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Some Clarification is in Order - 2012 Off-Season Stats: Broncos Play Calling Part 2

The last article dealing with the Broncos play calling inspired a lot of conversation, most surrounding two topics that weren't addressed in the article:

- What formations and play calling we had
- Whether or not there was predictability in our play calling

Well today we will be looking at the Broncos play calling on each down and what was the most effective play calls the Broncos had for each down. By looking at this we can look to shed more light on the idea that certain plays on certain downs should have be run more or less. Now you may not agree with the conclusions I present, but the facts are the facts, and you are free to draw your own conclusions. Let's get to work people!

Next Time:
The Broncos offensive packages
- Time of Possession

Introduction and Method:

When I entered this I had been hearing a lot of talk saying things like:

- "We should run less on 1st/3rd down"
- "We should pass more on any down"
- "We need to get more unpredictable"
- "Doesn't matter what we run, we need execution"

These types of comments got me wondering about what the actual facts said, rather than just post-game discussion. With that in mind I went in and recorded every single play and whether it was a run (R), pass (P) or Tebow run (T). I also took note of whether the play was an Option call, as well as my assistant and I could tell. Also plays where Tim Tebow dropped back to pass, and due to pressure or other factors was forced to run we labelled it a passing play call and was recorded as such. Now I limited it to play calling since Tebow took over since the play calling under Kyle Orton was so radically different that it would change the goal of this study, since Orton isn't part of this team anymore, what the play calling under him is meaningless. Next I put each play in it's correlating column, whether 1st, 2nd or 3rd down. I then listed the 3rd down distance and whether the down was converted or not. Here's a sample of what the spread sheet ended up looking like, taken from the second Kansas City game:

Week Team Down Distance S/F
17 KC 1st 2nd 3rd
R R T 8 F
P R P 4 F
R P T 5 S
R P T 4 F

I'm not going to list all the plays, since it's over 400 lines, and would be far too long. But by tracking this we can see a few things:

- We can see what is the best play call on 1st down to succeed on 3rd down
- We can see what is the best play call on short, medium and long 3rd downs
- We can see the average 3rd down distance based on what we did on downs 1st and 2nd
- We can see if using more run or pass plays on a drive lead to more scoring or 3rd down conversions

The Tables:

Table 1

This table will look at the Broncos play calling by down since Tebow took over the Broncos:

Avg. 3rd Down Length: 7.57
1st Down Call: 36% Pass
2nd Down Call: 41% Pass
3rd Down Call: 55% Pass

And while many will say "Ah ha! I knew it, we run too often on 1st down" let's look at a few things. The first is we need to state a few facts. The Broncos had among the worst 3rd down distance in the league. Secondly the Broncos ranked 30th in 3rd down conversion. Lastly the Broncos threw it 58% of the time on 1st down when Orton was QB and had an average 3rd down distance of 6.76, nearly a yard less, but we'll discuss that topic more in our next article. Many will just look at this table and go comment, I beg you to continue reading because if you just look at this table, you will actually misunderstand what the stats and film are really saying, which we'll look at in this next table.

Table 2

Now that we understand what data we can garner from this info. With that being said, let's get into the first table. Now this table will look at each drive, it's play calling and whether it lead to 3rd down conversions. So we'll look at the make up of each drive leading up to the 3rd down, whether it's:

- Run heavy (more runs called than passes)
- Pass heavy (more passes called than runs)
- Run on 1st down
- Pass on 1st down

We will then get a look at this data for each group:

- Successful 3rd downs (S)
- Total 3rd downs (T)
- Success percentage (S %)
- Average distance (D)

With the layout covered, let's get to the table:

S T S % D
Run Heavy 16 49 32.65% 6.39
Pass Heavy 8 33 24.24% 10.18
Run 1st 17 56 30.36% 7.39
Pass 1st 7 26 26.92% 8.96


- The shortest 3rd downs are when we run more than we pass
- The longest 3rd downs are when we pass more than we run
- The best 3rd down conversion rate is when we run more than we pass
- The worst 3rd down conversion rate is when we pass more than we run
- When we run on 1st we have shorter 3rd downs and more likely to convert

I know this seems to contradict what many felt was true. But if we look at the season, if we called run plays, we converted more 3rd downs, we had shorter 3rd down distance, and we actually scored more points per drive. Many felt that when we passed more we had more success, but the opposite is true. I have a better understanding of why the Broncos ran so much, it was more successful, pure and simple.

Table 3

Next up we'll take a closer look at these 3rd down situations. We'll be breaking it down by these situations:

- Run attempts on 3rd down (Run attp.)
- Run attempts converted (Converted)
- Conversion % (Con. %)

- Pass attempts on 3rd down (Pass attp.)
- Pass attempts converted (Converted)
- Conversion % (Con. %)

- Tebow runs on 3rd down (Tebow run)
- Tebow run attempts converted (Converted)
- Conversion % (Con. %)

- Total 3rd downs (Total)
- Total attempts converted (Converted)
- Conversion % (Con. %)

Under each these areas we broke it down by third down situations:

- Short yardage (3 or less)
- Medium yardage (4 to 6)
- Long yardage (7+)

The table has been explained, let's look at it:

3 or less 4 to 6 7+
Run Attp. 12 9 6
Converted 8 3 1
Con. % 66.7% 33.3% 16.7%
Pass Attp. 9 14 54
Converted 3 2 9
Con. % 33.3% 14.3% 16.7%
Tebow Run 7 8 15
Converted 3 3 2
Con. % 42.9% 37.5% 13.3%
Total 28 31 75
Converted 13 7 12
Con. % 46.4% 22.6% 16.0%


- Runs were the best options on short yardage 3rd downs, though Tebow runs were only slightly below the team average
- Passing on short yardage was the least successful option
- In medium yardage situations both Tebow runs and normal runs were above the team average
- Passing in medium yardage situations was the least successful option
- In long yardage situations regular runs and passes were equally successful
- Tebow running was the worst option in long yardage situation

This is another that seems to buck the idea that we need to pass more on 3rd down. In no situation was passing on 3rd down the best idea. What was really strange was on long 3rd downs where you'd think runs would be the least successful and passing would be the most, the opposite seems true with both passing and running were equally successful. Even stranger, the Broncos run success on long 3rd downs was actually above league average. Now when we look at Tebow running on medium yardage 3rd downs and seeing it's the most successful, the reason for this was because the Broncos ran the Option so often in this specific situation. This lead to Tebow taking off and running when the defensive backs pull back into coverage and being able to convert a lot of 3rd downs. Once again, this really opens my eyes for why the Broncos ran it so often.

Winding Down:

I hope this was an interesting and educational article. Now I can understand those who may disagree with the data, or interpret it differently, but after this and the last study about Broncos play calling, the more data I look at and the more games I watch, the more I come to the conclusion that the play calling last season was called for a reason, and while in the heat of the moment makes it hard to realize that, but in retrospect, it's making more and more sense. Now obviously I don't think McCoy called every play and every game perfectly, some drives were better and worse than others and some games were better and worse than others. And I do think we could use improvement in terms of play calling, but looking back on 2011, there were reasons we were run heavy, and it's because the runs converted more 3rd downs, had shorter 3rd downs, scored more points and despite predictability, were executed better. And when it comes to offense, execution matters more than anything else, and right now the Broncos execute much better on runs than passes.

The last thing to take away from all this is if Tebow improves his execution on passing plays, the Broncos will pass more. That's the facts, the reason the Broncos ran was execution, if Tebow improves his execution, the Broncos will pass more. If this off-season is one of improvement you can still expect a lot of runs, but expect to see a lot more passes.