Everyone has blind spots.
If you’ve been around Bucs Nation for a while, or followed me or Steven Beck on Twitter, you’ve undoubtedly read and talked about the Bucs’ offensive struggles in the first quarter, and first half. It’s a table that’s been pounded for years now, a dead horse beaten into dust. Besides the overarching context of the proliferation of the spread taking hold of the NFL right now, there’s a much simpler trend staring the NFL in the face: it’s much easier and better to throw on first down.
Believe it or not, but NFL teams often do things that don’t make any sense.
In the first quarter, teams run even more, going 57% run on first & 10— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) July 25, 2018
►Rushes produce a 44% success rate & gain 4.3 YPC
►Passes produce a 55% success rate & gain 7.3 YPA
In typical NFL fashion, leave it to teams to do something more when it’s less efficient to do it.
All good coaches self-scout their own tendencies and work to improve. But football coaches can also be slow to change. Those that don’t adapt, or don’t adapt quickly enough, will find themselves without a job sooner rather than later. But we’re all human. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and even the best of us can tend to be stubborn, or ignorant, or just blind to our own failings.
Such may be the case with the offensive staff of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Not all of the most pass-heavy teams had veteran, Pro-Bowl QBs. Both Carson Wentz & Jared Goff were year-2 QBs off of rookie years that many thought were underwhelming. Yet PHI & LAR designed QB-friendly passing attacks & used them aggressively on 1D, well above avg. It works.— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) July 25, 2018
This isn’t just a single-year thing. For the last two years (and almost certainly all three years Dirk Koetter has been with Tampa Bay) the Bucs have run two-thirds of the time on first downs in the first quarter of games despite the fact that the pass was more than twice as effective.
The problems with this are numerous, but the bottom line is those who do have the ability to self-scout can find and create advantages over those that can’t. Those advantages can turn into wins.
It’s a 1990s-era philosophy; run the ball on first down to protect your (young) quarterback. Except the evidence has shown for some time now that the only real way to protect a quarterback is to do the opposite and throw. Because when the run isn’t successful you just end up putting even more pressure on your quarterback. But there are practical reasons as well.
Let’s look at this from a tangible perspective. If we take the last two seasons, on first down in the first quarter and factor out Ryan Fitzpatrick and QB runs, the Bucs have run approximately 146 times for 3.42 yards per rush and 500 yards and passed 70 times for 8.2 yards per attempt and 511 yards for a total of 1,011 yards. Half as many attempts for the same yards. If the playcalling had been reversed, the Bucs would have rushed for 239 yards and passed for 1,197 yards for a total of 1,436 yards. We’re talking about a loss of approximately 400 yards over the last two seasons.
That may not seem like a lot, but the best yards per drive ranking last season belonged to the Patriots at 39.23 yards. The Bucs were seventh at 33.48 yards per drive and fifth in drive success rate. So it’s not like we can say that throwing those yards away wouldn’t have mattered. In just 2017 the Bucs left as much as a possible 215 yards on the field. That’s almost six and a half more drives worth of yardage. Even assuming the Bucs kept their average sixteenth-place points-per-drive rate of 1.82, that’s eleven more points last season. That also doesn’t sound like much, but the Bucs were 3-7 in one-score games last season, and lost four straight games in December by a combined fifteen points.
Pass until you make the defense respect it, and then run. The NFL is difficult enough without throwing games away.