On second-and-short, NFL teams play it safe (and shouldn't), a Mason professor says

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The conventional wisdom says NFL teams facing second-and-short yardage situations during a game should take a chance on a big play. But an evaluation of play calling from 2013 to 2018 by a George Mason University professor shows teams in those situations actually play more conservatively than in any other circumstance.

“It doesn’t make sense to just move the chains when you have what is basically a free play,” assistant professor of finance Derek Horstmeyer said. “You’re basically in the same position on the field. I just couldn’t believe it.”

Using data from the website NFLsavant.com, Horstmeyer found that teams facing second down and needing either one or two yards to achieve a first down, run the ball up the middle more than in any of other situation and generate fewer positive yards (an average 4.1) than in any other first, second or third down scenario.

What doesn’t make sense for Horstmeyer, who has never worked in football and is a huge San Francisco 49ers fan, is that a second-and-short situation provides an opportunity for an aggressive play call. If that fails, there is one and possibly two more downs available to gain the necessary first-down yardage, he said.

To avoid biases in the data, Horstmeyer’s analysis excluded certain situations, such as plays inside the 10-yard-line during the last two minutes of a half.

“I’m not saying there’s no room for a coach’s intuition, but there’s more and more evidence that NFL coaches play too risk-averse,” Horstmeyer said. “But increasing risk has its benefits.”

Horstmeyer points to the Green Bay Packers, who this year were 11-3 through Dec. 15 while averaging a league-best 14.2 yards on second-and-short situations.

His analysis also showed that teams that are more aggressive in second-and-short situations score more points.

For example, by using a shotgun (passing) formation on second-and-short between midfield and an opponent’s 40-yard line, teams can expect .439 more points in the drive as compared to a risk-averse formation in which the quarterback is under center. If the second-and-short situation is between an opponent’s 40- and 30-yard lines, the expectation is .587 more points in the drive.

Interestingly, Horstmeyer said he began his research after watching teams play on television and noting their conservative play calling on second-and-short situations.

“It was really infuriating why they were playing the opposite of what I was expecting,” he said.

Derek Horstmeyer can be reached at 703-993-9761 or dhorstme@gmu.edu.