When Cam Newton’s career-high of 139 carries was mentioned in a press conference a few weeks back, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh simply replied, “I’d bet the over on that one. I’d bet the over for sure on that one.”

In a league that’s becoming increasingly focused on passing the football, the Ravens have decided to pivot in a completely different direction. After announcing Lamar Jackson as their starter in Week 11 last season, the Ravens ran the ball 316 times over the next seven weeks. The Seahawks were a distant second with 246. Only four teams had even 200 attempts. The Packers only ran the ball 333 times the entire season.

Because of this, the Ravens have justifiably been at the center of a lot of conversations this offseason. Their draft and free agent acquisitions along with just about every quote from Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman indicate they’re all-in on Jackson. And it might just be crazy enough to work. 

Designed Quarterback Runs Are Incredibly Efficient

Using data since the start of 2016 NFL season, we can look at how designed quarterback runs have compared against all other runs. For the purpose of the analysis, “Designed QB Run” excludes all scrambles, kneels and sneaks.

Run TypeEPA/APositive%
Designed QB Run0.1556%
Read Option Handoff-0.0442%
Inside Zone-0.0641%
Outside Zone-0.0739%
Stretch Zone-0.1635%

Designed QB runs are not only far and away the best in terms of Expected Points Added per Attempt (EPA/A) and Positive Percentage (Positive%, or percent of plays with positive EPA), but also are the only common run type that results in a positive EPA on average.

Designed QB runs also have the highest Boom% (percentage of plays that result in an EPA above one) of all run types at about 17%, six percentage points higher than the next closest. At least some of this is usage related, as up to this point QB runs have been more used selectively or in short-yardage situations. But it is worth mentioning that Jackson led all runners with at least 100 designed runs in Boom% last season, three percentage points higher than Aaron Jones who finished in second.

The other less-talked-about side of mobile quarterbacks is their impact on the running game as a whole. In nine games with Joe Flacco as the starter last season, Ravens running backs averaged minus-0.11 EPA/A and had a Positive% of 38%. In the final seven games with Jackson as the quarterback, Ravens backs had an EPA/A of 0.04 and a Positive% of 46%. Gus Edwards, who seemingly came out of nowhere, finished the season as the league leader in Positive% at 57%, and it’s probably fair to attribute a lot of this to the threat of Jackson as a runner. 

Designed Quarterback Runs In Short Yardage

As mentioned, QB runs have generally been used more selectively. One area in particular that QB runs have always been effective, albeit criminally underused, is in short-yardage situations. The following table looks at third or fourth down runs with three or fewer yards to go. Again, scrambles and kneel downs are excluded. QB sneaks are also included as their own run type. 

Run TypeEPA/AFirst Down%
QB Sneak0.3987%
Designed QB Run0.477%
Read Option Handoff0.1971%
FB Dive-0.3570%
Inside Zone-0.1365%
Outside Zone-0.1161%

Not surprisingly, the QB sneak and designed QB runs take the top two spots comfortably, both by first down conversion rate and EPA/A. The read option handoff comes in third, likely due in large part to the threat of the quarterback run. Inside zone and outside zone – despite being the most popular among coaches in these situations – both rank among the least efficient options. 

Interestingly enough, in Jackson’s time as a starter, the Ravens ran the ball 26 times on third and fourth down with three or fewer yards to go, the most of any team. They converted these runs at a clip of 81%.  

They Might Not Be As Dangerous As We Think

There are a number of reasons we have never seen an offense like the Ravens before in the NFL. First, it requires a special kind of athlete. As hilarious as it would be, using Tom Brady on a read-option is a terrible idea, and absolutely would not be efficient. The other is that QB runs have a reputation as being dangerous, due in no small part to Jackson’s current backup, Robert Griffin III. But the thing is, using your QB in the run game may not be as dangerous as we think.

Designed runs actually rank as the least dangerous event for quarterbacks. Using injury data since the beginning of 2017, only about 0.4% of designed quarterback runs resulted in an injury. This is the equivalent of about one injury per 246 runs. Quarterbacks are far more likely to be injured when they are not able to brace for the hit, or on off-script runs. In general, designed runs afford QBs the opportunity to protect themselves. 

While the 6’5”, 240-pound Cam Newton does make up about a third of the designed run sample on his own, the numbers don’t change in any meaningful way when you look only at quarterbacks who are approximately Jackson’s size or smaller.   

There are a couple of obvious caveats that come with this. Jackson will still need to protect himself. The best way to avoid injuries is still to slide or get out of bounds at every opportunity. The other important note is that Jackson, in all likelihood, is about to run the ball more than any quarterback we’ve ever seen. Even if designed QB runs are relatively safe, the sheer volume at which Jackson is about to attempt them will still put him at an increased risk. 

So Is It Sustainable?

It’s hard to say. What the Ravens did after Week 11 last season, and what they claim they are going to do in 2019, really has no precedent in the modern NFL. There is no denying that up to this point using your quarterback in the run game has been incredibly efficient, but the second half of last season is the only time we have ever seen it used as the focal point of an NFL offense, and there are some red flags.

After bursting onto the scene with a 26-carry, 119-yard performance in Week 11, Jackson’s efficiency declined steadily as the season wore on, culminating in a playoff loss to the Chargers where Jackson had only five designed runs for eight yards. 

An eight-game sample can’t tell us much definitively, but the consistent decline warrants at least some concern. Defensive coordinators are smart, and if the Chargers’ absurd use of defensive backs is any indication, teams are willing to get creative to slow down the Ravens rushing attack. It’ll be up to Greg Roman to continue to add new wrinkles.

At a minimum, the Ravens will be a fascinating case study this season. At best, they have a chance to open the door for a new wave of quarterbacks and NFL offenses.