As part of our dive into top-down team production series, we have covered scoring efficiency per possession, touchdown dispersal between passing and rushing scores, and the rate of converting yardage into touchdowns for NFL teams. Continuing to roll along, we are jumping to play volume, play splits, and the rate of snaps a team leads or trails. 

League Offensive Play Volume and Pass/Rush Rates Over the Past 10 Seasons

YearPlays/GmPass %Rush %Yds/Play
201963.558.83%41.17%5.5
201862.958.81%41.19%5.6
201763.357.60%42.40%5.3
201663.959.31%40.69%5.5
201564.459.09%40.91%5.5
20146458.24%41.76%5.4
20136558.35%41.65%5.4
201264.257.65%42.35%5.4
201163.657.10%42.90%5.5
201063.156.93%43.07%5.3

After play volume was rising per team yearly from 2010-2013, the past several seasons have seen the league level off and stay below 64 plays per team per game on average in each of the past four seasons. Yards per play have flattened out as well, with the league base rate coming in at 5.5 yards per play in three of the past five seasons. 

In terms of pass-to-run rates, the league reached a crescendo of a 59.3% pass rate in 2016 that immediately declined the year after in the collapse of the 2017 season, which was an offensive sinkhole across the board. The leaguewide passing rate has climbed in each of the past two seasons from the season prior since that breakdown, coming in at 58.8% pass. 

Of course, we are aware now that game script is a driving influence on playcalling. We have nearly gotten past the causation does not equal correlation element of analysis from years past when you would hear “a team is 8-0 this season when they run the ball 25 times.” Factoring in game script, here are the pass/run splits over the same time period on a league level. 

Play Calling By Scoreboard Influence Over the Past 10 Seasons

After play volume was rising per team yearly from 2010-2013, the past several seasons have seen the league level off and stay below 64 plays per game per team on average in each of the past four seasons. Yards per play have flattened out as well, with the league base rate coming in at 5.5 yards per play in three of the past five seasons. 

In terms of pass-to-run rates, the league reached a crescendo of a 59.3% pass rate in 2016 that immediately declined the year after in the collapse of the 2017 season, which was an offensive sinkhole across the board. The leaguewide passing rate has climbed in each of the past two seasons from the season prior since that breakdown, coming in at 58.8% pass. 

Of course, we are aware now that game script is a driving influence on playcalling. We have nearly gotten past the causation does not equal correlation element of analysis from years past when you would hear “a team is 8-0 this season when they run the ball 25 times.” Factoring in game script, here are the pass/run splits over the same time period on a league level. 

Playcalling By Scoreboard Influence Over the Past 10 Seasons

YearAhead PassAhead RushTrail PassTrail Run
201949.83%50.17%66.30%33.70%
201849.62%50.38%66.88%33.12%
201748.61%51.39%65.74%34.26%
201651.14%48.86%66.40%33.60%
201549.80%50.20%66.99%33.01%
201448.98%51.02%66.52%33.48%
201349.35%50.65%65.89%34.11%
201248.15%51.85%65.53%34.47%
201148.15%51.85%65.39%34.61%
201047.53%52.47%65.70%34.30%

Factoring in playing from ahead or behind, the table still follows the same pattern as the previous one with a steady climb for passing rate while ahead in the game through the 2016 season before a drop off in 2017 that has rebounded in each of the past two seasons, but still below the 2016 apex levels. We know teams will be coerced to run the ball when ahead and be pressed to throw ball behind, especially late in games. Taking one last peak under the curtain in bulk play-calling splits, here are the leaguewide passing splits when playing ahead or behind per quarter over the past decade.

QtrAhead Pass %Trail Pass %
154.03%55.08%
259.89%64.22%
352.30%60.39%
434.11%77.14%

When trailing in the first quarter of games, NFL teams are still only throwing the ball 55.1% of the time. That rate climbs to 60% for the remainder of the game before spiking all the way up to 77.1% in the fourth quarter. By the time the fourth quarter comes around, the majority of games have taken shape and each team knows where they stand in their pursuit of the scoreboard, bleeding clock or chasing points. We also see the end of the first half play a large role in passing volume, with the second quarter having the largest passing rate with a lead out of all other quarters. 

Year-Over-Year Correlation For Team Play Volume, Splits and Game Script

Cat.R2
Plays/Gm0.1865
Pass/Run%0.1171
Ahead%0.0955
Trail%0.1553

As we transition over to team splits, we always want to take time to see if there is any correlation in previous season output with the following season. The answer has yielded similar results as many of the team metrics we have looked at so far in this series. Over the previous decade, the best rollover is team plays per game at nearly 19%, but that is far cry from something to sink teeth into. What is semi-interesting is that the rate in which a team trails on the scoreboard has nearly double the correlation to the following season than the rate in which a team led, but we are working with highly variable numbers in totality. 

2019 Team Play Volume, Splits and Game Script

Taking in all that we know so far, we can dig in on some of the notes from team performance a year ago. 

The above table shows the plays per game, overall passing and rushing rates, percentage of offensive snaps ahead or trailing on the scoreboard, as well as win total from 2019 to go along with the forecasted win total for each team for the upcoming season per Vegas lines at Sharp Football Stats.

  • If you were to sort the table by 2019 team wins, the six teams that won 12 or more games last season trailed by an average of just 28.6% of their offensive plays for the season. The Packers were at 40.8% while the other five teams were below 30%. 
  • Expanding things out to teams that won double-digit games a year ago, the average rate for percentage of snaps trailing was 35%, with the Seahawks (51.1%), Texans (47.1%), and Bills (44.5%) well above those marks. The Seahawks were actually 21st in the league in percentage of snaps trailing, but still ranked seventh in wins. 
  • The Titans (27.1%) led for the lowest rate of snaps for all teams with a winning record, who combined for an average at 43.7%. That rate was still just 27.5% in the 10 games that Ryan Tannehill started. On the other end, the Broncos (41.1%) led the highest rate of snaps among teams with a losing record (average of 27.4%).
  • No team was able to control game script a year ago like the Ravens did. The Ravens trailed for just 18.7% of their offensive snaps, the third-lowest rate over the previous 10 seasons behind the 2013 49ers (18.6%) and 2016 Patriots (17.1%). Baltimore led for 60.5% of their plays, which trailed only the 2011 Packers (66.4%) and 2016 Patriots (68.2%). Even lowering the rate of snaps led to 50% for a season is special. Over the previous decade, we have had 37 such teams prior to last year in that bucket. Of those 37 teams, 32 had a decrease in percentage of snaps led with an average loss of 13.9% among those teams. 30 of those teams trailed for a higher rate the following season with an average increase in the rate of snaps trailing at 12.0%. Those teams averaged an increase in pass rate of 3.6% the following season. Joining the Ravens here from a year ago are the 49ers, Patriots, Saints, and Chiefs.
  • Supreme game script allowed Baltimore to run a league-low 467 passing plays, a total above only the 2012 and 2013 Seahawks and 2013 49ers. Joining the Ravens with fewer than 500 passing plays was the Vikings, as they became a part of just 14 teams to run fewer than 500 passing plays in a season over the past 10 years. Of the 12 other teams to have this few passing plays, 10 of the 12 ran more passing plays the following season. The average increase among those 12 teams was 65.3 passing plays the following season with an average of 542.6 total passing plays run per season by those teams. Even if we bump up the arbitrary passing play total to teams that ran fewer than 550 passing plays over that stretch (which would include the Titans, 49ers, Steelers, Broncos, Colts, and Washington from a year ago), 86.4% (51-of-59) had a spike in passing plays the following season with an average increase of 56.3 passing plays the following season.  
  • At the other end, teams that struggled to lead have bounced back to the mean the following season. Of the 69 teams to have the lead for 25% or fewer of their offensive snaps from 2010-2018, 86.9% of those teams led at a higher rate the next season with an average increase of 13.5%. As a byproduct, 62.3% of those teams had a spike in rushing volume the following season, with an average increase of 53.1 rushing plays among those teams. Washington, the Bengals, Jaguars, Giants, Dolphins, Panthers, and Falcons are all in that arbitrary bucket from a year ago. 
  • Washington itself joined a rare club a year ago, becoming just the second team over the past 10 seasons to run fewer than 900 offensive plays in a season, ahead of only the 2018 Dolphins. Last season, Miami came back to run 139 more offensive plays than they did the year prior, which was a 2.5 game increase over their 2018 pace. Using the same timeframe we have been, there have 24 teams to average fewer than 60 offensive snaps per game. Of those 24, all but one increased their play total the next season with an average increase of 61.2 offensive plays per team. Joining Washington in that bucket are the Steelers, Titans, Broncos, and Jets.

There are a plethora of tiny nuggets like those to pull out, but circling back to team wins paired with the percentage of snaps led and trailing, I am including the pass/run rates and rates of leading and trailing per team wins over the past decade. This way, you can compare them to 2019 results, apply them to your 2020 projections, pair them with team coordinator history, and the forecasted win totals for each team for this upcoming season. 

Team Play Volume, Splits, and Game Script Per Win Total Over the Past 10 Seasons

WinsTmsPlay/GmPass%Rush%Ahead%Trail%
016361.90%38.10%6.15%76.09%
1161.464.39%35.61%18.72%67.55%
2106259.24%40.76%16.16%67.67%
31262.461.28%38.72%19.12%63.07%
42463.760.53%39.47%22.46%58.87%
52462.960.88%39.12%23.78%57.41%
63363.158.89%41.11%27.54%53.70%
74263.558.89%41.11%32.30%48.59%
83364.158.72%41.28%31.74%48.82%
93063.857.62%42.38%34.10%44.86%
103664.455.84%44.16%42.14%38.06%
112664.456.82%43.18%44.91%36.19%
122464.656.09%43.91%50.32%30.59%
131965.656.04%43.96%50.67%30.35%
14364.650.78%49.22%62.81%20.83%
1526455.27%44.73%62.46%22.39%

 


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