What Should Teams Do at the Goal Line?

| June 9th, 2020

It has become common knowledge that passing is far more valuable than running in the NFL. But I have surprisingly seen very little data about how that changes as teams approach the end zone and the real estate tightens.

I found this excellent article looking at all goal-to-go plays, which found that passing is still more valuable than running and highlighted specific types of runs and passes that work better than others. But that groups plays from the 8 or 9 yard line together with plays from the 1 or 2, and those are drastically different scenarios.

I spent about 15 minutes on Google trying to find something detailing what’s most effective for teams to score a TD from the 1 or 2 yard line, and couldn’t find anything, so I decided to do it myself. I started by using the Pro Football Reference game play finder to get a basic look at how often, and how successfully, teams run vs. pass from the 1 and 2 yard line. The table below shows that information for the years 2016-19. I chose that specific time range to be consistent with available information from later in the study.

Teams run it about 65% of the time from the 1 or 2 yard line, which seems like a wise move considering running has a higher rate of scoring a touchdown and a lower rate of turning the ball over. So while teams are better off passing than running for most of the field, that changes when they’re very close to the end zone. I’ll note I looked at just 2019 to see if this was maybe changing, but found it had not (teams run it 66% of the time, runs scored a TD 56% of the time, passes 49%).

I’ll also note I didn’t do any team-by-team stats here because sample sizes were too small. Teams averaged around 68 total snaps from the 1 or 2 yard line over this 4 year stretch, which is equivalent to roughly 1 games’ worth of plays.

Personnel Groupings

Next I wondered whether teams could change personnel or play calling to improve their odds of success in these situations. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to play calling data anywhere that I can find, but I did use Sharp Football Stats’ personnel grouping frequency to gather stats on how effective different personnel packages were in these situations. This data was only available from 2016-19, and I utilized all four years to get as large of sample sizes as possible.

The table below shows the data for each personnel grouping with 75+ total plays, as well as aggregate data for all formations (the bottom row, titled total).

A few quick notes:

    • There’s a rather large discrepancy between this data and what I got from the game play finder (1st table above). There are 824 plays here compared to 2,177 above, and I’m not sure why. The run % is also higher here (70% vs. 65%), and the run/pass TD splits are a bit different, though they both reflect more success running than passing. Still, I’m going to go ahead with using this data, because I don’t really have any other choice.
    • The most common personnel group is 11, with 1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WRs. It’s the only one of the common formations with more than 2 WRs, and we can see that teams run it far less frequently here than in heavier sets. However, they also run it more effectively here, which suggests there are benefits to spreading the defense out and getting bodies out of the box.
    • It might be that the run success comes from teams expecting pass in that personnel grouping, but there’s nothing to suggest the opposite works, as teams don’t throw it more successfully in jumbo sets where defenses are expecting run. The only formation where teams throw it more successfully than 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) is 22 (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR), but that might be a small sample size with only 31 total passes.

The idea that offenses should spread defenses out on the goal line by putting more WRs on the field bears some merit, as you can see in this table looking at all of the formations grouped by WRs present.

With 3 WRs on the field, offenses are at their most balanced, which lets them both run and throw more effectively than in other looks. Teams would be wise to use this as their default goal-line package, and they should look to run out of it more often to see if that high rate of success can be sustained.

Lessons Learned

Overall, teams are right to run more than they throw when they’re trying to get a TD from the 1 or 2 yard line. Runs have a higher chance of scoring and a lower chance of turning the ball over. However, teams tend to go big in these situations, but the data suggests they will be better off staying in their base 3 WR looks and running out of those.

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