The world of football commentary is vast and wonderful. At each end of this globe are diametrically opposed extremes, a North and South Pole of Takes.
On one side are The Analytics. In this camp, statisticians propose ideas that may not align with conventional football wisdom, but provide insights that can enhance our collective understanding of the game. These insights are gleaned from poring through mountains upon mountains of data. Classics of the genre include “the results of close games are random,” “teams should run play-action more,” and “you should basically never run the football.”
On the other side are The Uncles. In this camp, your dad’s brother proposes ideas that may not align with conventional football wisdom, and might prove disastrous if ever enacted in actuality. (It doesn’t matter if his ideas would really work—nobody outside your living room will hear them.) These insights are gleaned from remembering a thing that worked one time, and pounding enough beers to grow convinced that the full-blown adoption of this idea would be foolproof. Classics of the genre include “why don’t we onside kick it every time?” “our backup QB is better than our starting QB,” and, of course, “we need to run the damn football.”
These two forces are almost always in contradiction to each other. However, they are united by one theory, a theory that I will present to you via meme:
The powerful theory that these two sides agree upon: Football offenses should run a quarterback sneak every time they face a third-and-1 or fourth-and-1. And in this regard, both sides are absolutely right.
The Uncles love this premise because of its simplicity. The QB sneak is the least complicated play in football. The ball gets snapped, and both teams immediately push all of their mass toward the line of scrimmage. When teams only need to gain an inch, why would they ever mess around with fancy passes, or plays that necessitate moving backward to hand the ball to a runner lined up deep in the backfield? In these situations, The Uncles like to yell out a quarterback’s height and say, “All he needs to do is fall forward to get a first down!”
The Analytics love this premise because … it works. In fact, it works exceedingly well. Every study of quarterback sneaks that’s been conducted has proved they are significantly more successful than other short-yardage plays. ESPN research from 2017 showed that every NFL team had a higher conversion rate on quarterback sneaks than on other short-yardage plays. Pro Football Focus research from February showed that quarterback sneaks are 13 percent more successful than other types of runs from the opposing 1-yard line, and 20 percent more successful than other third-and-1 or fourth-and-1 plays. Football Outsiders research from 2016 showed that quarterback sneaks are more successful than every other type of play on third down and fourth down. Advanced Football Analytics research from 2011 showed that a QB sneak on third-and-2 is more likely to be successful than a running back carry on third-and-1. The Wall Street Journal reported in October that every quarterback in the league with at least 10 career sneak attempts has a success rate of 75 percent or better. A 2015 Yale research paper stated that QB sneak attempts are worth nearly twice as much as non-sneaks by a metric called estimated points added.
Universally, these studies give QB sneaks a success rate between 70 and 90 percent. Nothing else in football has a 70 to 90 percent success rate! In this sport, that’s as close to a sure thing as you can get. NFL teams are better at picking up first downs and touchdowns via quarterback sneaks than Sam Bradford is at completing 3-yard passes when he needs to pick up 10 yards.
Yet there’s a problem: NFL coaches are maddeningly slow on the uptake. ESPN reports that the leaguewide usage of QB sneaks declined from 12.5 of short-yardage plays in 2001 to 4.8 percent of short-yardage plays in 2016. Football Outsiders counted 83 quarterback sneaks on third-and-1s and 47 sneaks on fourth-and-1s in 2009; those figures dropped off to 56 and 23, respectively, by 2015.
Time and time again, we see NFL teams choose not to sneak. On Sunday, the Falcons ran five excruciating plays from the goal line over two late drives in a 28-16 loss to the Browns. (Atlanta ran for no gain on third-and-goal from the 1; threw an incomplete pass on fourth-and-goal from the 1; threw an incomplete pass on first-and-goal from the 1; threw an incomplete pass on second-and-goal from the 1; and lost 2 yards on a rushing attempt on third-and-goal from the 1.) This, despite Matt Ryan having a 77.5 percent success rate on quarterback sneaks, according to ESPN. During a 31-28 win over the Bears in Week 6, the Dolphins faced third-and-goal from the 1 in overtime. Instead of calling for a sneak with 6-foot-7 QB Brock Osweiler, they elected to give the ball to running back Kenyan Drake, who fumbled and nearly cost Miami the game. Football Outsiders finds that quarterbacks fumble on just 1.7 percent of QB sneaks.
There have been 84 punts on fourth-and-1s this fall, including six that came from the opposing team’s side of the 50-yard line. I’m sure some of these were necessary given the game situation, but still: That means there were 84 times a coach turned down a roughly 80 percent chance at picking up a first down.
There have been 32 unsuccessful plays on third- or fourth-and-1 from the opposing 1-yard line this season: 14 incomplete passes, 16 running back carries, and just two QB sneaks. Some of those 30 failed non-QB-sneak attempts should probably have been sneaks. Look: Even Nathan Peterman scored a touchdown on a quarterback sneak. Anybody can do it.
And that’s kind of the thing: Anybody can do it. I was going to wax poetic about the beauty of the QB sneak, but there’s really nothing special to the play. There are slight differences in how teams execute the sneak—my personal favorite: Kansas State’s version, which uses a formation I call the K-State Clown Car. And there are slight differences in how players run it: Drew Brees famously jumps and pops the ball over the goal line, a strategy that’s been remarkably successful. (The Wall Street Journal article claimed Brees is 17-for-17 on quarterback sneaks in his career, although ESPN has him listed at 88.7 percent and Football Outsiders has him at 88.2 percent.) For the most part, however, quarterback sneaks work regardless of who runs them. Football Outsiders found there’s basically no correlation between how good a quarterback is on every other play in football and how good he is on sneaks. The top five QBs in the site’s analysis of short-yardage runs were, in order: Chad Pennington, Tom Brady, David Garrard, Kyle Boller, and Josh Freeman. The bottom five, from best to worst: Quincy Carter, Jon Kitna, Josh McCown, Jake Delhomme, and Russell Wilson.
It’s possible that the quarterback sneak is so successful in part because of its underuse—after all, the play is called a sneak. It usually works when opponents aren’t stacked up to defend it. And there are certain situations where it’s inadvisable for offenses to run a sneak. The Giants ran a pair of quarterback sneaks in the final minute of a 23-20 loss to the Falcons on Monday Night Football a few weeks ago, despite the fact New York had no timeouts and was trailing by 10 points. It wasted 40 seconds as the players took eons to remove themselves from the resulting pile.
But most of the time, teams would benefit from increased use of the sneak. It takes advantage of a core football tenet: Only the offense knows when the ball is going to be snapped, giving the teams willing to immediately shove a player forward a split-second advantage. That’s all there is to it.
Unfortunately, coaches are not Analytics, and they are not Uncles. They are people whose job statuses depend on their ability to successfully implement strategies in the most complicated sport ever invented. (Calvinball wasn’t complex enough to feature punts, let alone two separate categories of penalties for hitting a punter during a punt.) Coaches’ minds aren’t meant for simple solutions. And so it is our responsibility to keep yelling, backed up by either data or a gut feeling that the easiest answer is the right one.