An stat popped up in my Twitter timeline yesterday on how teams average significantly more yards per carry from the shotgun than any other formation.
Yards Per Carry by Formation in the NFL this year:
— Ethan Young (@EthanYoungFB) October 5, 2017
This piqued my interest for a couple reasons: 1) You logically wonder if this is a down-and-distance issue more than a formation issue, and 2) I’ve been thinking for a while that the traditional way for running the ball from jumbo formation in short-yardage situations might not be the optimal choice.
There is logic to why using a jumbo formation works in short yardage: you’re bringing more blockers to counter any attempt by the defense to stack the box with defenders. But is any advantage of more blockers mitigated by the extra defenders it attracts, and the assumption on the part of the defense that it will be a run and they can time handoff.
The data says
I looked into the data to see if shotgun formation is not just the optimal running formation at longer distances, but also in short yardage. I looked at every running attempt in shotgun formation or under center from 2014-2016 in a short-yardage situation, which I’m defining at 2nd or 3rd and 1 or 2. I then calculated the average points added and the success rate for each.
As a reminder, points added is the best way to translate the results of each play into the addition, or subtraction of points teams should expect to score. I’m defining success rate as the percentage of attempts which result in positive points added, i.e a first down.
[table id=65 /]
You’ll see that teams on average add more points and are more successful in short-yardage situations than from under center. While it’s alone impressive that each shotgun run adds has a 5.2% higher success rate than running from under center, if anything this comparison is likely understating how advantageous it is to run out of the shotgun.
We might think of all 3rd & 1 situations as equal, but in reality there is a huge difference in being only inches away from a first down at being further than a yard, but not far enough to make it 3rd & 2. We don’t have the granular detail in available stats to back this up, but it’s logical that teams would be much more likely to run under center in the ultra short-yardage situation where a QB sneak is in-play.
Another logical question is if the numbers a skewed because teams that run from the shotgun in short yardage are more likely to have mobile quarterbacks, meaning that it isn’t a strategy that applies to many teams. I looked at each team’s results separately for the same 2014-2016 period and it shows that 26 of 32 teams, or more than 80%, were at least as likely to add points from shotgun than under center.
[table id=66 /]
Why would it be the case that having fewer blockers is more effective? We can’t say for sure, but possible explanations are that it adds more optionality and uncertainty that the defense can’t as easily attack. Obviously the potential for a pass is more in play from the shotgun, but I think it’s also important that the potential for the quarterback to keep the ball on a read-option dramatically changes the timing of a running play, so defenders can’t align themselves solely with when the running back will hit the line. Of course you can also fake a handoff from under center and have the quarterback bootleg, but that a much riskier play, as you could lose many more yards and the quarterback can’t read the situation with his back to the defense.
How many points are left on the table?
To get an idea of how much value in term of points added teams are losing by not running in the shotgun, I calculated the aggregate difference of running from shotgun and under center times the average number of seasonal short-yardage runs for an NFL team.[note]From 2014-2016, teams averaged roughly 41 short-yardage runs per season.[/note]
Adding an additional seven points might not seem like a lot, but we’re talking about free points in a sport where the best teams maximize tiny advantages that add up to wins. For more perspective, only six quarterbacks – the most important position in football – have added more points so far this season.