Some of the most iconic plays in football history happen around the goal line. The condensed field, the increased game leverage, the swings in emotion, the noise of the crowd. It’s what football is all about! Most even get nicknames because they are so memorable: The Bush Push, the Philly Special and Malcolm Butler’s INT (The Marshawn was right there!).
The importance of finishing drives is not a new topic. In his seminal piece on football analytics, Bill Connelly lists finishing drives as one of the five main factors that goes into winning football games. For Bill’s analysis, he determines finishing drives as how many points a team scores on drives where they get a first down past the 40-yard line. In this instance, the assumption is that teams are now in an area where they can expect to at least kick a field goal. Many people use the red zone as a way to look at how teams finish drives. The stat that is usually used is red zone scoring percentage, counting a field goal and a touchdown as equally successful outcomes. This metric has its own problems, but that is for a different time.
When you get close to the goal line yards are hard to come by. Three yards and a cloud of dust gets replaced with one yard and a giant mass of bodies. For reasons mentioned in the opening and many others, it is hard to punch the ball across the goal line. Today, I will use StatsBomb data to look at many different factors that go into scoring touchdowns at the goal line.
Goal Line Plays
A recent article from the Athletic looked into goal-line plays from inside the 1-yard line at the NFL level. The finding was that NFL teams are more likely to find success scoring touchdowns running plays out of the shotgun than under center. My brain immediately went to what does that look like in college? Are the numbers similar, or does the higher variance in offensive scheme give us different results?
At the college level, we find similar results to the Athletic study. When you zoom back to the 2 or 3-yard line, the info flips and teams are more likely to find success under center.
“To run, or not to run. That is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to establish
Your immense power and physical dominance
Or go the simple route and pass it to the edge
And by going away from everyone, score easily”
Matthew Edwards, Goal Line (Act 3 / Scene 1)
Although Shakespeare never wrote anything about football, I’m sure he would be a big fan of the intrigue, plot twists, and general excitement that is a football game. I would love to read a Shakespeare-written play on Super Bowl 49. With great detail placed on the interception by Malcolm Butler.
The decision to throw the ball instead of hand it off to Marshawn Lynch is one of the most dissected individual play decisions in football history. Before the play call, and even more so after the result, the general consensus was to hand the ball off and run it in for a Super Bowl winning touchdown. Down 4, 27 seconds left, 2nd & Goal from the 1, and the Seahawks have 1 timeout. Marshawn Lynch is a great power back. Running the ball seemed to be the right call.
This isn’t the place to debate the validity of the play call (I don’t *hate the idea of passing the ball). Let’s look at the data for the same goal line situations from the lens of passing or running the ball.
In all three instances, it is more advantageous to run the ball vs passing the ball. And that difference only increases the closer you get to the goal line.
There is a greater increase in analyzing formation width this season. Mainly spurred on by the kings of the wide formation, the Tennessee Volunteers. Their upset of Alabama on Saturday caught the eyes of the country, as well as Hendon Hooker’s passing numbers. Tennessee wideout Jalin Hyatt benefited from the spread out formation more than anyone with a record-setting day.
.@Vol_Football WR Jalin Hyatt:
-1st player w/5 rec TD’s vs an AP Top-5 team since Torry Holt in 1997 vs No. 3 FSU
⁰-5 rec TD are the most in a game vs any Nick Saban-coached team ever
⁰-1st player since DeVonta Smith in 2019 to have at 200 rec yds & 5 rec TD in a game
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) October 16, 2022
When it comes to offensive formation width, there’s still nothing like getting everybody in close and imposing your will. From QB Sneaks, to play action passes. Bringing everybody in for tight formations is the most successful use of formation on the goal line. I looked at offensive personnel groupings, but this basically mirrored formation width, tighter widths had “bigger” personnel groupings like 22 and 23, while the wider formations were made up of “smaller” personnels like 10 and 11.
At the end of the day, coaches don’t know what type of goal line situations they will have on game day. When I was working for UVA we would have 8 or 9 goal line / 2-point plays ready each week. Some games we wouldn’t call any of them, while in one game we called all of them in the first half. While 4th and goal from the 1 is different from 1st and goal from the 3, being prepared for either scenario is preferred. This information can help teams create their own memorable plays and win more football games.
Head of American Football Analysis