The Illusion of Balance

It never fails. Every NFL Sunday you inevitably hear the saying, “They’ve got to stay balanced,” or, “Balance is what wins games. Teams that run the ball more win games.” The announcer or analyst then throws out the stat that Team A is 6-0 this season when they run the ball 25 times or more.

To which I humbly reply, “No sh*t, Sherlock.” But probably not for the reasons you think.

For every cause there is an effect. For every effect there is a cause. This is the principle of causality — also known as causation. The cause ALWAYS comes first, then the effect.

In the NFL, this principle of causality is no different. A coach calls a play that isolates a favorable matchup and his team is therefore more likely to succeed with that play. The cause is the coach calling an effective play. The effect is the success of the play and gaining the appropriate yards.

Cause: Quarterback throws into double coverage. Effect: Interception.

Got it? Perfect. Back to balance.

The announcer (let’s just call him, “Phil Simms”) I discussed in the opening would have you believe that winning is the effect and is caused by running the football. He has to be right because the statistics support that, right? Teams that run the ball 25 times or more do have significantly better records than teams who run it less than 20 times. That is an absolute true statement.

The cause is running the football. The effect is winning football games. This logically leads us to the conclusion that maintaining balance and keeping with a solid run game will lead to more wins. This is why you hear analysts and talking heads discuss it all week long leading up to games — “Team A must stick with the run game. They have to stay balanced to win this game.” The stats support the theory — “They’re 3-0 when running the ball 20 times and 1-4 when they run it less than 20. So they need to keep pounding the rock.” If there’s logic involved and the stats support the statement, then it has to be true, right?

Nope. It’s all a lie. Balance is the biggest fallacy in football. It’s an illusion that people logically arrive at because we’re confusing the cause for the effect. Putting the carriage before the horse, if you will. Or more aptly, putting your ass in front of your face.

The cause is winning. The effect is running the football.

Put another way: Winning (or being ahead) is what causes teams to run the football more.

This is why balance is an illusion. Go look at the box scores at the end of games and you’ll typically see that the team who won probably had more “balance” to their playcalling. That’s because when they were leading in the 4th quarter they were trying to drain the clock and ran it 2 out of every 3 downs. After a couple first downs on a couple different series in the 4th quarter, the team that is leading has padded its rushing numbers by somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-15 rushes to 3-5 passes. Before those 2 series, that team could have had twice as many passes as it had runs, but now because of trying to melt the clock, they’re “balanced.”

Causality also explains how we can look at the flow of NFL games and figure out who really is balanced and who just appears balanced because they’re winning.

I’ve said on Twitter before that I hate missing the 1st half of games because that’s when you get a feel for the gameplan of each team. After halftime, gameplans are all reactionary to the score and situation instead of a predetermined approach. A team that is down 30 points at halftime isn’t likely come out and run the ball 15 times in the 3rd quarter. On the opposite end, the team that’s leading by 30 isn’t likely to come out and continue throwing the ball all over the yard.

To really determine a team’s balance I look at first half rushing and passing attempts. That tells me what a team wanted to try to do. I can take into account the number of called runs and passes along with the effectiveness of each playcall and discern what their intent was for the gameplan. A team who isn’t having a lot of success in yards per carry but is still calling an even amount of runs and passes is a team that is making a concerted effort to stay balanced. If they’re gashing our defense for 6 yards per carry, well then we can just attribute that to their playcaller following the production.

The other team could disregard balance entirely by throwing it 20 times and rushing it 10 in the first half. Coaches try to avoid this because a gap in balance like that allows the other team to adjust their personnel and packages accordingly. Under pass heavy circumstances, a defense can almost assume a pass out of one-back sets. They can switch to nickel, play more coverage, and focus more on pass rush. All of this is why I favor the idea that teams should stick with what is productive until the other team proves is can stop it. Once the opposing team adjusts to a personnel package filled with DBs to stop the pass, then start handing the ball off and gashing them for runs.

All teams keep track of the personnel groupings, formations, and run/pass playcalls by the other team during the first half of a game. At halftime, the coach in the booth who has this responsibility rushes down to the locker room and either gives those numbers to the head coach or writes them on the whiteboard in the locker room so everyone can get a quick snapshot of what the other team is trying to do.

It usually looks something like this:

  • Total run/pass: 15 runs, 17 pass
  • 10 personnel: no plays
  • 11 personnel: 4 run, 8 pass
  • 12 personnel: 3 run, 3 pass
  • 00 personnel: 0 run, 3 pass
  • 21 personnel: 4 runs, 2 pass
  • 22 personnel: 4 runs, 1 pass

 

With this information, we now have a clear picture of what they’re trying to do out of each formation. If their run or pass heavy out of any of these groupings we can make the necessary adjustments. If there is a highly skilled coach doing the charting, he’ll also be able to keep track of formations and indicate run right or left, pass short/intermediate/long, and any formation shifts they may have made presnap. All of this information helps paint a better picture of the other team’s intentions in the first half.

One thing I always liked to see was the order of the playcalls. I look at the order of called plays so I can also get a feel for the flow that they want the game to go and what they think is going to be effective. If they start run heavy and slowly migrate towards more passing it means they like their matchups in the pass game and we need to make sure to adjust to that. If they’re pass heavy and then slow down into more of a run based offense it means they’re probably gashing us on the ground and we need to protect against that.

Once halftime has passed, keeping track of this information is important but not as critically because now the game is subject to the score and time, rather than how the other team is playing against us. We’re either calling runs or passes based primarily on clock and game management while still trying to exploit favorable matchups. Teams become more reactionary to the overall game situation in the second half, and then increasingly so as the clock gets closer to zero.

It’s this shift in the second half that causes the illusion of balance. So while the stats are correct — teams that rush over 25 times do have better records — it’s because those teams are already winning and are running more late in the game to shorten it as much as possible.

The cause is winning. The effect is running. Not the other way around, Sherlock Simms.

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