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Third & Short: A Look at Turk Schonert's Playcalling

Many Buffalo Bills fans have questioned Turk Schonert’s propensity to call pass plays on third and short, particularly out of the shotgun formation.  This was one of the biggest arguments made against Schonert, one of Buffalo's most aggressively challenged coaches.  On Brian’s suggestion I took a look at the plays run during the entire regular season on third and short, defined as one or two yards to go, for every team in the league.  (I couldn’t find play calls by formation that included down and distance so I can't say it was out of te shotgun or two tight end or any other formation. Deal with it.)  In the league this year there were 1,372 third and short plays.  Of those, teams ran the ball 836 times and threw the ball 536 times.  That’s an average of 1.6 rushes for every pass.  That result, along with several of the other results, was surprising.

Buffalo’s stats on third and short
came in slightly higher than the league average by rushing 25 times and passing 15 times on third and short, an average of 1.7 rushes per pass (compared to 1.6).  On average we rushed more times on third and short than most of the teams in the league.  The Bills converted for the first down on 64% (16 of 25) of their rushing plays on third and short and 53% (8 of 15) of their passing plays, somethign that tells me we obviously should have run more times.

Pass Happy Teams
Of the 32 NFL teams, five of them actually passed more often on third and short than ran it.  The Eagles (27 passing to 24 rushing attempts on third and short), Niners (even at 20-20), and Cardinals (23-15) were not a surprise to me, but the Steelers (27 to 24) and Jets (31 to 24) were.  I look at the Steelers as a road-grader type of team, but on third and short situations they passed slightly more than they ran.  Even the Jets, with Thomas Jones, threw much more often than they passed on third and short. 

Three of these five teams are playoff teams.  Does that mean it’s better to pass on third and short?  Look no further than the QB position for your answer.  The Eagles, Cardinals, Steelers, and Jets all have seasoned QBs under center capable of making quick and (mostly) correct decisions.  The Niners' spot on this list can probably be attributed to Mike Martz calling the plays.  Many of you think that a pass call on third and short is a bad call but this list suggests that solid teams can get by with a pass.  This may be a play action pass (something I would personally advocate more use of from Buffalo) or any other type of pass.  You can say Turk was pass-happy on third and short but the numbers don’t support that he was outrageously pass happy.  We don't have an experienced QB like the successful pass happy teams, though.  

Run Happy Teams
In all, five teams far exceeded the league average, rushing at twice the league average ratio on third and short.  The Bears, Falcons, and Panthers ran with a 3 to 1 ratio.  The Vikings had a suspect QB and Adrian Peterson in the backfield and ran 4 rushes to every pass and the Ravens with three good backs and a rookie QB rushed 6 times for every one pass, obviously much higher than anyone else in the league.  In fact, questionable or inexperienced QB play can factor into the Bears, Falcons, Vikings and Ravens all being on this list.  Even Jake Delhomme came off of elbow surgery last off-season and, as exemplified by his most recent game, made some questionable decisions.  Here’s something that didn’t surprise me – four of these five teams were playoff teams.  Personally, I want the Bills on this list, but if they aren’t on this list it’s not the end of the world. 

So what actually worked and what didn’t?
To figure out what worked well I looked at the conversion success rates of each team running and each team passing (sample of 64 – 32 teams with one rate for rushing and one rate for passing).  On most teams rushing was more successful at obtaining the first down than passing.  In fact 27 of the top 35 top conversion rates were rushing.  Based on the law of averages it’s much easier to get the first down rushing, one reason why most teams rushed more often than passed. 

To figure out what didn’t work so well I looked at the same success rates but the bottom of the spectrum.  Not surprisingly, the only rates that were at or below 50% success were passing and only ten teams produced these anemic numbers.  The Vikings, Ravens (who passed very infrequently on third and short) and Steelers fell into this category.  The Vikings and Ravens were incredibly successful rushing the ball however, converting on over 77% of their rushing attempts to balance out their poor third and short passing numbers. 

Overall conversion success (rushing and passing on third and short combined) was very much in favor of the rushing teams, with the five heavy rushing teams all in the overall top 11.  Only one heavy passing team made it into the top ten (weirdly the Lions) on converting third and short.  The top team converting on third and short was the Seahawks at 80%; the lowest was the Bengals at a paltry 50%.  Tied for number 21 in the league, the Bills converted 60% of the time on third and short to place them just ahead of the Titans.

The Big Picture
Did Turk Schonert call too many passes on third and short?  Considering his quarterback was inexperienced (or it was the questionable J.P. Losman), we should have been running more often on third and short than we did; or, rather, following the examples of playoff teams with suspect QBs like the Ravens, Vikings, and Falcons.  We would have converted more third downs on average keeping more drives alive and it would have saved Trent Edwards from having the team put on his shoulders too soon.  Schonert wasn't as pass happy as he could have been or as bad as many of us thought he was, but we should have been over 2 rushes to 1 pass ratio (at least), instead of merely slightly above the league average of 1.6 at 1.7.  I would prefer a 3 to 1 or higher ratio next year when our power run game should take center stage.  That would put us into the top 5 in the league on ratio and should move us up the list of overall third and short conversion rates.

If you want to know how every team's breakdown looks, I attached the spreadsheet with all the data I collected.  Any questions email me or post in the comments and I will help you out and answer the questions.

Third & Short Spreadsheet