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Reviewing the Controversial Playcalls

After driving home from work yesterday and then driving to work today it seemed clear that Rex Ryan was pretty miffed at questions regarding the teams playcalling. The calls in particular surrounded the 3rd and 1 around the goalline and then the sequence of events at the end of the football game. With the emotion gone from the game I wanted to take a look at the sequence of playcalling in those two spots. For something I was working on I built a scenario evaluator that I wanted to try out for this purpose. While I think all the bugs are out of the system admittedly there may be a mistake or two still in there, so keep that in mind. The numbers that I will be discussing are based on the entire 2011 NFL database of plays.

3rd and 1 from the 2 yard line

Of all the plays this is the one that really annoyed me the most. I hated the idea of a shotgun pass in that spot. I hated the fact that no player was in the backfield. And of course I hated that the team didn’t score. But was is that bad of a playcall?  To evaluate first I wanted to look at all plays that were run inside the 3 yard line last season(note that this doesn’t include plays where the QB ran on a pass play since the Jets play was not designed to allow that to happen). 

Of the 356 plays called last season the run was the clear winner in terms of calls, but I was actually surprised to see that passes are called about 40% of the time. I then wanted to break those calls down further by down, just looking at third down in this situation as the Jets did call two run plays prior to the third down call. I admit I was pretty stunned by the results.

The pass call clearly outnumbers the run calls and passing from the shotgun is just as popular a playcall as the standard run play. Im assuming that this is because the run simply didn’t work on second down so teams switch away from the run to the pass. Keeping this in mind, is there really anything out of the ordinary with the playcall that Tony Sparano made?  No. Perhaps there is an argument that could be made that the Jets do not have the personnel other teams do, being that Sanchez is an inaccurate passer and the wide receivers are nothing special, but the call was right in line with the rest of the league given the situation.

However, there is the question as to which is the higher percentage play. The success of the call on 3rd down for all but the shotgun run category is basically identical to the play success on all 3 downs. The 3rd down runs out of shotgun inside the 3 all hit on scores last season, but the sample size is so small (9 plays) that I’m using the overall success percentages for the category in this upcoming chart, but the rest are all third down numbers.

I think a case can be made that the run is the more productive call. The run out of the shotgun is clearly the most effective, but the Jets were not using Joe McKnight at that stage of the game and did not really have a back to utilize as a shotgun runner. This is where someone like LaDainian Tomlinson was probably helpful last season.  By bypassing the standard run you are more or less going from about 47% success rate to only 40%. That is a significant drop. So while not out of the ordinary the Jets probably minimized their chances for success by not running on third down, though the argument that the rest of the NFL would have run is clearly not the correct argument.

Final Sequence of Regulation

This is the series of plays that really upset Ryan when asked about it. With the two minute warning about to occur there is no downside to passing the football unless you are worried about an interception. Now the thought of saying that the Jets played scared here is not fair (scared would be basic kneeldowns), but conservative I would say is a fair term to use. There should be two goals in this situation. The most important is to not turn the football over. The secondary goal is to get a first down and ice the game.

On first down the Jets brought in Tebow for his QB scramble play. I would say that this is clearly a designed run and will count it as one. Looking at all the plays last year run 1st and 10 between the 16 and 20 yard line, 54.5% were run plays, so a run is the slightly more favored playcall. The average run is expected to net 3.8 yards while the pass about 4.6. The issue here is that thought of “going for the kill”. Here are the odds of picking up a first down and touchdown in this spot:

The pass becomes the clear high reward at the end of the game. The odds of a TD in that spot are as good as a run picking up a first down. Even taking into account the fear of a Sanchez interception, its clearly the type of play you call to go for the finish. Pick up a first down and get beyond the 2 minute warning is going to force the opposition to use all three time outs. The only downside, besides turnover,  is a sack (7.9%). If an incomplete nets you 0 yards is it that worse than a run that gains 3?  Not really. While the playcall itself is nothing strange I think, when you consider the situation, that it reeks of a team focused on the negative of the pass rather than the positives that the pass would potentially bring. The team had completed about 70% of their passes on the day and it was likely worth one more.

After that play it understandable to call the run on 2nd down. You want to eat time at that point, though again your odds are greatly increased of picking up a first by passing the football, but you do still have another down to work with. If you can gain 4 yards on the ground, which is around average, you give yourself a makeable third down on 3rd and 4. 3rd and 7 has minimal shot of being converted (under 40%).

Passing on third down, as they did, made little sense given the game situation. In normal game situations that play converts about 38% of the time and a run 22% of the time. Considering the Jets were not really running a route that seemed designed to get the first down and the threat of the pick, incomplete or sack still looms large, its kind of a strange playcall where the good doesn’t really outweigh the bad.   That said that call doesn’t reek of conservatism. First down did and that is the play that shold get the focus not the entire drive.

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