensive lines and knowing I was going to spend 4 quarters being run over by large RBs who might later test positive for steroids (two of them did).
  • Regarding the point about, that kind of RB also increases the odds of DBs cheating into the box for run support and opening the door for the QB to do better.
  • Look at Michigan vs Wisconsin 2010.  Standard run game vs bad defense = massive yardage gains and control over the clock.

I don't see any reason to declare managing down and distance as dead.  Teams that can average 4 yards a carry and exert their will in the red zone (dominate offensive line) force the defense to exert 100% of their effort to stopping the steady advancement.  This opens the door for defense mistakes, too many people in the box, and explosive players to rack up gaudy numbers.  What I see your work showing is more that defensive coordinators are more concerned over "death by a thousand papercuts" than "stopping the really explosive guy who might produce in spurts".  


February 20th, 2012 at 3:01 PM ^

My one question is regarding turnovers.  You state "Even at their best great running backs at similar value to decent quarterbacks" but I find that hard to believe.  A decent QB will turn the ball over much more than a great running back, hell, a decent QB will turn the ball over more than a decent running back.  I may have missed it in parts 1abc but I think its obvious that an int is much more detrimental to an offenses production than a no gain running play.  Sure RBs fumble on occasion but if we're talking "great running backs" there's no way they fumble more than a QB turns it over.  In 07 Henne had 9 ints compared to Hart's 2 fumbles, and that's a great QB compared to a great RB.  Wilson had an uncommonly low number of ints (4) last year which I think helps his stats significantly.  Obviously I haven't gone through the numbers like you have and it may be something that isn't as big an issue in the end but it was the one thing that jumped out at me so I thought I'd ask.


February 20th, 2012 at 3:47 PM ^

I like the metric, but you are basically rehashing Walsh's West Coast Offense.  Everyone shoudl run Andy Reid's offense, because that makes the best use of running backs in a era when QBs are more valueable?  Hmmmm.  My metric wil be called Freakish Athletes with Super Talent (FAST).  With this metric I will show that if you have really good players on both sides of the ball, you will win a lot.  Whereas, if your team is full or cones, you will likely lose.

Zone Left

February 20th, 2012 at 3:53 PM ^

Thank you again for the analysis. I love reading your posts.

This is a nice example that a QB (even paired against an elite running back) is almost always going to provide the biggest difference between a team winning and losing. 

The thing, in particular that CRex hit on, is the point is to play variance and the odds in a way that maximizes a teams chance of winning. Sometimes, it's a high variance strategy and sometimes grinding it out makes more sense. The game that immediately comes to mind is Florida vs Tennessee during Lane Kiffin's year as coach. Most people expected the Volunteers to be run out of the stadium, but the game was pretty close all the way through. Tennessee had a pretty good defense and a terrible offense, so they basically did nothing high variance except throw a couple of deep balls. If those passes hit, Tennessee had a great shot at the upset. They didn't, so Tennessee lost, but I think the strategy of slowing that game down made a lot of sense.

The offense, defense, special teams, and the opposition all have to be factored in to determine the best strategy for a given game. Wisconsin knew it could reliably hammer out yards on the ground, still score a bunch of points, and minimize the number of opportunities for their defense to get torched. In essense, they played to shield their weakest link (defense) while reliably scoring a bunch of points.

I feel like most coaches go into games understanding they won't score every time and probably won't stop the other team every time, so they try to play the odds in a way that gives them the best shot to win at the end.


February 21st, 2012 at 9:36 AM ^

Having more than one rushing threat is certainly in vogue right now. It is neat that your numbers reflect and support this trend.

Two quibbles I would have with your data though. The numbers that show 199 QBs and 1 RB (or 97 and 3) don't so much suggest to me anything about the QBs or RBs themselves but instead suggests to me that the system is greatly biased towards QBs. The second point offers some explanation for the first. Your system demonstrates Wilson as being much more important than Ball. As you mention, although not strongly enough in my mind, the offense is structured for Ball to be the workhorse and Wilson to be the glory boy--your measure of 'plays over 7 yards' is a perfect example. Wilson gets those 7 yard  plays because Ball does what he did. You can't easily seperate the two. Wisconsin is a poor example of this because Wilson is very good but I'm sure somewhere in those 199 QBs that are more important than every RB but one, you will find a mediocre QB completing easy passes that his RB set up for him.

The passing game is king in football right now--partially because of rule changes--but one glance at the two teams that played for the crystal football will tell you that the running game is not dead.