Passing vs Rushing On Your Own Goal Line

It's a common practice in the NFL that when your team is backed up against your own goal line, you run the ball to "give some breathing room." Often you'll see either a QB sneak or a handoff right up the middle. In fact, since 2000, teams have run the ball on 1st down from inside their own 3-yard line on 72.4% of all occasions.

We know that passing is the much more efficient option in today's NFL, so should teams actually be running the ball, using up one of their precious downs? A quarterback still has around 10 yards to work with when backed up against his own goal line, whereas a running back needs to ensure positive yardage -- plus he starts 5-7 yards behind the line-of-scrimmage on most occasions.

We're going to look at the track record in the league on passing and rushing plays using both EPA per play and safety percentage (% of plays on which a safety was recorded).

As mentioned, teams run the ball 72.4% of the time on 1st down. On 2nd down, it's a lot closer to even where the rushing rate is 56.4%.  And on 3rd down, as expected, passing becomes the obligatory option, where teams run the ball only 34.8% of the time. 

Looking at efficiency, rushing efficiency goes from -0.36 EPA/P on 1st down to -0.24 on 2nd down and settles at 0.012 on third down. This could be due to a selection bias where teams are in more appropriate rushing situations on third down when they actually rush the ball. Passing, on the other hand, goes from -0.04 on 1st down to 0.02 on 2nd down to a respectable 0.13 on 3rd down. In other words, passing is the more efficient option on every single down.

Similarly, pass safety percentage is significantly lower on 1st and 2nd down than run safety percentage. most passing safeties come on either penalties (often holding) or on a sack. On 3rd down, however, there is a steep increase in pass safety percentage. Teams are especially desperate on 3rd down, and in truth, taking a safety is not the worst case scenario in that situation. In fact, Bill Belichick is known for purposely taking a safety. Rather than punting and likely giving your opponent great starting field position, taking a safety is worth only 2 points -- not extremely significant in the high-flying touchdown league that is the NFL.

One thing to note is that you cannot tell from play-by-play exactly how close a team is to their own end zone. In the game, there is a large difference between having the ball on your 1-inch line versus having the ball on the 1-yard-and-1-inch line.

The numbers reveal, however, that like most situations, passing is the superior option. Who knows, you could even score a touchdown.

Keith Goldner is the creator of Drive-By Football, and Chief Analyst at - The leading fantasy sports analytics platform.  Follow him on twitter @drivebyfootball or check out numberFire on Facebook

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9 Responses to “Passing vs Rushing On Your Own Goal Line”

  1. Michael Beuoy says:

    My understanding of the "breathing room" rationale is that you're trying to get breathing room for your punter. Do the EPA numbers reflect the disadvantage of punting from your own goal line? Assuming there is one?

    I think most coaches assume that there is a big difference between punting from your 1 versus punting from your 4. But maybe this analysis is showing that that is not the case?

  2. Keith Goldner says:

    Interesting, Michael. Something I will definitely look into -- however, that highlights the overly conservatie nature of coaches who aren't thinking about advancing the ball, but rather punting even on 1st down.

  3. stevekirsch says:

    Great point Keith.

    So if the goal is to gain 4 yards for your punter, what's the most effective way to do that? The article says passing, but teams still do EXACTLY what the defense is expecting, a run, usually up the middle. It boggles my mind how few coaches try to use the element of surprise in situations like this.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This doesnt take into account the risk of giving up a safety.

  5. Patrick Haskell says:

    "This could be due to a selection bias where teams are in more appropriate rushing situations on third down when they actually rush the ball."

    If there inside the 3, the best rushing situation they can hope for is 3rd and 8 (aka 7.1), so that's not going to give much of a selection bias. Rather, on 3rd down the defense, rather than focusing on stuffing the run for little to no gain, is focused on stopping the pass or the 7+yard run, so they can get the ball the next play in good field position. Seems like the stats are pretty straightforward (provided your quarterback isn't prone to panic attacks).

    Have you looked into what the variance in EPA/P is when backed-up near your own goal line for running versus passing. Is there a higher potential for a game-breaking run, because the defense is trying to hold the runner to no gain and keep their chance of a safety alive? Or is that long-field opportunity vs. backed-up-in-your-own-end risk reflected in an equally high variance for passing?

    The other factor to consider (although the value of it is carried in the EPA/P stat) is how much coaches are afraid of the interception in this situation, which is really the worst outcome.

  6. Unknown says:
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  7. Jay says:

    Looks like a case where play-action out of a "Big" set would yield good results.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I often wonder about NFL "inside your own 5" strategies, especially the "breathing room for the punter" objective. Kicking from inside one's 5 will usually put the opponent 1st and 10 around your own 40. Conceding the safety will usually put the opponent 1st and 10 on his 40. The EPA difference between those two states is a little over 1 point, being more than half the value of the safety. So one could think about a safety as really costing not 2 points, but just under 1 point, as the other point is made up in improved field position (this assumes the safety is conceded on 3rd or 4th down - on a safety conceded on 1st or 2nd down, one must include the lost opportunity of making the first down and continuing the drive).

    So if blasting one's way to the 5 comes at the cost of not having a realistic chance of making the first down (thereby ensuring a punt from one's endzone, it would be a viable option to play "regular" offense to try to make the 1st down, and not worry so much about conceding the safety on 4th and 10 from the 1.

    In Canadian football, where after a safety one has a regular kickoff (not a free kick) from the 35, they moved it back to the 25 since all teams were automatically conceding the safety in exchange for field position.

  9. Chase Stuart says:

    Am I misreading the table? I was under the impression that first down passing at your own goal line was extremely favorable, but it seems here that the EPA is negative?

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