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Passing or running - Greg Olson's 2009 playcalling and his plans for 2010

Greg Olson's first year as an offensive coordinator for the Buccaneers was a disaster. The offense couldn't get anything going, the running game was one of the league's worst and the passing game wasn't much better. People were calling for Greg Olson's head, and not undeservedly so. There were a few bright spots on offense - most notably the close games with Freeman: against the Packers, the Dolphins, the Saints and the Seahawks. But overall, it was a very disappointing year.

Still, there were some mitigating circumstances. He was thrust into the position 10 days before the season started, which means he never had a chance to properly install his own playbook. He also had to work with 3 different starting quarterbacks, two of them having never started a game before. Predictably, they made many rookie mistakes which certainly didn't help Olson's case. And because of those issues, we don't really know what Olson will try to do this year. 

Before and during the 2009 season, Greg Olson and Raheem Morris gave plenty of lip service to running the ball to set up the pass. However, during the season it never seemed to work out that way. With a few exceptions, the Bucs were quick to give up on running the ball. We only had one 100-yard rusher the entire season: Cadillac Williams in the win at New Orleans. Of course, the miserable state of the running game was probably a reason why we didn't rush more, but there seemed to be no "run the ball to set up the pass" gameplan. 

So what will Greg Olson do this year? At this point, it's anyone's guess. Most of his comments so far have said that the passing game will be a mix between the West Coast Offense and the Mike Martz-led Greatest Show On Turf. So it would be a mix between a short passing game and a downfield passing game - well that doesn't really tell us much.

As for committing to running the ball - he has come out and again said that he will run the ball to set up the pass

"With the personnel we have now I think we have to run to set up the pass," Olson said. "The O-line, especially with (guard) Keydrick Vincent there, is really a strength of ours now, because he helps us with our depth.

"And if we can run the ball, then we can set up the pass better. I learned that while I was in St. Louis. One of the reasons we were able to go deep and throw the way we did was because people had to respect our run game."

That sounds like the same old story we heard last year. It didn't work out then, so why should we believe him this year? Instead of believing him on his word, I'm going to take a look at what Olson actually called last year and in what situations he did it. These stats I'm about to use all come from official NFL statistics, if you're wondering. For those of you who have no appetite for all these statistics, you can find the result summarized at the bottom of the page.



The first thing to take a look at is the passing game: how much did he really push it down the field? Well, the answer may be surprising. Of the 523 passing plays, 105 were classed as deep downfield. In other words, that is 20% of the time or 1 in every 5 passes. To put this into perspective, the Saints pushed the ball deep downfield 18% of the time, the Chargers 24% of the time, the Colts 21% of the time and the Texans and the Vikings just 17% of the time. The fact that we were throwing it deep downfield more frequently than Drew Brees and Matt Schaub (who has Andre Johnson to throw to) is particularly interesting to me. Greg Olson really was pushing the ball down the field a lot. 

But here's what's really interesting about this: we were horrible at throwing deep downfield. We ranked 21st, 30th and 23rd in the league on average gains for throwing to the deep left, deep middle and deep right of the field respectively. But for number of attempts throwing to those spots, we were ranked 2nd, 16th and 30th respectively. We were throwing it deep far more often than our efficiency relative to the NFL would suggest, although to be fair our efficiency on the deep left was tied for the most efficient pass with throwing to the short right of the field. This phenomenon of overusing things we we weren't good at isn't just limited to deep passes. Passes to the short left gained a paltry 4.8 yards per attempt, 30th in the NFL. But we threw it there 150 times, ranked 13th in the NFL. On the other hand, we were 21st in the NFL on passes to the short right, and threw it there 174 times. While this may be more than we threw it to the short left, that's just 19th in the NFL.

So what about running the ball? Well, the same thing happened there. We were 24th on rushing attempts up the middle for 3.56 yard per carry, but we ran there 104 times - 17th in the NFL. We were ranked 26th for 3.11ypc and 29th for 2.88 ypc at running off left and right guard respectively, but we ran there 56 times each, for 7th and 10th in the NFL. Meanwhile, we were 2nd best in the NFL at running off left tackle for 6.4ypc and 6th at running off right tackle for 5.05ypc, but we ran it there just 40 and 55 times respectively - good for 25th and 16th in the NFL. The story is clear here: Greg Olson is not seeing what his team can do well and seems to be sticking to his own plan instead. However, one thing to keep in mind is that things may not be so clear. The frequency of plays may be very much dictated by the opponent's defense, and there's not much Olson may be able to do against that. Regardless, the contrast is pretty striking. 

One last thing to examine here is the balance between running the ball and passing it. We were 28th in the NFL at running the ball with just 4 yards per attempt , and 26th in the NFL when it came to passing the ball at 5.3 yards per attempt. Both of those marks are abysmal, and there isn't any real reason to favor either of them other than the inherent advantage passing the ball has. 

Looking at every situation in this case isn't doable, and because of the way the NFL noted these plays (only noting percentages and not absolute numbers) the percentages I use are averages of the percentages they use. If I had absolute numbers I could be a lot more precise, but unfortunately I don't. We'll look at what Olson did in two situations: 1st&10, and short-yardage. This means we'll be looking at a neutral situation, perhaps the better measure of a coach's intentions, and a situation where teams generally run the ball a lot. 

On 1st&10 in tied games, we ran the ball 68% of the time. As a quick comparison, the Panthers ran it 62% of the time on 1st&10, while the Jaguars ran it 55%, the Ravens ran it 53% and the Titans ran it 61%. Those are some of the best rushing teams out there, and we ran it significantly more often than them in a 'neutral' situation like 1st&10 while the game was tied. However, the picture changed very quickly when we were losing. Down by one score, we only ran it 44% of the time, a huge dropoff. Down by two scores or more we only ran it 29% of the time. As a comparison, the Ravens stuck to running it when down by one score 100% of the time and 50% of the time when down by two. The Panthers did so in 51% and 37% of the cases, the Jaguars 45% and 27% and the Titans 52% and 48%. Clearly, Olson was more likely to run in neutral situations, but also a lot quicker to abandon the run than these other teams, except for Jacksonville. 

Interestingly, in short yardage we see an entirely different phenomenon. Losing by one score we ran it 87.5% on 3rd&1. Losing by two scores and we still ran it 62.5% in that situation. However, any further from the first down marker and we all but abandoned the run: on 3rd& 2 we ran it about 7% of the time when losing, and on 3rd& 3 we were at about 13%. To compare this to how other teams play while losing, the Ravens were running it in 81% of all 3rd&1 situations, but didn't run at all on 3rd&2 and 3rd&3. The Panthers on the other hand ran it 62% on 3rd&1, and stuck to it with 43% on 3rd&2 and 3rd&3. The Jaguars consistently stuck to the run when down by one score with 78% runs on 3rd&3 or less, but abandoned it when losing by two scores or more with just 33%. The Titans ran it 38% of the time when down by one score, but bizarrely ran it more often when down by two scores with 43%.

The short yardage picture is thus less clear. Olson really liked to run it on 3rd&1 but really hated running it when the team was further removed from the first down marker. The Bucs and the Ravens both did that consistently, but every team had very different approaches to running the ball in short yardage. Regardless, Olson certainly didn't stick to the run in short yardage situations beyond 3rd&1. 



To summarize this wall of text for people less interested in the actual statistics: last year Greg Olson focused on things the offense couldn't do well, like running behind guards and throwing deep, while he underused things we were good at, like running off tackle. Moreover, while he made good on his commitment to the run when tied or ahead, he was very quick to abandon the run when behind, even in closer games - although this may not be a bad thing considering the kind of runs he was calling. It's most worrying that Olson didn't seem to adjust his playcalling to take advantage of the strengths of his own team, and that may be a real problem in the upcoming season. But as I said, it may just be that he was limited by what the defenses he was facing were doing.  What we can expect, though, is probably a lot of runs up the gut, a relatively high frequency of deep throws and a failure to run when behind. 

If you want some more analysis of Olson's possible plans, I'll have a feature on Olson's time as a coordinator in St. Louis coming up some time in the next couple weeks.