The Best Time For A Shot Play Might Not Be When You Think

Prior to the season, Sports Info Solutions’ Bryce Rossler took a look at teams’ reactive playcalling tendencies, both at the NCAA and NFL levels. At a high level, reactive playcalling digs into how offenses react to certain fundamental factors within a game such as down, distance, field position, and situational circumstances.

In a similar vein, there are a couple of situations that are often discussed on NFL broadcasts—2nd-and-1, and the first play after a sudden change (a turnover on downs, fumble or interception). For different reasons, there’s a common belief that these are two situations where offenses should be looking for a big play. But like a lot of things that are regularly mentioned on broadcasts, there’s never been much data to prove it one way or another.

Using charting data from SIS, we can take a look at how teams are responding in these situations, and whether or not there is actually an underlying effect. 

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Shot Plays on 2nd-and-1

The logic for taking a shot play in 2nd-and-1 is solid enough—if the pass falls incomplete, you’re still left with a high probability third down and a chance to move the sticks. In a way, it’s a free shot down the field.

Teams don’t seem to follow that logic though. Excluding plays from inside of field goal range, teams only drop back to pass on 34 percent of 2nd-and-1 plays, and only attempted “shot plays” (more than 15 air yards) about six percent of the time. Both of which are below the league average rates for all plays.

Play TypeEPA/ABoom%Evevntual First Down%Avg Net Drive Points
Shot Play0.2829%85%1.88
All Other Dropbacks0.034%88%1.91

While these shot plays on 2nd-and-1 have an EPA per Attempt of 0.28 and a Boom% (plays with an EPA > 1) of 29%, both of those numbers are actually quite a bit lower than a typical shot play, indicating that if nothing else, shot plays aren’t more effective in 2nd-and-short. Some of this may just be sample size related, but it’s more likely that defenses are actively trying to deter deep throws in these situations.

We can also gauge whether or not a deep shot is worth it by looking at Eventual First Down Rate and Average Net Drive Points. More simply put, whether or not a team went on to convert a first down, and how many points a team scored on a drive on average (including points scored by the defense in the case of a turnover returned for a touchdown).

Teams that took a deep shot on 2nd-and-1 went on to convert a first down 85% of the time, which means that the idea of maintaining a high conversion rate despite the deep shot isn’t completely off-base. By comparison though, all other dropbacks resulted in first downs 88% of the time, and running the ball on 2nd-and-1 resulted in an eventual first down 92% of the time. Seven percent may not sound like a lot, but when it comes to extending drives it adds up. Drives following a run on 2nd-and-1 netted an additional quarter of a point on average compared to both shot plays and all other dropbacks.

This reiterates something that has been known for a while — earning a new set of downs is among the most valuable things you can do as an offense. It feels backward that the numbers suggest running the ball, but maximizing your chances of getting a first down is the best thing you can do as an offense.

Taking Advantage After a Sudden Change

The other commonly mentioned situation is the first play after a turnover. The logic here from broadcasters is a bit more flawed, with the idea being that offenses need to capitalize on the momentum their defense gained.

Interestingly enough, teams seem to do pretty much the opposite. The pass rate coming off a turnover is actually 14 percentage points lower than the typical first down pass rate. And despite the broadcasts persistent call to do otherwise, teams only dial-up a shot play about eight percent of the time, which again, is actually lower than the shot rate on all other first downs.

All First DownsSudden Change
Play TypeEventual First Down%Avg Net Drive PointsEventual First Down%Avg Net Drive Points
Shot Play75%2.3971%2.17
All Other Dropbacks73%1.8872%1.78

As it was on 2nd-and-1, the EPA/A and Boom% for shot plays seem good at a glance, but are actually slightly lower than for typical shot plays, dismissing the idea that defenses are any more prone to giving up big plays in these situations. But this doesn’t mean teams are justified in being passive in these situations.

Perhaps the more important finding is that running on 1st-and-10 after a sudden change is actually quite a bit worse than a typical 1stt-and-10 run, which is saying something. First down runs coming off of a turnover have an EPA/A of minus-0.19, which is twice as low as a typical first down run. Additionally, teams go on to convert a first down only 52% of the time following a first down run, compared to over 70% of the time if they open with a pass.

Even more substantially, drives coming off a sudden change that start with a run net a team only about 1.2 points on average. That is about a half-point lower than if a team were to start with an average pass play (1.77), and about a full point lower than starting with a shot play (2.18).

This isn’t necessarily an indication that teams need to be forcing shot plays coming off of a turnover, though, as the common narrative suggests. The larger takeaway is that it’s generally better for teams to be aggressive on first down. And this finding isn’t exclusive to reactive situations.

What to Make of This

Overall, these situations probably don’t necessitate the amount of air time they are getting. In both instances, defenses are no more susceptible to a shot play than they would be otherwise.

But there are still plenty of interesting trends to take from this. While a sudden change may not actually call for a deep shot, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that being more aggressive (or at least not running the ball) increases your likelihood of scoring. And interestingly enough, the opposite is true in 2nd-and-1, despite common perception. 

There are few hard-and-fast rules for playcalling in the NFL, but understanding how to maximize your teams chances of scoring in these reactive situations is crucial to any offenses success.