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MHR Primer Looks At . . . The Run/Pass Balance (Part 1: The Denver Broncos)

     There are a lot of adages connected with the NFL, "Defenses win championships," and "Pass to score, Run to win." When I posted an article asking for suggestions on what you -- the readers -- would like to see discussed by the MHR Primer series, one of the responses came from Rmann who wrote:

I have recently been getting into some articles that statistically break down whether it is more important for a team to be good at passing or a team to be good at running. We have recently heard a call to return to the good old days when we ran the ball, however, there are some interesting statistics I’ve seen that seem to indicate that passing is more important than running, and that a correlation between running well and winning games is largely due to the fact that slowing down the game becomes more important when you are ahead, however, even though teams run when they are ahead, they don’t get ahead by running, but rather by passing. This to me is a very interesting philosophical area in the strategy of football right now.

     This article is going to be the first in a series of MHR Primer articles on the topic of Running Play/Passing Play balance in the NFL.

Take a jump and see where this leads.

     This first installment will be the shortest of the series, given that we will be focusing exclusively on the Broncos. The upcoming installments will each focus on two of the NFL's divisions: AFC/NFC West, AFC/NFC East, AFC/NFC North, and AFC/NFC South.

     What I'd like to do first is lead you along the thought processes that led me to the material that will be presented. When the question was first raised, I quickly went to several statistical sites to determine the run/pass balance of the  teams. It is easy enough information to discover -- any site that tallies a team's statistics will have lines that list the number running plays and the number of pass attempts. As I started to compile that data, I realized that while it is a nice study, it really doesn't tell us much.

     So, I decided to take a different approach. Rmann's comment led me to believe that what would be more pertinent would be the question of when did a team run, and when did they pass? In other words, when the play was started was the team ahead, tied or behind?

     The method I'm using to compile the data is simple. ESPN on the team pages give a play-by-play listing for every game in the 2010 season. It was a simple -- though somewhat time consuming task -- to read down through the play-by-play. determine if the team was ahead, tied or behind, and then list whether each play was a run or a pass.  For example,

The first game of the 2010 season for Denver was an away game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Denver received the opening kickoff, and their first few plays  looked like this:

Denver Broncos at 15:00
1st and 10 at DEN 21 K Orton pass short left to D Graham to DEN 49 for 28 yards (J Durant)
1st and 10 at DEN 49 K Moreno left end to JAX 41 for 10 yards (S Considine)
1st and 10 at JAX 41 QB 15 at QB (Shotgun) T Tebow up the middle to JAX 40 for 1 yard (T Alualu)

     The way I tallied data like this was to list the score, how the team related to the other team and the play. So the three plays listed above would have been listed in this fashion:

          Game #1 - Denver vs Jacksonville - 17-24
          0-0 Tied P, R, R

(Where P = a passing play and R = a running play)

     When I came to places where the listing included a penalty that nullified a play -- such plays included the words "No Play" in the listing -- I simply did not count that play. Punts were not included. Kneel downs were counted as running plays since they count against the quarterback's running statistics.

     When I had gone through and tallied all of the plays for the game, I then created a summary of the results. What I would like to share with you now is the results from Denver's 2010 games. I will be sharing the results from other teams in subsequent installments of MHR Primer.

Overall Plays Play % Run Run % Pass Pass %
Ahead 188 18 95 51 93 49
Tied 251 24 108 43 143 57
Behind 592 58 193 33 399 67
First Half Plays Play % Run Run % Pass Pass %
Ahead 88 18 39 44 49 56
Tied 210 42 84 40 126 60
Behind 201 40 80 40 212 60
Through 3 Qtrs Plays Play % Run Run % Pass Pass %
Ahead 135 19 63 47 72 53
Tied 248 35 102 41 146 59
Behind 329 46 127 39 202 61
4th Quarter Only Plays Play % Run Run % Pass Pass %
Ahead 53 17 35 66 18 34
Tied 11 3 6 55 5 45
Behind 252 80 64 25 188 75

Now, what does all this mean? Let's take a look at it a little more closely.

     Denver had 1031 offensive snaps. 188 of those snaps, or 18% came when the Broncos were ahead in the score. 251 (24%) came when there was a tied score. 592 (58%) came when Denver was trailing in the score. This is the first key to understanding Denver's troubles in 2010 -- nearly 60% of the time, Broncos were playing from behind.

     Denver did better slightly better in the first half: 18% of the time their offensive snaps came with a lead, 42% of the time the offensive snaps came with a tied score and 40% of the time the offense had the ball while trailing. Those numbers shifted only slightly when the third quarter was added: 19% of the time the offensive snaps came with a lead, 35% of the time with a tie, and 46% of the time the offensive snaps came while trailing.

     The fourth quarter proved to be Denver's nemesis: only 17% of the time in the fourth quarter did the offense run a play while leading. Even more astounding is the fact that only 3% of Denver's offensive snaps came when there was a tied score in the fourth. Truly horrifying is the fact that 80% of the Broncos' offensive snaps in the fourth quarter came when the Broncos were behind in the score.

     What did our run/pass balance look like in these same situations. Overall, when the Broncos were leading, they ran 51% of the time and passed 49%. When they were tied, they ran 43% of the time and passed 57%. When they were behind, the ran 33% of the time and passed 67%. This really shouldn't come as any surprise. When the Broncos were ahead, they attempted to remain relatively balanced in their approach. A slight edge to the running side may indicate an attempt to control the clock while ahead. When the score was tied, we can see the balance shifting to the passing side. When the Broncos were trailing, we can see them moving heavily in the direction of the pass.

     Interestingly enough, when we look at the play balance in just the first half, the balance is leaning toward the passing game. Denver passed 56% of the time when ahead in the first half, 60% of the time when tied, and 60% of the time when behind. Part of this may have to do with the struggles with the running game as much as the Broncos following the approach of pass to get ahead.

     I also found it interesting that when the third quarter was added in, the run/play selection became a bit more balanced than in the first half when ahead or tied: 47%/53% (run/pass) and 41%/59% (run/pass) respectively.

     The Broncos, in my opinion, became very predictable in the fourth quarter. Denver ran the ball 66% of the time when ahead, had a relatively balanced attack (55%/45%) when tied, and passed the ball 75% of the time when behind. This would have made it fairly easy for teams to counter the Broncos' efforts late in the game.

Some Final Thoughts

     Overall, this data simply affirms what all of us knew already -- the 2010 Broncos simply were not very good.

     The amount of time the offense played from behind reminds us that not only was the offense not particularly adept at scoring points, but the defense was not much better at keeping the opposing teams from scoring.

     It also highlights the fact that, as mentioned above, the fourth quarter was Denver's true nemesis -- in the first three quarters, 54% of Denver's offensive snaps came with the Broncos either ahead or tied. In fourth quarter only 80% of Denver's snaps came with the Broncos trailing.

     It will be intriguing to see how Denver compares to the other AFC and NFC West teams, and ultimately to all of the teams of the NFL.