Why a Pass/Run Balance Still Matters

15 Sep

Posted by @ReidG75 of SaintsWin

Reid and the Angry Who Dat took a twitter discussion to long-form.  Read AWD’s argument to the contrary, posted earlier today, here.

It’s a simple proposition, really: a relative balance in pass/run attempts is a residue of winning teams, and getting some sticky, winning residue on you is always a smart idea.

Before I continue … Yes, the debate about offensive balance is beaten to death and clichéd and oft-repeated and mostly annoying.  But that doesn’t make it irrelevant.  To dismiss it as such would be to miss the larger point.

Here are the season-long pass/run ratios for the last ten Super Bowl champs:

With that noted, I’m going to opine on why maintaining a relative balance in passing and rushing attempts is important in general, and why it’s important for the 2012 Saints.

Overall, achieving a semblance of pass/run balance is inherent to a winning strategy.  It’s not so much an effort to meet some arbitrary benchmark as it is an attempt to keep the opponent’s defensive decision-making as complex as possible.

Sean Payton has said that generating defensive “confusion” is vital to his offensive philosophy.  We should trust Coach Payton on this assertion.

When an offense is devoid of relative balance, and opposing defenses are subsequently less confused about what to expect, it simplifies the overall strategy for opposing defenses.  As a result, this allows a more narrow focus on employing effective tactics that counteract an offense’s largely one-dimensional mindset.  For example, abandoning your running game when it’s unnecessary to do so plays into your opponent’s hands.

Making it easier for your opponent to beat you is not the goal.  Sun Tzu would not be impressed.

“Keeping it simple,” i.e. being mostly one-dimensional, works fine where talent levels are grossly skewed (think LSU vs. North Texas).  In the razor-thin edged NFL, teams aren’t going to achieve success solely on the merits of the talent they acquire, nor will they likely elevate from the morass by stubbornly leaning on their chief strength.  It’s not enough.

As such, NFL coaches create offensive “edges” in ways outside of pure talent and simplistic execution of strengths.  Ensuring a relative pass/run balance—which generates a greater complexity of possibilities for an opposing defense to contest—is just one of the ways to manufacture an edge.

For offenses, it’s not so much about efficiency in both categories as it’s about “attempts.”  It’s natural for offenses to excel in one facet, but that doesn’t mean that solely embracing one at the expense of the other is a good idea.  Instead, in an effort to keep opposing defenses distracted from offensive intent, it’s incumbent upon offenses to make their opponents more frequently guess rather than narrowly scheme.  Being balanced helps ensure this.

Obviously, circumstances sometimes dictate otherwise.  But when possible, minimizing a gaping disparity in pass and run attempts is a smart strategy.

Ryan Chauvin of the Black and Gold Review recently reviewed a smattering of notable Saints’ losses since 2006.  He noted, among other things, the Saints’ pass/run ratios in these 14 losses.  Piggybacking off of Chauvin’s work, we can see that in these ugly losses, the Saints pass/run ratio was a lopsided 75% passes to 25% runs, on average.

I realize we’re moving perilously close to “causation vs. correlation” territory, but the point remains that when the Saints lose in an ugly fashion, their pass/run ratio is fucked up.  That doesn’t mean it’s the sole reason for said losses; but because it’s highly associated with all of them, minimizing that extreme disparity (as much as circumstances permit) is a good idea in general.  In my opinion, this disparity is both a cause and a resulting symptom of losses.  It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition.

If the Saints abandon the run every time they fall behind by two scores with plenty of time to play, it’s going to be a long season.

FDL separator

In the Saints’ case, moreover, maintaining a relative offensive balance is also smart because it helps minimize the time the defense spends on the field.  A handful more running plays both keeps the clock moving, and keeps the defense on the sideline.

As its significantly weaker unit, the Saints’ defense is better served having less time to affect the game.  The less the defense sees the field, the less direct impact they have (in theory, at least).

Obviously, the offense’s overarching goal is to just score points regardless of how long that actually takes.  But there are peripheral goals as well, and having a layered strategy is an important part of maintaining optimal competitive efficacy.

An offense like the Saints’—one that is highly efficient at scoring and also relatively efficient at limiting the exploitation of its team’s chief weakness—should seek to maximize both efficiencies.  But in order to achieve those dual strategic precepts, it’s crucial that the Saints pay attention to both pass and rush attempts.

In short, striving for that optimal state should be the guiding philosophy, not a rote adherence to one central strength.

Going forward, it’s very likely we’ll see something closer to the 61% pass to 39% run ratio from last season’s best-ever offensive campaign.  With the feeble state of the Saints’ WR corps right now, we might see something closer to a 55/45 balance in the coming weeks.  While it goes without saying that the Saints should and will remain a pass-first offense, that fact doesn’t negate the need for a reasonable amount of offensive balance, even when the team falls behind in games.

The ratio doesn’t need to be equal. It just needs not be extreme.

For more on the impact of extreme disparities in pass/rush attempts, I recommend you read this post as an adjunct to this discussion.

In the meantime, pour a drink and prepare yourself for week 2. Better results await.

One Response to “Why a Pass/Run Balance Still Matters”

  1. northshoresaint9 September 15, 2012 at 11:37 am #

    …God! I know this ‘balance’ shit on O. is all true & good & well, but Jesus H.! Please, Dear Lord, can we please just have a dominant D. again?! (Or, just a D. that can occasionally pressure a fucking QB..) Thanks & AMEN!!! X^p

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