Super Bowl LIII is not only about two of the league’s best offenses squaring off against one another — New England and Los Angeles — it’s also about America’s other favorite pastime: gambling. The total amount bet on the Super Bowl1 has risen from $40 million in 1991 to more than $158 million in 2018, and much of that growth has come from “props” or proposition bets.
For readers who aren’t degenerate gamblers, prop bets are wagers you can place on events during a game that don’t directly involve the final outcome. This year there are the standard prop bets, like if the Patriots will score a touchdown in the first quarter (they never have in a Super Bowl), or if the Rams will rush for more than 127.5 yards (they averaged 143.3 yards per game in the regular season and the playoffs). But there are also more exotic prop bets on things like whether Donald Trump will tweet more than six times during the game. (The implied probability on one offshore book is 58 percent that he will hit the over.)
Another interesting wager is on the length of Gladys Knight’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Several offshore books have set the total for the anthem at 1 minute 47 seconds, and the implied odds for both the under and the over were set at one book at -115 — a 53.5 percent implied probability — on both sides.2 The implied probabilities being equal indicates that the book has no real opinion on the length of Gladys’s performance — they just want to take a percentage from each side of the wager and hope bettors will place their bets evenly on both.
But is Knight performing the anthem in over/under 107 seconds really close to a 50 percent proposition? Or is there evidence that might convince us that the oddsmakers got the probabilities wrong?
To find out, I went to Youtube and watched 40 Super Bowl national anthems from 1979 to 2018. I eliminated any anthems with trumpeters (there were two) and then started timing the anthem from the moment the singer first started to sing and ended the timer after the completion of the first utterance of “brave.”3 Using this methodology, the 40-year average of all national anthem singers4 is 106.1 seconds, roughly in line with the total set by the books. So the total is correct so far as the average goes, but it also seems lazy. Surely there are other factors that might help us better predict how long Gladys might sing.
For starters, the performance time of the anthem has changed as the Super Bowl has grown to become the unparalleled cultural phenomenon we now enjoy each year. As the pomp, circumstance and viewership have increased, the time anthem performers spend on the stage has also risen.
So while anthems have gotten longer over time, the 40-year average is not fully accounting for that trend. When you do account for it5 the best forecast for the 2019 anthem is actually 119 seconds, 13 seconds over the 40-year average.
Gender of the anthem singer is also significant. Men tend to sing the anthem more quickly than women — though not many men have sung the anthem in recent years, when the anthems have been getting longer overall. Still, the all-time shortest anthem performance was by a man — the incomparable Neil Diamond — who got in and out like a boss in a cool 61 seconds. And the longest anthem ever performed at a Super Bowl was by the unforgettable Natalie Cole in 1994, which clocked in at a diva-esque 148 seconds.
Finally, Knight herself appears to be a singer who knows how to stretch a note. Using whosampled, I identified 31 covers performed by Knight and timed the cover performance of each using similar criteria to the anthem timing. Knight’s covers were 7 percent longer than the originals on average, good for a bonus 12.7 seconds of soothing soul per track. In perhaps the best comp to the national anthem — “Ave Maria,” a soaring, vocal-heavy standard covered by hundreds of artists — Gladys’ performance was 37 percent longer than the standard version.
Gladys Knight takes her time with interpretations
Difference in song length between Knight’s covers and the original songs
Taking a larger view, only two anthems in the past 15 years have been performed faster than the 40-year average of 1 minute 47 seconds. And when I looked at the age of the anthem singers, I found no significant correlation between age and performance time.6 On the other hand, we can look at one of Knight’s previous performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner” itself, which is solid piece of evidence against the over, running for 92 seconds. It was, however, performed 28 years ago. All things considered, the bookmakers appear to have this line wrong on Gladys, and her upcoming anthem performance is probably going to go over 107 seconds.
Researching a single prop was a lot of work, and it’s understandable why books might not want to put this level of effort into each and every bet they publish. But it does imply that there are profitable edges for some Super Bowl props. Using the Twitter machine, I threw up a bat signal for a gambling expert to help me confirm my priors. Rufus Peabody, a professional sports bettor and former ESPN contributor who is well-known in gambling circles for the scale and volume of his Super Bowl prop wagers, agreed to help.
“The time and effort to accurately value props is pretty high,” Peabody said. “Some books put more effort into their props than others, and for some props there’s almost no data. Books will move the lines aggressively when sharp bets are made though, which helps them adjust.”
I’ve been keeping an eye on the Gladys anthem line, and it hasn’t moved all week. I was tempted to bet the over, but when I was confronted with the prospect of having to convert real money into Bitcoin in order to place a bet on an offshore site, I decided to abort. When I looked around for somewhere to place the bet in Las Vegas — where they accept actual money — I struck out. Peabody explained that prop bets like anthem length are illegal in Las Vegas because of restrictions on the types of sources casinos can use to “grade” or determine the outcome of a bet.
Even if it won’t net me any cash, I’ll be pulling for Knight to go over regardless. I want her to belt out that last note in “home of the brave” for an egregiously long time. After all, my Twitter credibility is on the line, and that’s serious business.
The play-action pass is one of the most effective calls in all of football. The three teams that use the play-action the most — the Rams, the Patriots and the Chiefs, according to data from Sports Info Solutions — each locked down a first-round bye in the playoffs. Across the league in 2018, quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts average 1.39 yards per attempt more out of play-action than they do on all other plays.1 This pattern of play-action success holds true for every year that we have data.2 Yet despite this success, the league average share of plays that are play-action passes is just barely above 20 percent.
Why is play-action so effective? When defenders bite on a play-action fake, they move out of position for defending the pass and create clear lanes for the QB to throw to the intermediate and deep parts of the field.
But NFL coaches tend to run them only a handful of times per game because they appear to believe that overuse of play-action will cause linebackers to stop biting on the fake. Diminishing returns will set in, defenders will stop respecting the run, and the superiority of play-action will vanish. But is this actually the case? Do linebackers start to ignore the fake handoff if they see it many times in a single game?
Until very recently, we had a hard time answering this question with the data that was available. But in the past couple of weeks, the NFL released a tranche of Next Gen tracking data for 91 games from 2017 via its inaugural Big Data Bowl. Michael Lopez, the NFL’s director of analytics, spearheaded the effort to allow analysts to dig into the tracking data and mine it for insights. I was able to use this data to quantify the effect of play-action on the movement of middle linebackers — and to see if a high number of play-action plays had any effect on the outcome of the plays.
I took each of the 1,235 play-action plays in the sample and isolated just the middle linebacker’s movement from snap to throw.3 I measured the distance traveled by the defender while moving forward toward the line of scrimmage at any angle, and I stopped counting the distance as soon as he turned and retreated into coverage. If two linebackers were playing on the inside, I included only the player who moved the most toward the line of scrimmage during the play. Below are three animations that help illustrate the process.4
The first shows the entire play with all players involved:
The second shows the entire play with the middle linebacker and quarterback isolated:
The third shows when I stopped counting the linebacker’s movement as “wasted” for the purposes of the study:
Distance traveled by a defender while biting on a play-action fake is a fairly precise way to quantify just how fooled a defender was on a play. Continuing to move toward the line of scrimmage when the offense is passing is a problem; defenders want to “get depth” as soon as they can if they identify pass. Any movement toward the line of scrimmage is usually wasted.
After summing up the total distance traveled for each of the plays, I calculated that on the average play-action pass play, the middle linebacker covers 7.5 yards of wasted ground. In seven instances in our sample, teams ran 15 or more play-action plays in a single game. Those games would have offered the middle linebacker the most opportunities to figure out the play-action, but the average distance traveled was 8.2 yards — even higher than the overall average.
I broke out the average wasted distance traveled by linebackers by the number of times a play-action pass was called in a game to see how teams reacted. It turns out that the wasted distance traveled was remarkably stable.
More play-action passes do not mean fewer wasted yards
Average yards wasted by the middle linebacker on each play-action pass in a game
LB Wasted yards
Linebackers bite just about the same amount the 11th time a play-action pass is called in a game as the first time it’s called. It’s only after we get to 12 play-action passes in one game that things start to get wonky — but that may be because of the small sample sizes of those instances.
Across the entire sample of 91 games and 1,235 plays, I found no correlation at all between the number of times a team ran the play-action and total yards of wasted ground by middle linebackers.5 We’d love more data to examine, to look closer at what happens when more play-actions are run. But given what we know about the effectiveness of the play, the self-imposed threshold set by play-callers of roughly six to nine play-action fakes per game is likely too low.
Stopping the run is a major focus at every level of football, and the NFL especially makes it a high priority to effectively defend the run. Teams do this by coaching their linebackers and box safeties to play the run first in nonobvious passing situations. This emphasis on run stopping comes at a cost, however. Defenders must read their “run keys” — movements by the offense that indicate a run is coming — and react quickly to fill their gaps and prepare to make a physical play. It could be the case that defenders simply don’t think about how often the team is faking the run but instead just read and react to their run keys.
To play fast in the NFL, it’s often said, you can’t think but instead must react based on instinct and training. Perhaps that instinctual reaction explains why play-action continues to be effective no matter how often it’s used. It’s also probably the case that certain teams and players are more susceptible to play-action than others, and smart NFL teams will identify and exploit their opponents’ tendencies.
Those smart NFL teams should also pay attention to exactly how they use the play-action. According to the Sports Info Solutions data, passes thrown 7 yards deep or less are caught less frequently on play-action than on other passes. This could be because defenders have moved toward the line of scrimmage and are in better position to make a play on the ball. Play-action is only more effective than other passes when the ball travels at least 8 yards in the air — over the head of the linebackers who’ve been fooled.
sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): The NFL’s 2018 regular season is finally in the books. Before the playoffs get rolling, let’s look back on an interesting Week 17 and preview next weekend’s wild-card round. We’ll end with giving our Super Bowl predictions again, just to keep us honest.
Salfino (Michael Salfino, contributor): I will have to revise my Saints-Steelers Super Bowl pick.
The AFC had all the drama yesterday, so let’s start with the Ravens/Steelers/Colts/Titans business.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): I was very much hoping for that Colts-Titans tie. But alas.
sara.ziegler: If the NFL were scripted, we would have ended the regular season on a tie.
Salfino: What’s interesting to me about the Ravens is that teams are not punishing Lamar Jackson for running.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I’m unclear on why teams don’t force Jackson to beat them with his arm as well. It’s worked in the past against other highly mobile QBs, and there seems to be no great reason why it won’t work again.
neil: That’s part of what makes the Ravens so interesting, that their second-half playoff push basically coincided with the QB change and this rush-heavy identity that seems so different in a league that set new recordsfor passing in 2018.
Salfino: Yes, the Ravens and the Chiefs are the offenses you really can’t prepare for in a week, IMO. I have no idea how a team can prepare for Jackson in one week. But LAC at least just faced him. Is that advantage Chargers? To me this is the most interesting game of the wild-card round.
Salfino: The problem is that it’s so hard to stay disciplined and not chase him. Defenses are taught to be aggressive.
Jackson allows the offense to play 11 on 11, and all of defense is predicated on the defense playing 11 on 10.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Also strange is that we can make legit comps between Jackson and Josh Allen. Bill Belichick kept Allen in the pocket during Week 16 knowing the main danger he poses is from his legs. And New England won.
Salfino: Yes, the Patriots are just taught to be super disciplined so they can counter that probably better than most teams.
sara.ziegler: Did the Browns figure that out a little bit too against Jackson? The Ravens rushed for 8.5 yards per carry in the first half and just 4.5 in the second.
Salfino: Maybe as the game wore on, but by then the damage was done. The Browns were just getting gashed. The Ravens were running on 3rd-and-long and converting. It was like a college game — old-school college before the passing explosion.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Credit as well to the play-calling, I think. It’s a very creative scheme the Ravens are rolling out.
Salfino: Is the Ravens defense overrated? Where are the blue chip players? They are just coached so well. Wink Martindale should get interviews.
neil: And Jackson’s own speed is really something to behold. On that first TD Jackson scored, it looked like he was shot out of a cannon.
Salfino: Jackson also looked like he was playing at video game speed even on the shorter second TD run. He just darted into the end zone like everyone was standing still.
I think the Ravens offense is underrated and their defense is overrated.
sara.ziegler: In the other afternoon AFC game of note, the Steelers came out incredibly flat before rallying for the win, which wasn’t quite enough.
neil: Pittsburgh’s season will go down as one of the all-time collapses, I think?
Salfino: The Steelers have to be the most disappointing team in recent memory. They were top 10 in all the key defensive stats except interception percentage — which is fluky, but man that killed them. They have Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 5,000 yards, two All-Pro WRs, and the running game was fine. Yet they just blew one game after the other.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Antonio Brown has been inefficient this year, but he was missed.
Salfino: The Steelers were sixth in yards per play and sixth in yards allowed per play and didn’t make the playoffs. This is almost impossible. I thought it was impossible.
This will be the defining image of the season for me.
Salfino: Cousins showing Thielen how to run routes was both hilarious and sad.
joshua.hermsmeyer: One silver lining for the Vikings is that the situational football we typically use to judge Cousins as a disappointment is among the least predictive of future performance in all of football: throws under pressure, third-down conversions. Kirk deserves his share of the blame, but the entire offense looked out of sync yesterday and for a lot of the second half of the season.
sara.ziegler: Cousins has his redemption narrative all set for next season, LOL.
Salfino: The Eagles benefit from the Vikings’ struggles. I can’t believe that the Bears are only 6-point favorites.
neil: Particularly with Nick Foles not necessarily 100 percent.
neil: Carson Wentz? Nick Foles? Nate Sudfeld? No problem.
sara.ziegler: Well … Wentz? Some problems.
Everyone else? Fine.
neil: Philly was always a backup QB’s dream city during the McNabb era. Some of that has carried over, I guess.
Salfino: Foles has got to be the most volatile QB in NFL history. We should quantify that. He’s below average for his career and is treated like a franchise QB based on about 16 games, if we include all of 2013.
neil: Yeah, the gap between his best 16 and worst 16 starts has to be one of the biggest ever.
Salfino: I can’t even imagine the Bears losing to the Eagles. They are just going to chew Philly up. The Eagles’ best playmaker is still 100-year-old Darren Sproles, who is amazing, but come on.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I can’t think of Foles without wincing that he lost $1 million because of four snaps.
This is just brutal.
Salfino: Foles is going to get $100 million in about three months, so I will not feel sorry for him.
Salfino: Luck should be in the MVP conversation. I understand it’s Patrick Mahomes. But Luck has done a lot with a lot less than Mahomes. Luck does seemingly have great coaching now though. Frank Reich, who the Colts backed into, was the hire of the offseason. I think better than Matt Nagy even.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Luck truly played himself back into game shape. Early on, his throws were routinely Derek Carr short, and by the end of the season he was mostly back to the old Luck.
Salfino: Colts-Texans is the game of the week to me in terms of having no idea who will win. The Texans are a strange team with great strengths (QB, pass rush) and crippling weaknesses (offensive line, pass coverage).
On paper, the Colts are a terrible matchup for the Texans because Luck led the league in lowest sack rate as he completely transformed his game to protect his health. So smart.
Salfino: If you have Russell Wilson, anything is possible. I will stipulate.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I like Seattle for my part. Turnovers are wildly unpredictable, and that drove their defensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average for much of the season, but they are built to win close games like this one where both teams appear to want to “establish the run.”
Salfino: The football story of the week when it comes to the chess aspect of the game and coaching is whether the Chargers having experienced the Ravens offense can now shut it down. But they don’t really do much on defense except play that Seattle, straight-up style. So do they even have a bag of tricks?
sara.ziegler: Seems strange to me that the Ravens are favorites over the Chargers.
Baltimore is hot right now, but L.A. has been solid all season.
Salfino: Well, Baltimore has had the best home-field advantage in football when you factor in road vs. home record. So LAC are up against it.
I still like the Chargers. I’m being obstinate, LOL.
neil: Well, this is a little bit of a counter to the QB Winz debate from above. L.A. clearly has the better QB.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I like Philip Rivers and the Chargers as well. Particularly if the Chargers keep Jackson in the pocket.
Salfino: No Super Bowl team has won a road game since the 2012 season. But I’ll say that the most likely road winners this week in order are the Colts (they win), Chargers (I can see it but don’t think they adjust defensively), Seattle (Wilson gives them a chance) and Eagles (no chance unless Mitch Trubisky craps the bed).
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Baltimore defense prevents completions, that’s their best skill. But Rivers has completed passes at 1.8 percent over expected this season.
Salfino: New England really gets tested if the Colts win. (They would have to play the winner of Baltimore-LAC.) If the Texans win, Houston is just made for an easy Patriots victory in the divisional round.
Little worried about how Rivers has looked of late. But probably just random variance. There’s not much data on QBs this old late in the season and into the postseason other than Brady.
sara.ziegler: I’m worried about how Rivers looks, too — at least in this Mina Kimes drawing:
I loved that segment on NFL Countdown Sunday, where they talked about Rivers’ trash talk. Which somehow never includes swearing.
sara.ziegler: I’ve always really liked him. A perfect fantasy football QB.
Salfino: Philip Rivers is great. A Hall-of-Famer IMO. But unbelievably he has as many career playoff wins as Mark Sanchez. He needs more pelts on the wall.
sara.ziegler: Very fair.
Is anyone taking the Eagles over the Bears?
neil: I recuse myself.
sara.ziegler: Wait, we can’t make predictions about our favorite teams?
I’ve literally been picking the Vikings to lose all season.
neil: I gotta hand it to you, those were accurate predictions.
neil: As opposed to this one:
Salfino: I think the Bears just crush the Eagles. This spread is all Foles-narrative-driven, and I don’t believe in fairy tales.
sara.ziegler: Wow, Mike.
neil: Anybody picking the Eagles probably does have visions of this being yet another Bears team that got into the playoffs on defense with a weak QB performance
And promptly lost. But that’s not really this team. Trubisky has been progressing.
(The defense is still amazing, of course)
joshua.hermsmeyer: You can dink and dunk on Chicago.
Salfino: Remember, Foles was LUCKY to beat the Falcons last year. He had a ball go off a Falcon’s knee, or they probably lose that game. Then he turned into Cinderella, and I have no idea how or why.
sara.ziegler: He did get to face the Vikings last year — that undoubtedly helped.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If Foles can be efficient and healthy, and the Eagles are patient, I can totally imagine a game where Biscuit implodes and the Eagles move on. I think the spread has some of that in it.
Salfino: I do not believe in the Eagles defense at all. But I also don’t like how Nagy hasn’t given Tarik Cohen consistently more touches than Jordan Howard. And the Bears are all banged up now at WR.
I agree with Josh on Trubisky, but the Bears and Nagy can’t put him in a position to lose that game. The Eagles have no playmakers. Dare them to score.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, it could be closer than it seems. Of course, if Foles can’t play, then the Eagles will REALLY need a fairy tale.
All right, let’s wrap this up with our Super Bowl predictions, so we can continue to look ridiculous when our picks all lose.
Salfino: I’m going Saints-Chiefs, but that’s predicated on the Colts beating the Texans and giving the Patriots a nightmare matchup in the divisional round. It’s so public to fade the Chiefs that I’m fading the public. Offense!
Mahomes wins MVP and Brees wins Super Bowl MVP. Seems fair.
neil: I’ve been saying New Orleans over K.C. for these past few chats, and that’s still possible, so I’m sticking with it. (Despite the defensive concerns!)
sara.ziegler: I took the Bears last time, and now having watched them flatten my own team, I probably need to keep them. Bears-Chiefs, Chiefs take it down.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Chiefs-Rams rematch, Chiefs win. Because that would be the best ending to the best offensive season in the NFL probably ever.
neil: What’s the score on that one, Josh? Is it the first Super Bowl whose score will be mistaken for an Arena Bowl?
joshua.hermsmeyer: 36-35 with the game decided on a 2-point conversion.
It’s the last week of the NFL’s regular season, and that means it’s time to game out all of the fun playoff scenarios facing each team.
Here at FiveThirtyEight, we like to measure the most important games of the week based on how much they swing every team’s odds of making the postseason (across every team in the entire league). And by that standard, you can’t top Sunday night’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans, which will shift around nearly 95 total points of playoff probability. (Really, that’s for the two teams involved — the winner will make the playoffs and the loser won’t, which effectively makes it a play-in playoff game.) Oddly, it’s only the third time ever that the Titans will play in NBC’s flagship Sunday night game (the last was in 2009), while for the Colts, it will have been exactly 60 years and two days since they beat the New York Giants for the NFL title in the Greatest Game Ever Played, which helped make TV-spectacle games like this one possible.
That may not be the best game of Week 17, however. We also like to include an element for team quality, and Titans-Colts is still just the No. 13 team in our Elo ratings against No. 14. When the Minnesota Vikings face the Chicago Bears, it will be No. 6 vs. No. 11 in Elo, and it’s a game that has plenty of playoff significance in its own right. The Vikings wouldn’t automatically miss the playoffs if they lose, but they would not be in great shape (35 percent), while they would clinch with a victory. And the Bears have plenty to play for as well; a win and a Rams loss would help them get a first-round playoff bye. Of course, fans of the Philadelphia Eagles will be watching this game closely: A Vikings win would end Philly’s season, while a Bears win would give the Eagles a chance to play their way in. (Both games kick off at 4:25 p.m. ET.)
The best matchups of Week 17
Week 17 games by the highest average Elo rating (using the harmonic mean) plus the total potential swing for all NFL teams’ playoff chances based on the result, according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions
There are a few other games with playoff probability on the line. As mentioned earlier, the outcome of the Eagles’ game with Washington is very much of importance to the Vikings, who would clinch with a Philadelphia loss. The Cleveland Browns’ matchup with the Baltimore Ravens has done the unthinkable — made Pittsburgh Steeler fans root for the Browns — since a Baltimore win would eliminate the Steelers from the postseason picture. Baltimore could still make the playoffs with a loss, but the Ravens would need Pittsburgh to lose its game against Cincinnati, which is also happening simultaneously at 4:25 p.m. ET. (In related news: Are you ready for a completely insane Sunday afternoon of football?)
Although other games could determine seeding, and there are a few stray percentage points of playoff odds’ difference at stake around the league, those are basically the games that will carry the most weight in Week 17, and we can’t wait to see how they all play out.
Here are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the reader picks last week:
Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 16
Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 16 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game
OUR PREDICTION (ELO)
READERS’ NET PTS
ATL 24, CAR 10
MIN 27, DET 9
CLE 26, CIN 18
CHI 14, SF 9
LAR 31, ARI 9
GB 44, NYJ 38
IND 28, NYG 27
TEN 25, WSH 16
NE 24, BUF 12
JAX 17, MIA 7
OAK 27, DEN 14
DAL 27, TB 20
BAL 22, LAC 10
SEA 38, KC 31
NO 31, PIT 28
PHI 32, HOU 30
After a shellacking at the hands of our algorithm in Week 15, readers rebounded slightly this week, losing by an average of 25.3 points. Philadelphia’s last-second win over Houston may have kept the Eagles in the playoff hunt, but it cost readers 14.7 points on average in our game. Readers did pick up 9.5 points on average in the Atlanta-Carolina game; though they incorrectly picked the Panthers to beat the Falcons, they did so by a smaller win probability than Elo.
Congrats to Scott S, who led all users in Week 16 with an even 300 points, and to Greg Chili Van Hollebeke, who maintained his No. 1 ranking on the season with 1,075.4 points. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and still try your luck against Elo, even if you haven’t played yet.
Todd Gurley is off to one of the hottest starts in NFL history. After rushing for a league-leading 623 yards and nine touchdowns — plus 247 receiving yards and two more TDs through the air — Gurley has accumulated the fifth-most adjusted yards1 from scrimmage through six games since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, joining former Rams greats Marshall Faulk and Eric Dickerson near the top of the list. The Rams are 6-0 on the young season, and Gurley’s breakneck performance is often cited as a catalyst for the team’s success. He has even been in the early discussion for league MVP.
But is that really warranted? Does the Rams offense truly run through Gurley, or should we be giving head coach Sean McVay more of the credit?
One approach to answering that question is to look at how McVay’s scheme affects Gurley’s performance. So far this year, the Rams have run nearly every offensive play from what is called the “11” personnel: one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. According to charting from Sports Info Solutions, the Rams have run 95 percent of their offensive plays from this package — 32 percentage points more than the league average of 63 percent. And while heavy utilization of three wide receiver looks isn’t new to McVay — the Rams ran 81 percent of their plays out of “11” in 2017 — 2018 is a massive outlier. McVay appears to have concluded that the deception afforded the offense by lining up with the same personnel package each play is greater than the constraints it places on his play calling.
The Rams rarely stray from their favorite formation
NFL teams by the share of their plays run in each of the three most popular offensive formations, 2018
11: ONE RB, ONE TE, three WRs
12: ONE RB, TWO TEs, TWO WRs
21: Two RBs, one TE, two WRs
There are other benefits from repeatedly giving the opponent the same look, however, and they affect Gurley’s performance in important ways. When a team can spread a defense out laterally across the field, it opens up the middle and makes running the ball easier. Running backs with at least 20 carries averaged 4.75 yards per carry against six men in the box from 2016 to 2018.2 That’s well over half a yard higher than the average of 4.09 yards per carry when that same group of runners faced seven defenders near the line of scrimmage. Against eight-man fronts, the average gain falls to 3.59. Facing a loaded box makes running much more difficult.
McVay is no rube. He likely realizes that if you are going to run in the NFL, you should do so against a light box. Even better, this is something he can control. An offense exerts quite a bit of influence over how many box defenders it faces by how many wide receivers it chooses to deploy. When offenses play three wideouts, NFL defensive coordinators will typically match body type with body type and send a nickel defensive back in to cover the third receiver, leaving six defenders in the box.
As a consequence, Gurley has faced more six-man fronts on his carries than any other running back in football since McVay took over as head coach of the Rams. It has paid serious dividends. So far this season, Gurley is crushing it against those fronts, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. But against a neutral seven-man front, he’s been below league average at just 3.7 yards per attempt.
Gurley thrives when there are fewer defenders
Number of carries and yards per carry against a standard defense of six men in the box, 2017-18
No. of carries
yards per carry
Gurley is basically the same back he has always been since he came into the league. If you use broken and missed tackles as a proxy for talent,3 you can see that Gurley makes defenders miss when running against six-man fronts far less than expected. He thrives, like most running backs, when he’s allowed to hit open holes and get to the second level relatively unscathed.
So Gurley is the beneficiary, not the proximate cause, of the Rams’ offensive resurgence under McVay. Gurley has been put in a position to succeed and has taken full advantage. Crucially, while the Rams have benefited from being smart in their offensive schemes and decision-making, it’s likely that many teams could emulate them and achieve similar success on the ground. Spreading a defense out and running against a light front is not a particularly novel idea. The commitment shown by running 95 percent of your plays out of a formation that encourages that result, however, is quite innovative. McVay pushes winning edges better than any coach in the NFL — and he, not his running back, is the principal reason that the Rams are currently the toast of the league.
When Vic Fangio was named defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears in 2015, he took the helm of a ship that was essentially already at the bottom of the ocean. Not only were the Bears mired in a four-season playoff drought, but Chicago was also coming off consecutive seasons in which it fielded arguably the worst defense in franchise history.
In its most recent victory, Chicago dismantled Tampa Bay’s then-league-best offense in a 48-10 bloodletting. Chicago’s front seven had Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston, who made his season debut, running toward the nearest airport.
Fitzpatrick and Winston haven’t been Chicago’s only victims, though.
Chicago’s 11.6 percent sack rate1 is 1.5 percentage points ahead of the next-best team. If the Bears can maintain that pace, they would set the the fifth-best mark since 1980, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Chicago’s defense is collapsing the pocket better than perhaps any team.
But here’s the remarkable thing about the Bears: They are racking up the sacks despite hardly blitzing.
The Bears rank last in the league in blitzing, defined as sending five or more pass rushers at a quarterback who’s dropping back to throw, with 5.0 per contest, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information Group. If Chicago maintained its blitz average for the rest of the season, it would be the sixth-lowest rate since 2006, the first year for which data is available.
This is in no small part a function of the Bears’ new $141 million linebacker. Khalil Mack, who became the highest paid defensive player in NFL history after the Bears traded for him last month, is tied for fifth in the NFL in sacks (five) and tied for first in forced fumbles (four). In terms of pressure applied, Mack is ahead of the pace he set in 2016 when he was named defensive player of the year. In Week 3 of this season, during the Bears’ 16-14 win over Arizona, the Cardinals went as far as tasking three men with containing Mack. Late in the second quarter, after Mack beat every last one of those Cardinals, his teammate Akiem Hicks swooped in for the sack.
Mack is not only a transcendent talent capable of getting to the quarterback on seemingly every snap; his play has also raised the performance of his teammates. Mack, Hicks, Danny Trevathan, Aaron Lynch and Roy Robertson-Harris have accounted for at least 1.5 sacks apiece this season. “Those boys inside can raise so much hell, it’s outrageous,” said hell-raiser Richard Dent, a Hall of Fame defensive end and a member of the vaunted 1985-86 Bears defense, in an interview with The Athletic.
Blitzing requires a defensive player to eschew coverage in favor of pressure. Like so many other aspects of football, the blitz is a risk-reward proposition. Get to the quarterback quickly enough, and the play is over — and you may have even created a takeaway. Get to the quarterback a step late, and he will likely find a target in the hole you’ve left.
Leaguewide, blitzing is trending down, largely because the game has gotten faster and offensive efficiency continues to skyrocket. It seems that defensive coordinators are content to send fewer pass rushers at the quarterback and instead rely on their secondary in coverage. In four consecutive seasons, the number of blitzes faced by quarterbacks has dropped, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information. Opposing quarterbacks saw a 17 percent decrease from 2013 to 2017 in total five-man blitzes.
Long a proponent of blitz-scarce schemes, Fangio oversees an optimal situation in Chicago, where the Bears largely abstain from blitzing — yet they still manage to get to the quarterback.
“I think the ideal thing is you’d like to pressure when you want to and not feel like you have to,” Fangio told The Athletic. “If you can get to that point, then you feel pretty good.”
Fangio was well ahead of the trend of blitz-less defenses. He has held an NFL defensive coordinator role each season since 2011, when he took that job with the San Francisco 49ers, and over that stretch, his defenses have always been among the league’s most blitz-reluctant outfits.
Other teams have used this formula before. Most notably, Jacksonville last season was able to get to the AFC championship game and field one of the best defenses in football while ranking second in sacks and last in blitzes. Chicago’s defense is 7.6 points better than average this season, according to Pro-Football-Reference’s Defensive Simple Rating System. That’s the franchise’s best mark since the 1985 and 1986 campaigns, when the Bears went a combined 29-3 and won a Super Bowl.
Blitz-less defenses aren’t always dominant; the 2006 Indianapolis Colts blitzed the least of any team for which data is available and were the fourth-worst defense in the AFC. But Chicago’s defense is dominating, leading the league in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average,2 while ranking no lower than third in pass and rush defense.
This weekend, Chicago travels to Miami to take on a Dolphins outfit missing several offensive linemen, setting the stage for more defensive highlights from the Bears. A franchise long synonymous with hard-nosed defense and strong play from the linebacker corps has re-established its identity under Fangio.