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A Closer Look At Offensive Playcalling

During the Ole Miss game, nearly everyone in both the first game thread and the second game thread seemed to be confounded at the offensive playcalling. Personally, my initial reaction mirrored the general consensus. I think all those that really follow this 'Bama team closely have long since come to grips with the fact that we have evolved offensively into an attack that operates almost wholly out the shotgun and the pistol, and that we do throw the football quite a bit. Nevertheless, it really did seem like we were throwing the football an awful lot on Saturday against Ole Miss, even with all of that taken into consideration.

Of course, gameday reactions are often times so driven by emotion that they ultimately provide little real insight. So, with that in mind, I wanted to take a few days and then look back at the game for a cold, objective take to see if something really was amiss with the offensive playcalling against Ole Miss. And, to that end, I've analyzed the game the past couple of days, and it turns out that initial gameday reactions were correct after all. After taking a very close look at the data, we really were throwing the football all over the place when all objective evidence pointed towards us needing to run the football more.

Let's take a closer look.

First and foremost, one of the most insightful ways to look at offensive balance is to take a look at first down playcalling. On first and ten, offensive coordinators pretty much have their pick of what they want to do and aren't so heavily influenced by down and distance like they would be on, say, second and short or third and long. As a result, first down playcalling is often particularly insightful in evaluating just how balanced a team is offensively. With that in mind, let's look at the Tide's playcalling breakdown on first down against Ole Miss:


Notice on the whole that we had 31 plays on first down, and that the majority of them were runs (about 55% of the time). But obviously that number is heavily influenced by a bunch of runs in the fourth quarter (where we did not throw a single pass; we had 14 plays, all runs) when we were just trying to run out the clock, and more than anything else shows you why you need to provide more context than just relying on raw run / pass distributions. However, if you look at only the first three quarters, when the game was still close, it's a very different picture. We had 24 plays on first down against the Rebels in the first three quarters, and 14 of those were passes. That's throwing the football about 60% of the time, which is a high amount in its own right. Keep in mind that South Carolina was the pass happiest team in the SEC in 2008, and they only threw the football 58% of the time. Again, 60% is no conservative number by any stretch, and that is pretty close to the epitome of airing it out.

But if you look even closer at the rest of the numbers, we become even more pass happy, and the offensive playcalling continues to make less sense. Specifically, let's take a look at the run / pass splits from the first half:


Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, we also threw the football 60% of the time as a whole in the first half, so the first down playcalling wasn't just an anomaly.

Now, I'll go ahead and go on the record -- as I have before -- saying that I'm generally a fan of throwing the football, and that if anything coordinators in the SEC have been too conservative, so I really don't have a problem, generically speaking, of throwing the football 60% of the time. But even with that said, I still cannot understand, given the relative success of the run and the pass in the first half against Ole Miss, why we were throwing the football so much in this particular game.

With that in mind, let's look closer at the production numbers. By now you are all probably familiar with Nico2.0's RB Success Rate, so let's evaluate the first half running plays on that standard, and do the same thing for the first half passing plays as well. Look closely at the following chart:


Look at the vast disparity between the relative success rates of the running plays as opposed to the pass plays. The running plays were successful at over twice the rate that the passing plays were, the running plays generated just as much yardage as the passing plays despite being called less often, and on a per play basis the running plays generated over two yards more per play than the passing plays. Moreover, even if you want to factor out Mark Ingram's long touchdown run to end the first half -- which really isn't a good idea in the first place, because it arbitrarily penalizes the running game for making a very big, game-altering play -- the running game was still far more productive than the passing game.

So, even from an observer who likes to see the football thrown down the field, exactly why in the world were we calling so many passing plays? It is a matter of fact that passing plays are much more risky than running plays -- you take on the risk of interceptions, the risk of fumbling becomes much higher, and you also take on the risk of sacks. Now, generally this isn't a major problem because, typically, for most teams, passing plays also create more positive production, so the increased risk is generally accompanied by an increased reward.

But obviously that was not the case for Alabama on Saturday against Ole Miss. Passing plays, despite their much greater risk of something bad happening, were in fact much less productive than running plays, yet we remained pass happy. So, again, I must ask, why were we throwing the football so much? In abstract terms, why in the world were we pursuing a strategy that created more risk but ultimately generated much less reward? It was as if we were spending big bucks on an annuity that was guaranteed to only pay out pennies on the dollar.

In all fairness, though, maybe a lot of the passes were scripted in the gameplan coming into the day, so maybe it was just that. Okay, fair enough, but if that were the case, after one half of football where the run had clearly shown itself to be the superior avenue of attack as opposed to the pass, then we should come out focusing more on the run in the third quarter, right? Well, that makes perfect sense to me, but that's not how things ultimately played out. Look closer at the third quarter playcalling:


Even after watching how much more successful the run was than the pass in the first half, McElwain and company effectively came out of intermission and declared, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" Even after watching the passing game average barely 4.0 yards per attempt in the first half, we came out in the third quarter throwing the football even more than we did in the first half.

And what was the end result of all of those third quarter passing plays? More struggles. On those ten passing plays, McElroy went only 3-8 for 34 yards (4.25 yards per attempt), was sacked once, hurried twice, and also had a fumble. All told, the ten passing plays netted a grand total of 20 yards. Meanwhile, the five running plays netted 37 yards. The ground game basically generated twice the production on half the attempts in the third quarter.

And making things even more perplexing with regard to the third quarter playcalling is the context in which those calls occurred. Keep in mind that we went into halftime with a 16-0 lead, and our defense was practically an immovable object. Ole Miss was going to need at least three scores to win the game -- and perhaps more -- so the clock is clearly on your side. The biggest enemy Ole Miss had was time, and with effectively a three-possession lead we decide to keep risking everything just to throw one clock-killing incomplete pass after another? Why? Judging by how we played things, you would have sworn we were the ones trailing 16-0.

Furthermore, statistics be damned, much of the playcalling just made little intuitive sense. We were throwing the football all over the place, getting nowhere with it... and then we follow it up by predictably running a tailback dive play straight into the line on second and long, inevitably setting up a third and long for the offense? We did that three times in the third quarter alone. Moreover, for example, leading 16-3 mid-way through the third quarter, Mark Ingram has a beautiful 25-yard run to set the Tide up first and goal just inside the Ole Miss 3-yard line. And we come out lined up in the shotgun to throw the football? When we are barely eight feet from the goal line? You bet we did. And that play wasn't an anomaly either. We ran five plays from inside the Ole Miss 5-yard line on Saturday, and four of those plays were passes.

So why in the world were we throwing the football so much?

I really have no clue, I really don't. I've thought and thought about it, and I really cannot come to any overly convincing conclusions. Maybe McElwain has just gotten pass happy with the success McElroy has had this year? Then again, maybe not. The best thing I can think of, in my own take, is that for whatever reason, McElwain just has very little trust in his offensive line to get the job down against good front sevens. I've had some of those same concerns -- and I've voiced them repeatedly -- but it's not like we couldn't run the football against these guys. This wasn't part two of the Arkansas game, Ole Miss never really stopped our running game, we basically just stopped it ourselves by throwing it all over the place, so at some point you just have to bow to the success your running game is having (and the struggles your passing game is having) and change your calls accordingly. Or maybe that is not what is driving this after all, again I haven't been able to come to a conclusion that even I find overly convincing.

All in all, I'm certainly not going to overly complain about this, especially not when McElwain looks to be on the verge of producing the two most prolific offensive attacks, in back-to-back seasons, in the entire post-Bryant era, nor should anyone else for that matter. As head-scratching as last weekend was, McElwain is still good enough at what he does to be at the pinnacle of his profession, and he knows far more about this than I ever will, that much is more than clear. Nevertheless, even so, I really hope I'm not doing this analysis come next week.