Are Explosive Plays Worth More Than the Yards they Create?

Are Explosive Plays Worth More Than the Yards they Create?

There’s a conundrum at play in football. On one side, coaches such as Dan Quinn and Doug Pederson swear by explosive plays as a key goal. On the other hand, offenses that pick up lots of yards will naturally have more chunk plays. So, is picking up 15 yards on one pass really more valuable than several smaller completions for the same distance?

Defining explosive plays as passes of 15+ yards and rushes of 10+ yards, we can look back at each game since 1999 to see whether there’s a relationship between point differential and the percentage of yards gained on explosive plays. 

Looking at the graph above, the immediate takeaway is that these coaches have a point! Teams that gained less than 50% of their offensive yards from explosive plays were at a significant disadvantage. The sweet spot was around 70%, or 70 yards from explosives for every 100 yards. It’s interesting that a higher percentage than 75% again returns to a negative average point differential — offenses also need a consistent, short-yardage component. 

Offenses have changed a lot in the past 20 years, so what does this graph look like in 2021?

Explosives seemingly became more important! Not only is a lack of explosive plays more detrimental, but in 2021 more was always better – we didn’t see a drop-off when teams subsisted only on explosives. Four of the top six games with the highest percentage of explosive yards were wins. Kansas Cit beat the Steelers in the wildcard with 404 yards from explosive plays (87%), while the Browns steamrolled Cincinnati in Week 9 with another strong performance totaling 86%. Let’s split this by passing and rushing to compare the two.

Explosive Plays

Using these two graphs, each of which go back to 1999, we now have an explanation for the difference between the original 1999-2021 and the 2021 graphs. With passing becoming far more prevalent around the league, teams are fitting closer to the passing graph rather than the rushing graph. As seen above, a successful pass attack can consist entirely of explosive plays, but rushing needs a far more consistent element. 

What about a 2021 team-by-team breakdown? The logos are the percentage of yards from explosive plays in wins and they’re connected to red dots – the percentage from losses.

Right away, the Giants stand out. In their four wins, 61% of their yards came from explosive plays, while their losses saw a rate of 43%. That difference of 18.4% is by far the largest of any team and shows an offense that desperately needed explosive plays to be successful. The other teams that most needed explosive plays to be successful were the Patriots, Chiefs, Rams, and Colts. On the other end of the spectrum, several teams actually were more successful with a more consistent offense. The Ravens, Saints, and Eagles lead several teams atop this list, while the Bears, Panthers, and Buccaneers make the connection clear — run-focused teams. Let’s finish by splitting these teams by run/pass.

These charts shine another light on these team splits. The New York Giants saw a huge split in both the pass and run games, but most teams saw their success come from one or the other. Arizona, Buffalo, Tennessee, and the LA Rams needed explosive plays in the pass game to be successful, as did Kansas City and New England. Among teams most needing explosive runs, we find Indianapolis, Green Bay, Dallas, and San Francisco. 

These are interesting because they don’t match up with public perception. While Arizona and Buffalo are notably pass-first, the Titans were seemingly carried by Derrick Henry’s rushing ability, but this analysis suggests that their success was more related to whether Ryan Tannehill could connect with A.J. Brown and Julio Jones downfield. Indianapolis’ offense was unsurprisingly carried by Jonathan Taylor, but the success of Green Bay and Dallas was dependent on Aaron Jones/AJ Dillon and Ezekiel Elliott/Tony Pollard. 

Bill Belichick is famous for taking away what an offense does best, and this analysis helps identify both the importance of explosive plays and how different offenses generate them. Don’t let Tannehill beat you, but clamp down on the Packers’ and Cowboys’ rushing attacks. It seems like Dan Quinn and Doug Pederson know what they’re talking about.