It has often been said that if your refrigerator is running, then you had better go catch it. Many NFL coaches appear to take a similar approach to the “sticks,” a metaphorical term referring to the idea that gaining over three yards every play is enough to win. Staying ahead of the sticks, it is said, is most desirable, and falling behind the sticks is something to be avoided. This translates to the idea already presented: even mild gains, such as a three-yard carry on first down, are desirable.
Second and six would constitute an example of staying ahead of the sticks. A continuation of staying ahead of the sticks, in theory, would result in consistent first downs, and therefore, consistent touchdown drives. As a result, teams that stay ahead of the sticks should be more successful. Therefore, it must important to run the ball on early downs. However, this is simply not the case.
Based on historical data from Pro Football Reference, on first and ten from their own 25-yard line, a team would be expected to score, on average, 0.607 points. A three-yard gain in this situation would be optimal for a coach wanting to stay ahead of the sticks. On 2nd and 7 from the team’s 28-yard line, however, a team would be expected to score just 0.469 points on the drive. That is a 23 percent drop in expected points. A successful play in the eye of some NFL coaches is disastrous in terms of the historical data.
Pete Carroll vs. Bruce Arians: A Duality of Coaching
Let Russ Cook
This dead horse of a topic has been beaten numerous times, especially when it comes to Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks. From 2012-2019, the Seahawks have the second-best win percentage in the NFL with an 86-41-1 record. The only team ahead of them is the New England Patriots, obviously. This is despite Seattle having the fourth-lowest early-down pass percentage in neutral situations. Some would argue that must mean that success can be maintained while committing to the run game.
A big part of Seattle’s success was an absurdly good defense. From 2012-2019, they averaged -0.06 EPA per play on defense, tied for first in the NFL with the Denver Broncos. Since EPA is easily able to isolate offensive and defensive performance, it is easy to say that Seattle’s run game did not benefit the defense. From 2012-2015, the Seahawks defense was legitimately unstoppable, but the star talent that they boasted during those years slowly started to fade away. From 2016-2019, with the Seahawks defense ranking just 11th in EPA, the Seahawks had just the sixth-best record in the NFL. This might sound silly. Being the sixth-best team in the NFL is quite the accomplishment.
From 2016-2019, Russell Wilson was at worst the third-best quarterback in the NFL behind Drew Brees and Tom Brady. He was arguably better than Brees. Wilson threw 121 touchdowns and maintained an average of an 84.5 PFF grade. However, despite a top-three quarterback, a very good receiving corps, and a solid defense, the Seahawks were just the sixth-best team in the NFL and didn’t make it past the divisional round. They ranked 10th in offensive EPA per play. No matter how you look at it, Seattle was a disappointment.
Turning of the Tide
In Sunday’s Falcons vs Seahawks matchup, the Seahawks shocked the world. After an off-season of criticism for not letting Wilson throw the ball, Pete Carroll did the unthinkable. Almost 65 of the Seahawks first and second down plays were passes, which ranked second in the NFL. Wilson threw four touchdowns, averaged 0.595 EPA per play, and they won 38-25. Their 38 points in regulation were the most points they had scored in a game since December 23, 2018. Obviously it is a small sample size, but if they keep up this approach, they will be one of the elite teams in the NFL.
Counting Out Touchdown Tom
The phrase “Never count out Touchdown Tom”, in reference to former Patriots and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, is an important life lesson. Usually, it applies to his opposing defenses. Up 28-3 in the Super Bowl, it is likely that the Falcons might have counted out Touchdown Tom. That was a big mistake. Similar can be said in the many comebacks Brady has been a part of throughout his incredible career. However, last Sunday, in a 34-23 loss, Touchdown Tom was counted out. Not by the Saints defense, but by Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians.
In Arians’ first year as a coach, the Colts threw the ball around 54 percent of the time on early downs, which was around league average. The Colts went 9-3 with Arians as the coach, and he actually ended up winning Coach of the Year. After the Arizona Cardinals hired him From 2013-2017, the Cardinals also threw the ball around 50 percent of the time on early downs, which was middle of the pack. After being hired in 2019 to coach the Buccaneers, Arians started to air the ball out. The Buccaneers ranked sixth in early down pass rate, despite having an errant quarterback in Jameis Winston.
The main issue about the Buccaneers offense on Sunday was simple: Arians counted out Touchdown Tom. Despite having the greatest quarterback of all time at his disposal, Arians called the third-fewest pass plays on early downs in the entire NFL on Sunday. This resulted in forcing Brady into many high-leverage situations. Since Brady isn’t quite on the same page as his receivers yet, he made a few critical mistakes.
The contrast between the coaches’ reputation and their performance last Sunday was shocking. In the case of Pete Carroll, it bodes incredibly well for the team. For the longest time, despite still managing success, the Seahawks underachieved. Wilson has never been able to lead an offense to their full potential. On the flip side, it always seemed that Arians got the best out of his quarterbacks. Whether it be developing rookie quarterback Andrew Luck or pushing longtime veteran Carson Palmer to MVP levels, quarterbacks were able to sling it with Arians. Their commitment to the run game should be worrying for Buccaneers fans. Ultimately, it is just a one-game sample. The Seahawks might run the ball 50 times vs New England this week, and the Buccaneers might throw it 50 times in order to beat Carolina. However, the change in strategy, no matter how small the sample, is still significant.