Max Thompson

“If the Vols want to win games, they need to establish the run. If you start running early and often, you’ll wear down the defense and make play action easier.” You may have heard this statement many times before when it comes to a football team. Heck, you probably have said it a time or two.

Look, I don’t blame you. Growing up, I thought this as well, because it makes sense! Every time you run an inside handoff for a first down, the linebackers on the defense have to play the run a bit more aggressively. If you keep having success, you will eventually be able to fake the run and drop it right over their heads. Despite how coherent this story sounds in our heads, it is not true. Based on NFL league data from 2011-2017, you do not need to “establish the run” to setup play-action passes. Let’s dive into it.

Nevertheless, we know the benefit of play-action passes. They are the most effective play in terms of yards per play, and are a consistent factor in exciting touchdowns. They are a helpful tool to the offense, so it makes sense to try to optimize them. This is why this debate matters. We want our teams to be good at play-action passing, but how does running the ball impact that?

“How do you know that you don’t have to establish the run?”

Great question! First, researchers found that only 2% of the effectiveness of play-action passes can be explained by the number of rushes in a season. In other words, your play-action game will be the same whether you have the most rushes in the league or the very least.

“But Max, it’s not about total rushes! It is about what percent of your plays are rushes!”

Another logical point, but this one carries the same result. The R-squared of the relationship between play-action effectiveness and rush percentage is still only 0.01.

“Okay, well what really matters is how good a team is at running the ball. The best running teams will be a lot better at play-action than the bad ones.”

Again, hypothetical reader, great point. Unfortunately, this too is incorrect.

There is almost no relationship between rush success and play-action success. If you run the ball like you’re Derrick Henry on the easiest setting of Madden, you are no more likely to be successful at play-action than if you had the worst running game in the entire NFL.

“Okay, well it may not help over the course of a season, but it definitely helps over the course of a game! We always hit huge play-action passes right after a good run!”

Well, that isn’t the case either. To answer this, I will quote NFL researcher Ben Baldwin: “Teams are at least as successful at play-action when they have rushed one time in the previous 10 plays as when they have run seven or eight times in the previous 10 plays.”

If this imaginary — and very one-sided — conversation didn’t make things fully clear, allow me: There is no relationship between how often a team runs the ball and how effective they are at play-action. Also, there is no relationship between how good a team is at running the ball and how effective they are at play-action.

But this doesn’t make any sense, right? Pass plays have a considerably higher average yards per attempt than rushing plays. Also, rushing plays don’t impact the play-action pass game at all. So, why aren’t teams just running play action passes all the time?

Good question! To be honest, I don’t think anyone really knows. Unfortunately, the science behind these data-driven insights does not sit well with a lot of NFL decision makers. Consider this, for over a decade now, we have known how to precisely calculate whether or not a team should go for it on fourth down at any given point or time in the game. Nevertheless, coaches continue to punt the ball at times when it decreases their chances of winning to do just that.

If it has taken them over a decade to adjust their thoughts on fourth down, we shouldn’t expect them to even consider making substantive changes about their entire run/pass philosophy!

One final thought: A common question after evaluating this data is “why don’t teams just run play action all the time?” Here is my answer: They should! When defenders are playing football, they are not “guessing” if it is going to be a run or a pass. They have “keys” that they read that indicate to them what to do next.

For example, a linebacker will watch how the offensive line on his side reacts at the snap of the ball. This is why play-action passes can be so effective. If the offensive line pulls a player from one side of the ball to the other, that linebacker will read that action as a run play and will react accordingly. Whether or not they have actually ran the ball at all, that key will still cause that same reaction.

Sure, there is some hypothetical limit where a team is running play-action passes so often that the defense refuses to even believe them. However, no team has even come close to that point, which is why we don’t know what the threshold is.

In short, college and professional football fans need to update their idea of how to have successful play-action passing. You do not need to be good at running, or do it often, to be good at play-action passing.

Max Thompson is a junior at UT this year majoring in business management and journalism and electronic media. He can be reached at sthomp92@vols.utk.edu.

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