Are Coaches Aggressive Enough on 2nd and 1?

In a recent post we saw that having 2nd down and 1 is actually preferable to a 10-yard gain for a 1st down. So if 2nd and 1 is really that valuable, are NFL offenses taking advantage when they get one? Are they actually taking shots down the field? The advantage is only as big as offenses make it. This post will look at how coaches exploit the 2nd and 1 situation.

Coaches are calling run plays on 78% of 2nd and 1 situations, which is even more than the 76% share for 3rd and 1s. For all 2nd down situations, runs are called 50% of the time. This indicates that no, coaches are not capitalizing on the opportunity and are treating the 2nd and 1 simply like an extra 3rd down.

Only 4% of 2nd and 1 plays are long pass attempts, defined as passes at least 15 yards down through the air. This is fewer than nearly all other 2nd down situations (only 2nd and 4 has fewer deep attempts). The remaining 18% are "short" pass plays, but those could be as long as 14 yards. It's these short passes that have generated most of the tactical advantage that makes 2nd and 1 preferable to a fresh 1st down. The chart below lists each play type and their associated expected points, the number of each type and the percentage.

Play Types on 2nd Down and 1

Short PassDeep Pass
Exp Pts1.92.22.2?

Because there were only 13 deep pass attempts in the entire data set, I had to estimate their expected points from a larger set of plays. I grouped the deep passes on 2nd down and 1 through 4 yards to go. The resulting average expected points was 1.9, however, the expected points for 2nd and 1 would be higher. If unsuccessful, having a 3rd and 1 is far preferable to a 3rd and 2, 3, or 4 by a weighted average of 0.5 expected points. Deep passes are successful an average of 35% of the time, so this difference would be realized 65% of the time. This equates to a bonus of at least 0.3 expected points.

This suggests that the advantage in scoring from having a 2nd and 1 exists almost purely from the inherent nature of the 2nd and 1, and not due to coaches' deliberate efforts to capitalize on the opportunity. Imagine how large the advantage could be if coaches exploited it with more passes--short or long.

Although it would be hard (or impossible) to convince players to refrain from that second effort plunge at the 1st down marker, it may be easier selling coaches on taking greater advantage of the 2nd and 1 when they do come along.

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7 Responses to “Are Coaches Aggressive Enough on 2nd and 1?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Any data on defensive tendencies on 2nd and 1 situations? Could it be that defensive coordinators say "uh-oh, 2nd and 1, we need to play the pass" (I def. think this when playing Madden, for whatever that's worth) and this results in the offense running more often than they might otherwise? How often do teams run play action in these situations? How often do they audible from a pass to a run (this would support the above suggestion...)? We already know coaches are risk averse, is this just another example akin to making sub-optimal decisions on 4th and 1 (though the risk/reward looks much different)? Good stuff.

  2. Brian Burke says:

    That's a really good point. Defensive set data would be available only to game charters. Maybe Elias SB keeps it, but I've never seen it available publicly anywhere. Audible data would only be available to the teams themselves I suppose.

    But you're right. The defensive posture is an important consideration. If they are aware of their vulnerability and send out a nickel package with an aggressive pass blitz called, then the run is going to be a very attractive option. The defense is really in a no-win situation.

    I wonder if the play call really works this way: The OC tells the QB "if the defense shows X, then go for pass play Y designed to exploit it. Otherwise, just audible the run."

    By the way, I think the Madden game can be pretty instructive, at least regarding strategy. I think the current tv commercial is hilarious. "Guys don't like to punt," so they get bad grades. John--the grade is the score. It's the real NFL coaches who punt on 4th and 1 at the 50 who should get "bad grades!"

  3. Anonymous says:

    I would hypothesize that teams are willing to concede the first down on a 2nd & 1 run in favor of preventing the deep pass and from what you are saying they would be foolish not to. As the defense is likely in a more pass preventative scheme, the offense just takes the run up the middle that the defense is giving them. I would also guess that the conversion percentage on deep passes on 2nd & 1 would be less than 35% and turnover rates a little higher, for the same reasons.

    The expected point value of the 3 situations (run/short pass/deep pass) does not seem to be very out of line with optimization to me. If you lowered the success rate of deep passes to 25/30%, would it look more even between the 3?

  4. Anonymous says:

    But the conclusion that 2nd-and-1 is better, is based on what NFL coaches have done. There fore it is not an appropriate to ask if coaches take advantage of it, what the coaches did caused it.

    Perhaps the advantage of 2nd-and-1 is the few yards extra the coach gets on the run play, then they are looking at the 'expected yards vs field position' gain from being a few yards better in field position.

    Another point about this. All teams get first downs. But good offensive teams get a 9 yard gain more often than a poor offensive team. Perhaps this biasing of the results (good teams get more 9 yard gains, and is therefore more likely to score) is what you see in this calculation.


  5. Brian Burke says:

    Bob-I think it's pretty interesting that the 2nd and 1 is relatively lucrative without coaches even trying to take advantage of it. I think it would be even more lucrative if they did.

    I think you're onto something about the extra expected points being from the yards gained on the run play. But they'd need almost 15yards to equal the 0.7 additional exp pts. Which, incidentally, is a good way to think of the potential of a 2nd and 1--about 15 yds of field position!

    Good point about the bias of better teams getting 9 yard gains more often. That's why I compared 9 yard gains to 10 yard gains from a 1st and 10. I did not directly compare 2nd and 1s to 1st and 10s for exactly that reason.

  6. Anonymous says:

    This essay also strengthens the case for teams being willing to go on 4th Down. 2nd-and-1 is dangerous because offenses have a "throw-away" down. They can afford to take a chance, because if they throw an incomplete pass, they are still in a very good situation.

    Now if we assume that the offense has already decided that they are going to be going on 4th-and-Short. A 3rd-and-Short is also a "throw-away" down. And 3rd-and-Short is far more common than 2nd-and-Short

    A team that consistently goes on 4th-and-Short puts a defense in the same situation in 3rd-and-Short as you describe above. They can attempt a deep pass and still have a good chance of converting if they throw an incomplete.

    Better yet, they can call an audible based upon how the defense lines up. There is no way that a defense can disguise whether they are in Run-stopping defense vs. Deep pass defense. It is an easy read for the QB, and the offense can run the play long before the defense can adjust.

  7. Brian Burke says:

    I agree. But it could have some other consequences too. Offenses that regularly go for it on 4th down may be most effective by rarely passing. If the median run is 3 yards, it's really hard to stop a 4-down offense. We might see a lot less passing and a lot more 4th and shorts.

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