Establishing The Facts On 'Establishing The Run"
On one of the first days on my new radio show I posed this question to my co-host and colour man Luc Mullinder:
“If you saw a five-dollar bill and a ten-dollar bill on the ground and you could only pick up one, which one would you grab?”
Of course he said the ten-dollar bill.
I asked “don’t you want to ‘establish’ the five-dollar bill?”
It’s a nonsensical follow-up when talking about money, but in a football game teams grab the five-dollar bill a lot.
Granted when the metaphor is translated back to run versus pass it’s more like 5.4 and 8.3 yards this season, but you get the point. The more I watch the CFL game the less correct “establishing the run” sounds and the numbers bear that out.
If “establishing the run” is important, we would expect that winning teams are better at running the ball and on a per-game basis they are:
Designed Run Plays (2018 to present)
Winning teams: 118.7 yards per game
Losing teams: 83.0 yards per game
Considering only the whole game ignores how dramatically teams shift their offensive philosophy when leading in the 4th quarter. In a league that is just under 70% passing, winning teams are much closer to 50:50 when protecting the lead or running out the clock, if you will.
In the 4th quarter losing teams call pass plays 80% of the time, winning teams 54%. As you see pass-run rates are almost identical through the first three quarters.
As for “establishing” the run, if we are to take that to mean running early in the game, losing teams have been more effective at running the ball in the 1st quarter. They average 5.6 yards per designed run in the 1st, 0.2 yards better than winning teams.
For the entire game, winning teams are 0.3 yards better per rush. That goes back to how much more than run in the 4th when they are winning.
The truth would seem to be that establishing the pass is much more important.
Winning teams average 9.7 yards per pass attempt in the 1st quarter, versus 8.1 for losing teams. That gap is significantly higher than the difference in run plays.
Winning Teams 1st Quarter Superiority
Pass: +1.6 yards per play
Run: -0.2 yards per play
The current analytic trend in the NFL is along the lines of “running backs don’t matter.” I’m not able to go that far. While The depth of my research pales in comparison to what groups like PFF and Football Outsiders do it does seem that establishing the pass is significantly more important.
Derek Taylor is the radio play-by-play voice of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He's also the creator of "The Details on the CFL"--his stats-based segment that originated on the CFL on TSN.