It’s one of the oldest football truisms, and it’s being heard this week as the Patriots and Eagles prepare for the Super Bowl: You’ve got to “establish the run” to win.
But it might be a false-ism, according to Bates economist Paul Shea and his former student Jared Quenzel ’13.
“I had often heard football commentators talk about how important it is to run the ball, even when it does not appear to have any success,” says Shea, an associate professor of economics. “So we decided to take the question to the data.”
The result is their paper, “Predicting the Winner of Tied NFL Games: Do the Details Matter?” published in the Journal of Sports Economics in 2014.
Constructing a dataset of 429 NFL games between 1994 and 2012 that were tied at halftime, Shea and Quenzel looked at the myriad variables that led to the tie — such as rushing yards and attempts, passing attempts and yards, turnovers, sacks, red-zone efficiency, and third-down efficiency.
Of all those variables in play during the first half, did any predict the eventual winner? Yes, but not the ones you might think. Trying to “establish the run for its own sake,” the researchers found, “does not maximize a team’s chances of winning the game.”
Here’s what Shea and Quenzel found:
- There is “no evidence that running the football provides a team with a latent advantage that pays off late in a close game.”
- If teams choose to run the football, “they should thus do so on the basis of the expected yards gained and the risk involved. ‘Establishing the run’ for its own sake does not maximize a team’s chances of winning the game.”
- There is some, albeit weak, evidence that allowing sacks reduces a team’s chances of winning.
- An optimal strategy is to try to attain as large a halftime lead as possible. At first glance, “this may seem obvious,” yet teams sometimes insist on pounding the running game; they are guilty of “overthinking the game.”
- As expected, there’s a high level of confidence that the favored team, in terms of point spread, is more likely to win a tied game.
- Surprisingly, “the team receiving the first possession of the second half” — a favorite Patriots strategy, when they have the choice — does not have a statistically significant effect on a team’s chances of winning.”
As for Sunday’s game, Shea is rooting for the Eagles. He says he’s no fan of the Patriots’ history of bending the rules.