Is This a Sound Way of Using Statistics to Evaluate Play Calling?

I’ve recently seen some fans use statistics to evaluate a play calling in a way that seems inappropriate to me. Here are three different ways I’ve seen statistics used to evaluate play calling:

1. Counting the number of times a playcaller ran or passed the ball on at certain downs and distances (e.g., on 3rd and 4, the play caller called a run play 68% of the time, etc.).

2. Examine the sequence of runs and passes to evaluate predictability. For example, one person criticized a play caller for utilizing the run-run-pass sequence way too often.

3. Identifying conversion 3rd down conversion rates for both passing and running at different distances–e.g., 45% success running and 55% success passing from 3rd and 4–and using this to make play calling decisions.

Do you guys think this is sound and appropriate way to evaluate a play caller–e.g., determining if they’re too predictable? What are sound and unsound ways of using these type of statistics to evaluate play calling?

2 thoughts on “Is This a Sound Way of Using Statistics to Evaluate Play Calling?

  1. I would say those stats give you tendencies. More runs than passes, the OC isn’t a West Coast guy. The stats wouldn’t necessarily tell you how effective a play caller the OC is, but I would guess you would rather have an OC who runs at least 50% of the time no?

    Bottom line though, any person who only looks at stats or only looks at certain stats will never have the entire picture.

    I have a question to your question. Do you think how predictable the play-calling is determines how effective or ineffective an offense is? Option teams could run the same handful of plays 90% of the time, but that don’t mean they are not effective. The Eagles love to run the pass-run-option (PRO) a lot this year (not a crazy percentage of time would be my guess), but their play-calling could be called predictable. It’s just hard to stop the play, maybe because of the different options.

  2. I think identifying tendencies of a team (or players and coaches) are critical, but the best way to identify this, in my opinion, is to watch film. You’re not only getting what a player caller will do during certain downs and distances (and specific game situations), but you’ll also see what kind of formations and plays they run against certain types of defenses and personnel. All of that information is really important.

    Do you think how predictable the play-calling is determines how effective or ineffective an offense is?

    I’ll address option plays in a bit, but let me ask you, if you take out those options plays how would you answer this?

    With option plays, by nature, they’re unpredictable, right? That’s how they work. The defense really doesn’t know precisely what’s going to happen until the very moment the offensive player with the ball makes a post-snap decision. At the same time, the possibilities are more limited then what a play caller can do from play to play, especially if they can also substitute players. Option plays might be harder to disguise, but I’m not sure about that, too.

    Here’s another question that you and I have discussed over the years: Why aren’t option plays more successful or at least used more often in the NFL? I think there are several factors:

    1. My guess is that assignments and discipline are the keys to stopping option offenses. With the right positions and assignments, a defense can really limit the effectiveness of option offenses. This is even more true if the defense is disciplined and possess sufficient athleticism. In college, the offense is viable because a) defenses have weak links that can be exploited; b) defensive coordinators might not have time or knowledge to prepare their teams. Finally, I notice a pattern that these type of plays/offenses can have some early success in the NFL, like the wildcat or read-option. Why? My guess is that NFL coaches haven’t figured out the position/schemes/assignments to defend these plays, yet. But it’s really only a matter of time. The read-option can still be effective, but far less than it’s initial introduction to the NFL. A good test of this theory might be Deshaun Watson and the Texan offense. I noticed at least one wrinkle in their mis-direction offense–formations and plays that reminded me of Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense. If my theory is correct, the offense will be far less explosive/effective in the next two years. (Another example: Chiefs offense this year. All their misdirection seemed to give defense a lot of problems, but by a certain point, the defenses seemed to catch up.)

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