In an era of the NFL when passing is king and the most efficient option on the field, the question now becomes how to make those passes the most efficient.

Earlier in the offseason, Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said the Seahawks had a plan to get Chris Carson more involved in the passing game with the potential of 50 targets. This sparked a conversation that centered around the value of running back targets. Last week Ben Baldwin of The Athletic took a look at the value by Expected Points Added and concluded throws to running backs were less efficient than throws to wide receivers and tight ends and that making running back targets a fixture of a passing game is a misstep.

The question for these teams, though, should be what are these running back targets taking the place of? Of course, the hope for many would be those targets are replacing rushing attempts, which we know to be incredibly inefficient and run way too often by just about every team, especially on early downs.

If they’re taking the place of more targets to wide receivers and tight ends down the field, then yes, it’s hard to argue those are more efficient options, but they are also necessary. A section of running back targets are going to be needed to avoid sacks and if you factor in the net gain from potential EPA lost to a sack and EPA gained on the target, those passes can look a little more efficient. That does certainly overshadow how we can analyze these targets by EPA alone, but that’s also not a good enough reason to suggest more passes to backs.

Still, every team is going to need running back targets and how they approach them is the key. One of the things that make those targets so inefficient is how often they’re an afterthought for offenses, even extending outside of check-downs. Perhaps having the idea for running back targets puts a team at an advantage for actually putting thought into them.

Think about the difference between the New York Giants and Kansas City Chiefs last season. The Giants threw 151 passes to running backs in 2018, but even with Saquon Barkley, a limited number of those targets were well thought out. A majority of those passes were a last resort when Eli Manning felt he had no other options on a play. Those targets averaged minus-0.01 EPA per attempt, which while still probably better than a whole bunch of sacks, isn’t the way to run an effective offense.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs only had 87 passes to running backs, but almost all of them were well designed and thought out. Only four teams threw to running backs less often than the Chiefs last season, but no team had more EPA — 0.62 per attempt.

Every coach should try to take from Andy Reid and the Chiefs, but that might not be a realistic option for the 31 other teams. That shouldn’t keep them from understanding what makes targets to running backs an important part of an offense.

A quote from this past season by Washington State head coach Mike Leach about balance in an offense stands out for why these targets can be useful even if they’re not maximum EPA on a given play:

“There’s nothing balanced about 50% run, 50% pass, ’cause that’s 50% stupid. What is balance is when you have five skill positions and all five of them are contributing to the effort in somewhat equal fashion, that’s balance. This notion that if you hand one guy 50% of the time and then you throw it to a combination of two guys the other 50% that you’re really balanced. You probably pat yourself on the back and tell yourself that. People have been doing that for decades. Well, then you’re delusional.”

While that quote is mostly striking down the idea of the run/pass split, it touches on the idea of getting every player on the offense involved in the passing game. Combine that with what new Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio said in his introductory press conference this offseason when the long-time defensive coach talked about what he viewed as balance on offense:

 

What is clear is the right type of running back targets are going to be a part of a balanced offense. What is less clear is how these teams can make them more efficient.

Run vs Pass

The ideal scenario for running back passes is that they take the place of running back attempts. This would be a baby step for offensive coordinators across the league who should pass more, especially on first down. We mentioned this a bit in the forward of the 2019 Football Preview book:

First down has long been perceived as a running down. In 2017, the league-wide average pass-run split on first down was 47-53. It was 50-50 last season, but that was still well below the 59-41 league-wide split on all downs. Yet passing to running backs on first down is significantly more effective.

In 2018, there were 6,248 running back rushing attempts on first down. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry, minus-0.01 Expected Points Added per attempt, and a positive play rate of 41.3%. When teams threw to running backs on first down, they averaged 6.02 yards per target, 7.8 yards per reception, 0.08 EPA per attempt — slightly more efficient than the average of all passes regardless of down at 0.05 EPA — and a positive play rate of 52.3%.

Throwing to running backs has typically been reserved for third downs given the idea of a third-down back. But since receiving skills are now more necessity than luxury, the ball is getting thrown to running backs more often on early downs. But even while there were more running back targets on first down (1,454) than third down (718) in 2018, they weren’t exactly treated the same way. Running back targets on first down were caught 0.17 yards behind the line of scrimmage on average, while the average running back reception on third down was caught beyond the line. This indicates that while passes to running backs have increased on first down, they’re still often used as a last-resort check down and are not fully schemed.

If teams treat running back passes as an alternative to rushing attempts, it’s a net positive. Working in more efficiency from there would be the next step.

Line Splits

The thing that stands out the most when looking into the value of running back targets is how much efficiency changes between passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage and beyond it. Last year those passes had nearly a 50-50 split. Per Sports Info Solutions charting, there were 1,769 passes to running backs behind the line of scrimmage in 2018 and 1,673 beyond it. The value was significantly higher in the latter group of attempts.

TargetAttemptsEPA/AttPositive Play %
Behind Line17690.0044%
Beyond Line16730.1252.5%

As teams start to work toward figuring out more efficient paths to passing, starting to eliminate passes behind the line of scrimmage should be at the top of the list. Even for check-downs to running backs, it’s difficult to understand why so many happen behind the line. Teams should focus on the better play beyond the line of scrimmage and build from there. There’s little reason to believe there can’t at least be a 60-40 split favoring passes beyond the line of scrimmage, even though the ideal ratio is probably even higher.

This efficiency doesn’t change much on first and second downs compared to third. On just first and second down alone, passes to running backs beyond the line of scrimmage averaged 0.13 EPA per attempt with a 55% positive play rate.

Run the Wheel (and down the field in general)

Part of why running back targets can be so bland is because there’s not a lot of variety to them. So often backs are asked to run the simplest routes that don’t add a ton of value. Last season there were 594 targets to running backs on a flat route, the most common route for a back last season. Those targets averaged 0.01 EPA with a positive play rate of 46.8%.

One thing Baldwin noted in his piece is how running backs often aren’t targeted downfield and when they are, it’s not very successful. That could be more about how running backs are asked to run routes than the ones many of them can run. There are ways to improve upon this. A few weeks ago we brought up the idea of sending running backs down the seam more often. It was an incredibly effective strategy that was barely used. One of the pros is that is doesn’t take a lot of route running ability to go straight up the seam.

More realistically, teams need to go to the wheel route more often. It’s a route every running back should be able to run and it produces great results when it worked. There were only 86 wheel routes targets last season — an average of about one every three games. Those targets averaged 0.43 EPA per attempt with a positive play rate of 50%. It’s an easy way to put stress on the defense by making defenders cover the back horizontally at first before the back turns up the field.

Christian McCaffery led all running backs with just six targets on wheel routes in 2018. Saquon Barkley and Tarik Cohen were next with five. Considering how many targets those players had overall last season, the percentage of targets on wheel routes is much too low.

Overall, running backs are better at getting down the field than given credit. Last year there were 313 running back targets more than five yards down the field and they averaged 0.33 EPA per target. Those accounted for just 9% of running back targets in 2018. When a player like T.J. Yeldon can average 1.8 EPA per target over five targets, there is a lot of breathing room to take advantage of those plays before reaching an efficiency tipping point.

Step-By-Step

Another part of the discussion turned to whether the priority of the read for the running back target mattered for production. Knowing the progression of a given play isn’t always obvious and we don’t have that data, but we can use a quarterback’s drop as a proxy. It’s not perfect, but we can assume to some point quicker drops likely correlated with prioritized reads. Here’s how those broke down for targets on first and second down targets beyond the line of scrimmage, per SIS data:

DropAttemptsEPA/AttPositive Play %
0/12130.1256.3%
36680.1155.1%
52300.1352.6%
71080.2564%

What’s noticeable between the 0/1, 3-, and 5-step drops is while the EPA per attempt is around the same, the positive play rate decreases as the quarterback’s drop increases.

Of course, the biggest takeaway here is whatever is going on with the 7-step drop — easily the highest EPA and positive play rate. Based on the examination of a few plays in question there is a combination of factors. One is what we alluded to in the previous section, deeper throws getting set up to running backs. But also, these drops become one place where a check-down option is incredibly valuable.

Many of these 7-step drops were off play-action with the intent of throwing the ball deep. Deep shots off play-action is a strategy any analytic-minded person will suggest should happen more often. For these plays specifically, the combination of play-action and the deep receiver routes typically opened up the middle of the field for a running back target if the downfield options weren’t available.

Take a look at this play from the Cincinnati Bengals against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4. The Bengals faced a 2nd-and-8 and came out in 12 personnel. They used play-action and sent the receivers deep, but nothing opened up. The mix of play-action and deep routes carried linebackers down the field, which opened up room for a pass to the running back and an easy gain of 24 yards.

For a team like the Seattle Seahawks, this could be the ideal with a great deep passer in Russell Wilson, an outstanding deep threat in Tyler Lockett, and the safety option with an open middle of the field in Chris Carson.

Conclusion

Running back passes are never going to take over the game or be the go-to of an efficient offense. But they are going to continue to be an important part of one. Approaching running back targets should go the same as a team should approach offense as a whole — severely limit what is happening behind the line of scrimmage and push the ball downfield more often.