Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens Box Counts, Down-and-Distance, and Numbers Advantages: Context for Consideration


Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio examines running play on third-and-long against nine defenders in the box and explains why the execution and the decision were good. 

This year, I’ve seen questions raised about NFL play calling from analysts who are tallying the success rates of run plays. A notable criticism is that many NFL teams are running the ball in questionable down-and-distance situations and against high box counts. Their data for these situations reveals that the success rates are low.

Naturally, the analysts tallying this information will conclude that the NFL is filled with coaches who make bad decisions because their ways are rooted in the past. Running on third-and-long is a low-percentage decision! Running against nine defenders in the box is crazy!

Isn’t it?

It depends on the context of the play.

An important layer of context that we also need to examine with a higher priority is which team has the numbers advantage on the play side. If the offense has a +1, +2, or +3 advantage of players to the side of the field they intend to run the ball, the number of defenders in the box loses value in the conversation about the intelligence of the decision-making behind the play.

The takeaway from a play of like this shouldn’t be that it’s an exception to the rule that proves the rule about down-and-distance and box counts. The takeaway should be that identifying the numbers advantage and manipulating it to create an even greater advantage is part of play design and decision-making that tallying outcomes of run plays based on down-and-distance and box counts doesn’t take into account.

Plays like these don’t destroy the value of analysis we see from the likes of Warren Sharp or several fine purveyors of data-based football insights. I’ll presume that there are people in this space accounting for this information. While Charles McDonald doesn’t do a lot of straight data work, this is a point he’s made when presenting the marriage of film and data work to the analytics industry.

It’s just another layer of information worth adding to the conversation about football, film, and data and how it can all work together.

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Categories: Analysis, Matt Waldman, The NFL LensTags: , , ,

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