Inside the Isolator, Week 8 Edition

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A look at interesting angles, concepts & analysis collected during this week’s research sessions spent strapped….. “Inside The Isolator”

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A weekly feature which will essentially be an “emptying the notebook” collection of tidbits I uncovered each week which didn’t make it into my writeups or analysis that I shared with clients for the week. Occasional free plays will also appear. This will be distributed every Saturday night over the course of the season… or until the gas cuts off inside of this thing…

To receive this weekly feature in your inbox as soon as it is released, make sure you’re on the mailing list:

What I Saw

… The Panthers unleashing Cam Newton, which I’ve begged for on these pages for weeks.  The Panthers are finally looking like the team we bet Over 7 season wins.  They really are underestimated right now, considering how they measure up in the advanced metrics.

… More games, more dumb coaching.  Log the entire Vikings game vs the Giants into this category.  Starting an unprepared Josh Freeman and then not making any corrections over the course of the game, even though pass after pass sailed 20 feet out of bounds, was ridiculous.

… The Colts see an incredible high and low in the same night.  Beating the Broncos in the manner they did was masterful, even if they had some terrible play calling early on with 1st down run plays to put them behind 7-3.  Once they started passing on 1st down, they outscored the Broncos 24-7 to close out the half.  But losing Luck’s main man and his security blanket, as well as a quiet leader, in Reggie Wayne is big.  No team has a backup Reggie Wayne lying around, and he will be missed.

What I Want to See

… If any of these backup quarterbacks, for Cleveland, Minnesota and St. Louis can actually competently execute their offense.  Two of these teams face the Chiefs and Seahawks, two very formidable defenses even for a starting quarterback, let alone Jason Campbell or Kellen Clemons.

… How Denver responds to their terrible performance last week.  Despite 3 turnovers, 4 sacks and 7 punts, the Broncos still put up 33 points on the road.  They are at home and playing one of the most pitiful NFL defenses in the league.  But Peyton’s line is fragile and full of replacement players.  Who knows what this offense would look like with the original Broncos offensive line, but they must step up, even against the Redskins, or they could really disrupt the rhythm of Peyton and the Broncos passing game.

… Brandon Merriweather kicked out of the NFL.  This player was part of the impetus for Roger Goodell to implement the hitting rules in the middle of 2010.  He does not know how to hit without spearing.  Studying his hits is a veritable “how not to hit” which should be shown to NFL rookies.  He must have tape on someone to still have his job.

… How Geno Smith performs in Cincinnati.  Do you know that the Bengals have hosted Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger and defeated all 3 at home, holding them to their lowest passer rating in any game this season.  Geno has his work cut out for himself, but he’s risen to the occasion before and this should be a great game.

What I Don’t Want to See

… Eli Manning struggle against the Eagles defense.  This “should” be a get right game for Eli.  He didn’t throw an interception against one of the worst defenses in the league on Monday (Minnesota) but thats not for trying.  If he takes a step back against the Eagles, they need to re-evaluate their play calling.  The Giants offensive line is full of backups, so design a scheme to make the most of what you have.  Give Eli some better options, but let’s not pass the bill around Eli, he’s played miserably.

… Last week, right here, I said the following:  “Josh Freeman take on too little or too much in his first game on Monday in New York. I’d love to see the Offensive Coordinator manage him well enough to do what every other team has done this year, and that’s beat the Giants. But there’s a comfort level that must be established with a new QB on a new team, and this will be an interesting game vs the Giants.”  That was a pathetic use of Josh Freeman, even if he’s a bad QB.

… Carson Palmer struggle against this Falcons defense.  This defense is beaten down, injured, and was never great to begin with.  If Palmer plays bad, while there are no real options at the position other than Palmer, it really has to be a let down for Arians and their offense.  Some of it is play calling, but Palmer really does not seem to have 20/20 vision and throws right to defenders at times.  This Cardinals team has a good defense and special teams, but need a reasonable offensive performance on Sunday to get the win.

What I Found

… If I were to tell you no down and distance sees more interceptions per pass than 3rd and 10, you’d probably nod.  Teams are pushing it, having gained nothing on the first two downs, and often get riskier trying to make something happen.

… But if I were to tell you that the 2nd most frequent down and distance for interceptions is actually 2nd and short (1-2 yds), you’d probably be surprised.  But its a fact.  Teams get cute, try to take “shots” and end up getting careless and turn it over.  Forget the fact if the RAN it they’d get a first down 70% of the time and move the chains.  One of the most critical things you can get from this article this week is simply to “watch” play calling more, paying particular attention to:  1st and 10 play calls, 2nd and short play calls, 3rd and short play calls, and whether a team goes for it on 4th and short or not.  So many games can be won or lost based on simple play calls on these critical down and distances.  And most of the time, coaches screw it all up.

What the Custom Data Shows

… The Chiefs defense is fully legit.  They rank 4th in EDSR defense, 1st in 30 & In TD % defense and 1st in red zone defense.  No other team is top 5 in those 3 metrics, not even the Seahawks.  Add on top that the Chiefs are 1st in 3rd down defense, 1st in yds/point, 2nd in yds/pass attempt and 2nd in overall defensive efficiency, you have a very fearsome unit.  Which it needs to be because the Chiefs are only the 2nd team since 2002 to win 3 straight games WITHOUT a SINGLE passing TD!

… Despite RGIII being injured and gimpy starting the season, and playing extremely limited and rusty, the Redskins offense still ranks 6th in EDSR, 8th in yds/point, 9th in red zone offense and 9th in 3rd down offense.  You have to believe these numbers increase after facing the Broncos defense on Sunday.

… The second largest EDSR edge this week was the Panthers over the Bucs.  The largest is the Packers over the Vikings.  Don’t look now, but the Packers defense actually ranks 6th in EDSR, forcing teams to attempt 3rd down on almost 80% of their first downs.  And that’s WITHOUT Clay Matthews.  You’ll recognize the top 5:  NYJ, Bal, Hou, KC and Cin.  But you probably didn’t expect the Packers to fall in line at 6th.  And in fact, they are the 2nd best overall team in total EDSR (offense + defense) of any team in the league.

What I’m Betting

… If you bet 2 or more of these 4 teams against the spread this week, you may struggle: Seattle, New Orleans, Minnesota, Dallas

… We heard MUCH more on a national level about “Woe is Tom Brady, he has no one to pass the ball to this year” than we will hear about Aaron Rodgers.  But this week he’s without Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, Randall Cobb and James Jones.  He now has Jordy Nelson and a group of castoffs.  Lets see how he performs tonight.  Because its a national TV game, I guess Chris and Al will discuss his lack of receiving options, but it won’t garner the headlines that poor Tommy saw earlier this year.

Good Luck and enjoy your EIGHTH Sunday of the 2013 NFL Season!

Inside the Isolator, Week 7 Edition

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A look at interesting angles, concepts & analysis collected during this week’s research sessions spent strapped….. “Inside The Isolator”

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A weekly feature which will essentially be an “emptying the notebook” collection of tidbits I uncovered each week which didn’t make it into my writeups or analysis that I shared with clients for the week. Occasional free plays will also appear. This will be distributed every Saturday night over the course of the season… or until the gas cuts off inside of this thing…

To receive this weekly feature in your inbox as soon as it is released, make sure you’re on the mailing list:

What I Saw

… Russell Wilson get the job done on Thursday night.  It’s not easy to go on the road on a short week vs a division foe who is a very strong home team, but Wilson did it.  It was just a few weeks ago the Seahawks won in Houston in spite of Wilson’s 97 yards passing.  Thursday, they won because of him.

… An ultra aggressive offensive coordinator such as Sean Payton go ultra conservative when his team needed him the most.   The game in New England was the first game in well over 10 years where a team who was trailing by 1 score got 3 offensive possessions in the final 4 minutes without a single missed field goal or a turnover.  It was amazing how not only did Peyton go into a shell offensively, but defensively, he allowed his team to play prevent defense.  Knowing that if he was trying to play catchup, he’d love it if his opponent was playing prevent.

… The stupidity of NFL coaches.  Entering the game with the Seahawks, the Cardinals had to know that Seattle was tremendous on 1st down run defense.  But on 8 of the Cardinals first downs in the first 3 quarters, the Cardinals called runs.  In those 8 plays, they gained a TOTAL of 5 yards!  Setting up Carson Palmer, a QB who can only succeed if managed correctly, with 3rd and an average of 9.5 yards to go.  That’s not a formula for success, and there’s no reason why Arians should have run into a brick wall repeatedly. 

What I Want to See

… Peyton Manning vs Andrew Luck (and Jim Irsay).  Self explanatory.

… A NFC “Least” battle between the Eagles and Cowboys.  This one features two chunk play offenses and two sloppy, injured defenses.   This game could go a long way to deciding which of these offenses can take the division.  Because their defenses surely aren’t going to do it unless they elevate themselves in a major way.

… Cam Newton continue to be utilized correctly by Mike Shula.  Please don’t insist Cam play as a pocket passer.  Free Cam, like you did in the last game, and let him create and confuse the defenses.

What I Don’t Want to See

… Last week right here I mentioned Schaub throwing another pick 6.  His backup threw one instead.  Please, Houston, against a very strong Chiefs defense, DO NOT GIVE THEM 7 FREE POINTS!

… Josh Freeman take on too little or too much in his first game on Monday in New York.  I’d love to see the Offensive Coordinator manage him well enough to do what every other team has done this year, and that’s beat the Giants.  But there’s a comfort level that must be established with a new QB on a new team, and this will be an interesting game vs the Giants.

What I Found

… It is absolutely ridiculous how many Steelers/Ravens games are decided by 3 points exactly.  Look it up, its happened in 8 of the last meetings!  But this isn’t the same Steelers nor the same Ravens.  Will this one be decided by exactly 3?

… This may sound crazy, but in the last 25 years, if the Redskins are at home and have fewer than 25% wins on the season, they have NEVER been anything but a home dog of 6 or more points vs a team with a winning record.  This week, they are at a pick’em vs the 4-2 Bears.

What the Custom Data Shows

… I highlighted the Vikings defense using my advanced metrics last weekend, and they tanked.   This week, I’ll highlight the Panthers.  Both offensively and defensively, adjusting for schedule, they rank top 6 in my EDSR metrics.  They are also the 4th rated team in 30 & In TD % offense, behind only Denver, Indy and Seattle.  And in the red zone, their offensive variance is tremendous, converting 64% YTD on defenses that allow only 51%.  Thats the 4th best positive ranking for any team in the league.

… We have two EDSR similarity battles today for different reasons.  The Patriots and Jets both rank approx 25 in EDSR offense, and both rank top 10 in EDSR defense.  Meanwhile, the Cowboys and Eagles both rank top 10 on offense and bottom 3 on defense.  Lets examine how often the Jets and Patriots need to convert 3rd downs, and how often the Cowboys and Eagles skip them altogether.

… If you didn’t read my article this week on BAD COACHING, you must give it a read.  You’ll never watch the NFL the same way again once you start to pay attention to the specific play calls in various down and distance situations.  In particular, pay attention to:  1st down play calls, 2nd and short “shot plays”, and whether a team will run or pass on 2nd or 3rd and short.  Also, study how often a team goes for it on 4th and 1-2 yards.  The simple fact is, the last 2 years?  If you got into 2nd and 1-2 yards and ran on 2nd, 3rd and 4th down, you’d convert a first down 97% of the time!

What I’m Betting

…  If you bet 4 or more of these 8 teams against the spread today, you won’t have a good day:  KC, Chi, Det, SF, Den, Car, Jac and Buf.

… If you have either running back in the Bears/Redskins game in DC for fantasy football, you will be smiling, and if you have either quarterback in the Cowboys/Eagles game in Philly, you will also be smiling.

Good Luck and enjoy your SEVENTH Sunday of the 2013 NFL Season!

Why Coaches are Dumb

How often do you see coaches get into predictable down and distance situations?  1st and 10?   Establish the run.  Solid gain on 1st down?  Take a shot down field on 2nd and short.

The less predictable you are, the more you can dictate to your opponent.  But far too often, coaches don’t understand the basic down and distance odds of success and call bad plays.

Much of the 2nd half is dictated by score and time, far more than the first half.  But the first half actually is the most decisive half:  the last 25 years, teams who led at halftime won 77% of games.  Before you suggest spread matters, I’ll tell you that even in games lined within 3 of a pickem, the team who led at halftime won 75% of the games.

So clearly, establishing success and dictating to your opponent is critical in the early stages of a game.  So here’s a look at the down and distances and the average success for types of play calls in the NFL.  You can judge your team against the following.  First, let’s share some baseline stats:

Pass plays and run plays, on any down and distance, over the course of the entire game, each are approximately 47.5% successful.  The key definition of “Successful” is defined as any play which gains at least 4 yards on 1st or 2nd down, which gains a first down on 3rd or 4th down, or a play which scores a TD.

The following analysis will look ONLY at the 1st half plays calls from the last 2 seasons (since the new passing rules came into effect).  This is because game situation (time remaining, lead/trailing, etc) becomes so much more important and factors into the play calling late in the game.

Note that a large, all “downs” graphic is at the very bottom, click to enlarge.

First Down Play Calls

On first down, pass plays are successful 52% of the time, run plays are successful 45% of the time.  Thus, teams who run on 1st down really are doing themselves a disservice.

Caveat (and there is always at least one!): Some teams actually do achieve well on first down, for example, San Francisco is 56.5% successful running on 1st down and only 52.1% passing.  The 49ers and the Redskins are the only 2 teams in the league who are above the NFL average in terms of pass play success rate, but even BETTER when running on 1st down.  So for the other 30 teams, they are better off passing on first down than running.

However, 52% of all first down play calls were run plays across the league.  Which shows a basic failure to understand and study metrics and success.

For the vast majority of teams, pass plays are 7% more successful on first down, yet coaches would rather run on first down – a more predictable play for the defense to stop.  Why?  Because they’re dumb, that’s why.

Second Down Play Calls

2nd and 10+:  62% of the time, passes are called in this down and distance.  Most often a team is in 2nd and 10+ from either: 1) an incomplete first down pass 2) a sack or 3) a failed run.  When coaches call passes here, they are right.  Passes on 2nd and 10+ are successful 52% of the time, almost exactly the same as passes on 1st and 10. Runs are successful 49% of the time, an improvement over runs on 1st and 10, but still worse than passes.  This is primarily because defenses are more likely to expect you to pass on 2nd and 10+, but the interesting part is that even though they are more prepared for the pass, passes are still just as successful as they were on 1st and 10.  It’s still smarter to pass on 2nd and 10+, even if you already threw 1 incompletion already.

2nd and 5-9:  Coaches are calling passes 60% of the time, and like 2nd & 10+, they are right.  Passes are 3% more successful than runs in 2nd and 5-9.  But interestingly, runs are best on 2nd & 5-9 than they are on any other down with a yards to go greater than 4 yards.

2nd and 3-5:  Teams who get into this borderline territory gained between 5 and 7 yards on first down.  That means they had, by definition, a “successful” play call (gaining 4+ yards) on first down.  But unfortunately, they screw up badly in this next play.  Choosing to run almost 10% more than pass, they give up on the most advantageous opportunity to pass on 2nd down!  Pass plays are 4.4% more successful than run plays, the largest edge of any 2nd down distance.

2nd and 1-2:  Passes are more successful here than on any other down/distance with a high enough sample size, however, they aren’t the optimal play call.  That’s because you won’t find a BETTER time to run the ball.  A whopping 70% of all 2nd and 1-2 yd RUN plays are successful.  Thus, running the ball here is the better decision.  However, often offensive coordinators will choose to “take a shot” here.  And even though they’re successful 57% of the time, that’s 13% less than running the ball.  For the most part, coaches get this one right, calling twice as many runs as passes.  However, you could argue that it should be even a higher than 67% given that runs are so successful.

This presents your classic “greedy coach” situation.  After a successful play on first down which puts you in a 2nd and 1-2 situation, what do they do?  The goal, of course, of any series of downs is to start a new series by gaining a first down.  Thinking that 2nd and 1-2 is a “free play”, they throw the ball and 43% of the time, they fail, leaving them (at best) with 3rd and 1-2 (or, if sacked or penalized, 3rd and longer).  These 3rd down scenarios are definitely worse than 2nd and 1-2, as you’ll see below (whether running or passing, your conversion percentage decreases on 3rd down and the same 1-2 distance), with coaches then regretting not running (literally) into a 70% successful situation.

Third Down Play Calls

3rd and 10+:  Though rarely successful, passes are called 87% of the time and are successful 23% of the time.  This is a better choice than running it from this distance, so coaches are right with this call.

3rd and 5-9:  This is another situation where you aren’t likely to succeed, regardless of whether you pass or run.  However, running is actually 10% more successful than passing.  Yet in typical dumb coaching fashion, there is no down/distance where coaches love to throw more than 3rd and 5-9.  They throw it 93% of the time.  The smarter play here is to spread the defense out and call a creative run play.  With defenses in personnel packages to defend the pass, calling a defensive play to prevent the pass, and given that passes happen here 93% of the time, why would you pass?

3rd and 3-5:  Both runs and passes are more successful here than at the 5-9 range, but passes are still less successful than runs by 6%.  Yet passes are called 89% of the time.  In fact, despite being several yards closer to a first down, coaches have called the SAME number of runs (187) on 3rd and 3-5 as they have on 3rd and 5-9 (187) in the first half of all games the last two years!  Does that make ANY SENSE at all?  NO!  They ignore the fact that runs are 4% better on this shorter yardage, and ignore the fact that the only play call that is successful over 50% of the time from this down/distance is a run play, 9 times out of 10 they are passing.

3rd and 1-2:  While not as successful as runs on 2nd and short (70%), runs on 3rd and 1-2 are money makers!  That’s because, not only are they successful 2 out of every 3 times (66%), they are successful 16.5% MORE than passes on 3rd and 1-2.  That makes this situation the #1 run advantage of any down/distance.  Yet in typical coaching stupidity, coaches decide to pass even MORE on 3rd and short than they do on 2nd and short.  55% of plays are runs, 45% are passes.  On 2nd down, over 67% of 2nd and shorts were runs (the smarter choice).  Why do coaches, with a 17% run advantage, choose to pass 45% of the time?  Because they are dumb, that’s why.

Fourth Down Play Calls

Simply look at the numbers here and tell me why teams don’t go for it more on 4th down?  On 4th and ANY yardage between 1-5 yards, runs are successful 66% of the time, passes are successful 59% of the time.

It doesn’t take an idiot to see that if you are in 3rd and 1-2, you’ll gain a first down 66% of the time by running the ball.  Then, if you are in the minority and don’t gain a first down following that run (33.8%), 66.4% of the time on 4th and 1-2, you’ll gain a first down calling another run.  This means if you run it both times, on 3rd and 4th downs, you’ll gain a first down approximately 89% of the time!

Yet the last two years, 72% of first half 4th and 1-2 yd play calls were punts.  Sure, why bother to actually put the percentages to work in your favor.  Dumb coaches.

Summary

Coaches are dumb.  It’s a natural and a completely normal reaction to watching more football games.  The more football you watch, the dumber they get.

A number of pet peeves include:

  • Almost ANY first down run, especially given today’s passer/receiver friendly rules.
  • Coaches who get 2nd and short, and decide to take a shot, and before you know it, they’re punting the ball on 4th down.  In reality, if a coach actually got into 2nd and short (1-2 yds) and ran it 2 straight times (2nd and 3rd down), they would have a first down 90% of the time.  If they ran it on on 2nd, 3rd and 4th down, a whopping 97% of the time, they would gain a first down!  (This, obviously, doesn’t compute the rare occasions where they run on 3rd and 1 and lose 5 yards, and get faced with a 4th and 6.)  On 2nd or 3rd and short, run and get the first down and keep getting creative offensively.  No “shots”!
  • Coaches punting 72% of the time on 4th and short!  As witnessed even by a completely dumb coach (Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers), twice on their opening drive on the road last week in Minnesota, Carolina went for it on 4th and 1.  And he even indicated in the future he would make the same calls because “that’s what we’re going to do.”  If a dumb coach like him is smart enough to do that, the entire league should take notice.
  • Coaches who run on 2nd and short, and fail (only 30% do) and then decide to THROW on 3rd and short.  That is the WORST time to throw (based on success rates of runs vs passes on that down/distance) of any down and distance in football!  Instead, how about call a MORE CREATIVE run play and join the 66% of the league who converts runs on 3rd and 1-2 into first downs.  You’ll be more likely to catch your opponent off guard, AND you’re 17% more likely to actually gain a first down on 3rd and short by running rather than passing.

The rules are so advantageous to passing these last few years.  A very BASIC strategy, regardless of the team, opponent, field position, etc in the first half would be:

  • 1st down = pass
  • 2nd down = pass (unless 1-2 yds to gain, then run)
  • 3rd down = run (unless its 3rd and really long, then pass)
  • 4th down = run (though passing is still approx 58% successful and could be called)

This is obviously a huge “lumping all the eggs into one basket” generalization, and is not really what you’d do every single series of downs.  Again, they key is to keep your opponent guessing and unprepared.  Every team should scheme in their own way, both to maximize their own talent as well as to attack their opponent’s weakness.  The key is to be creative.  Not just when deciding to run or pass, but how you are running or passing.  Don’t call out the “jumbo” package when trying to gain 3rd and 1 on a run.  If your opponent is stout up the middle on the line, spread them out in a pass play, and then run to the outside.  Call a run play which maximizes your advantages in the individual match-ups.

Far too often you see coaches running on 1st and 10 and 2nd and long, and the announcers indicate they are “trying to establish the run”.  This is old school and is not advantageous in today’s NFL.  Coaches should establish the pass to get into shorter 3rd down situations.  And then, in 3rd down, when NFL teams pass the ball 90% of the time from any distance over 2 yards, that’s when you RUN!  And the fact is, establishing the pass works better to open the run than establishing the run works to open the pass.  Why?  Because in today’s NFL, the “pass” is higher percentage and more advantageous than ever.  Thus, its easier to establish and easier to execute, especially with so many short routes and hot routes that are successful even in the face of blitzes.

The more you look at these numbers, the more you’ll realize how truly dumb most coaches are in the NFL.  It’s mind boggling, actually, that a basic analysis can uncover so much inefficiency.  The reality is, all of these numbers become far more advantageous for teams when filtered for that specific team.  As I indicated at the top, the 49ers are actually better running on first down than passing, one of 2 teams in the league who are better.  But without tailoring this analysis to specific team by team situations, league averages are still beneficial in pointing out glaring issues.

We hear that “advanced analytics” are creeping more and more into the NFL.  But either coaches are so antiquated and refuse to adapt, or they are using analytics that aren’t as advanced as perhaps they thought.   Either way, this is a results based business, and right now, the results clearly demonstrate a fundamental lack of proper decision making (and research) by NFL coaches when calling plays (or making virtually decision, for that matter).

Football is a fun game to watch, but often it becomes too painful to watch the horrendous decisions coaches make on a weekly basis, especially if its your “home” team, or you have a bet on the game, or you have fantasy players involved.  Just when one coach seems to hand the game to his opponent on a silver platter, the opposing coach one-ups him and issues a “return to sender” on the gift.  We have enough trouble watching the Texans quarterbacks producing touchdowns for their opponents!  Execution is hard enough, but to be put in a position to fail makes successful execution that much more difficult.  Football will be much more enjoyable when the coaches call efficient and intelligent games.

And don’t even get me started on the announcers!  So quick to place blame on certain players and point fingers for mistakes, these announcers rarely will criticize coaches, who typically make as many, if not more mistakes than the players.  A quarterback may throw 6 bad passes and 1 interception.  His offensive play caller likely called twice as many dumb plays.  Of course, we’ll never hear about the bad play calls and coaching mistakes, but the average viewer will look with disdain on the quarterback by the end of the game.  We all will be better off if the announcers were educated in advanced analytics and forced to attend school on game theory and the real difference of play failure/success.   Of course, that’s far too much to ask, these announcers don’t even understand the rules of the game for the most part.  Again, don’t get me started on the announcers!

Key Note

One aspect this study doesn’t (and can’t) address is the actual play calls aside from run/pass.  The numbers cited are averages for ALL dumb coaches and their teams.  So, for example, when I tell you that 66% of 4th and short runs result in first downs, I’m including dumb coaches calling plays for their “jumbo” package to pile into the defensive line which is now bogged down with massive linemen and linebackers.

There are obviously play calls which are far better for every situation imaginable than “average” play calls made by average dumb coaches.  Considering that fact makes this analysis even more unbelievable!  Consider how the few, smart coaches are so much more successful than average by both:  1) making smart decisions (to run or pass) based on defensive tendencies and likely success rates and 2) making smart play calls in terms of the type of play and personnel used.