When the Indianapolis Colts hired Pep Hamilton to be their offensive coordinator in January, the team’s buzzword this past offseason was “balance,” with coaches stressing the need to run the ball to win.
While that may be cringe-worthy for anyone familiar with this site and Brian’s work on the topic, the Colts stand at 5-2, so there is a sentiment of vindication for Hamilton and head coach Chuck Pagano’s conservative coaching. Mike Wells of ESPN.com, formerly of the Indianapolis Star, went as far as to say the team “got their record by being a run-first team.”
Leaving aside how foolish molding a team led by prodigal quarterback Andrew Luck into a “run-first” club seems, we can use numbers to assess if Wells’ statement and others like it are true.
Are the Colts actually a run-based team and are they winning because of a newfound emphasis on running?
A Run-Heavy Team?
The Colts have passed on about 55% of their plays (this figure counts pass attempts and sacks as pass plays, but does not include quarterback scrambles), which is below the league-average of 59%.
On its own, this figure really does not tell us anything substantive. Indianapolis has called a high frequency of running plays, but they have also been winning a lot this season. It stands to reason at least some of this running is a product of attempting to control the clock late in games.
Winning teams run, and as Chase Stuart notes, this is why teams like the 2007 Patriots had a league-average pass/run ratio despite being remembered as a wildly pass-happy team.
To truly find out whether a team is predominately run or pass oriented, we can use Stuart’s useful “Game Scripts” as a tool.
Game scripts measure a team’s average lead over the course of a game to give a better indication of how close the contest may have been.
The metric is reached by taking each different scoring margin of a game and multiplying it by its duration, and after adding each product, dividing by 60 produces the game script.
To use a simple example, if a game is scoreless for 59 minutes and a team then scores a touchdown with a minute to go, we get a game script of 0.12 (the formula would be (0*59 + 7*1)/60). This implies a very close game, as the average margin was just slightly above zero.
Using a real example shows this metric’s utility. Consider Super Bowl XLIV, where the Saints beat the Colts by 14. We remember the game as a close affair that was not decided until Tracy Porter’s fateful interception, but had someone not watched the game, you could excuse him for assuming it was a comfortable Saints victory based on the final margin.
Game script paints a more accurate picture, depicting the game as the close contest it was. In fact, the New Orleans game script was -1.9, meaning the Colts actually held a slim average lead for the game.
Applying this to the matter at hand, we can also use game scripts to see which teams pass or run more than they would be expected to.
Stuart did this during the 2012 season by normalizing both a team’s average game script for the season and its pass/run rate on a scale where 100 is average. By adding the two normalized stats together, we can see which teams are truly “pass-oriented” and which simply have high pass/run ratios because they find themselves behind frequently (Stuart calls this final number “pass identity”).
Applying Stuart’s formula to the 2013 Colts, we find that while the Colts run the ball frequently, it seems this is largely a function of the team winning.
As mentioned, Indianapolis passes roughly 55% of the time, which translates to a normalized pass/run ratio (“pass index”) of about 88. Since a pass index of 100 represents the league-average ratio, we see that the Colts have passed at a lower than average rate this season.
By then bringing game scripts into the equation, we can put Indianapolis’ pass/run ratio into proper context, and see that it is a result of often playing with a lead. The 2013 Colts have an average game script of +2.8, which translates to a 112 game script index.
Subtracting each index by 100 and then adding them together, we arrive at the Colts’ pass identity, which is 0. This means the team has run and passed at an average frequency when taking the score into account.
Thus, while Indianapolis is running frequently, any perceived “run-first identity” is really just a product of the team playing to the score.
Winning Because of the Run?
ANS has overwhelmingly proven that passing success is much more important than rushing success in the NFL, and based on this alone, claims like the one made by Wells and others in the media do not hold much water.
Beyond evidence like how passing efficiency correlates with winning more than rushing efficiency, there are other reasons why attributing the Colts’ success to their new focus on the run makes little sense.
As previously mentioned, the Colts are even not truly a run-oriented team, but a squad that plays to the scoreboard in terms of pass/run ratio. They are running because they are winning, not winning because they are running.
Hamilton’s supporters may still point to how this year’s Colts are more “balanced” than the 2012 team, which posted a 108.6 pass index and +3.8 pass identity.
Recent seasons, though, seem to refute the idea that a balanced offense is preferable to a pass-heavy one.
Stuart has posted pass identity numbers for both the 2011 and 2012 seasons. During this span, pass identity correlated with team wins at 0.57. This suggests that teams built around the pass have generally been more successful recently than those with more judicious pass/run splits.
Considering this, the theory “balanced” playcalling has helped the Colts earn their record is unsatisfactory.
Andrew Luck, with his 50.5 EPA and 50.2% success rate, is a much more plausible catalyst.
There is also an even greater and probably fatal flaw in the argument that running is fueling the Colts’ winning: Indianapolis may not even be a very good running team.
The Colts are averaging 4.5 yards per carry, but as Kyle Rodriguez of Colts Authority (who ironically was also writing in response to Wells’ ESPN piece) notes, this figure is deceiving.
Rodriguez explains this 4.5 average is heavily based on Luck’s scrambles and production from running backs Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw, both of whom are on IR (Ballard only played in Week 1 and Bradshaw last appeared in week 3). Discounting these players, the Colts average just over four yards per carry, which is the league average.
Also, Trent Richardson, who leads the team in carries, is averaging three yards per rush, while posting -0.03 EPA and a 33.3% success rate (the latter puts him at 60th in the league among running backs.)
Considering this, it is simply incorrect to praise the Colts for becoming a run-based offense or to attribute the team’s success to its running game over the feats of Andrew Luck.