For NFL coaches, the summer break is a time for reflection. How might our season have gone differently if we had passed there instead of running the ball? If I had that call back, would I do it all over again?
All teams have strengths and weaknesses, which often inform a coach's gut decision to favor one play type over the other. This was especially evident last year, when run-heavy offenses like Dallas and pass-heavy offenses like Oakland took the league by storm. If you're Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, why wouldn't you put the ball in the hands of Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL's leading rusher last season? If you're Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, why wouldn't you leave it all up to quarterback Derek Carr?
But coaches almost always preach and prefer balance. If your opponents are less certain about what you do in general, it makes your offense harder to stop.
In that spirit, we took a look at the most common distances for each down last year (first-and-10, second-and-10 and third-and-1) and the percentages with which each team ran and passed in each situation. While some results played out exactly how we expected (Dallas ran the ball on 85 percent of its third-and-1 opportunities), some surprises did emerge.
Which coaches have the least to fret about this summer?
Key takeaways: The Browns should not be a surprise at No. 1 in the passing category here, given the combination of coach Hue Jackson's aggressive style and the frequency with which Cleveland trailed. For me, it was interesting to see how many teams seem to be so obviously looking to hit that 50-percent mark. When Kevin Gilbride was the offensive coordinator of the Giants, he told me that then-head coach Tom Coughlin would visit him multiple times over the course of a game and repeat the word balance over and over again. New Giants head coach Ben McAdoo is on his own now, but New York was still one of the closest teams to a 50-50 split, passing 48.9 percent of the time and running 51.1 percent of the time. It's clear he soaked something up from his former mentor. The Giants have an analytics-forward approach, like many of these teams, that aids the process.
» Miami Dolphins (50 percent rush/50 percent pass)
» San Francisco 49ers (51.1 percent rush/48.9 percent pass)
» Carolina Panthers (47.5 percent rush/52.5 percent pass)
» Tennessee Titans (46.2 percent rush/53.8 percent pass)
Key takeaways: On first down, almost every team in the league maintains some semblance of balance. Once you take the Browns and Cowboys out of the equation, the range of first-and-10 rushes only extends from a 57.4 percent high (Buffalo) to a 44.7 percent low (New Orleans Saints). Most teams are between 55 percent and 45 percent.
The interesting shift comes when teams get into second-and-10, as their plans seem to change drastically. The New York Giants suddenly become a 63.1 percent passing team, thanks to the presence of wunderkind wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. The Steelers, also an extraordinarily balanced team on first-and-10, along with the Atlanta Falcons, both tend to lean on their star wide receivers on second down, passing the ball 68.4 and 64.3 percent of the time, respectively. The Dolphins, who we will cover in a little bit more depth later, were the only team in any of the three categories to achieve a perfect 50-50 split.
» Miami Dolphins (41.2 percent rush/58.8 percent pass)
» Jacksonville Jaguars (40.9 percent rush/59.1 percent pass)
» Pittsburgh Steelers (60 percent rush/40 percent pass)
» New Orleans Saints (61 percent rush/39 percent pass)
Key takeaways: The fact that two teams -- Miami and Jacksonville -- threw more often than they ran on third-and-1 is fairly stunning, especially given the emergence of Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi. Likewise, some of the teams with the best quarterbacks, like the Packers (Aaron Rodgers) and Patriots (Tom Brady), were still among the most likely to rush on third down -- though LeGarrette Blount and Brady's signature sneak can always change one's mind.
» At least when viewed within these parameters, it seems like the Dolphins are football's most unpredictable team. This doesn't always matter -- the Cowboys, after all, run the ball on third-and-1 nearly 90 percent of the time because they have the best offensive line in the league and dare you to stop it. But being difficult to pin down can absolutely work to Gase's advantage. As a new head coach with an identity more tied to Peyton Manning than himself, the ability to trip up defensive coordinators could provide that elusive extra edge.
» How will Anthony Lynn affect the Chargers' offense? Last year, Buffalo -- where Lynn served as offensive coordinator for much of the season -- was one of the least-balanced offenses in favor of the run (81.5 percent rushes on third-and-1, 42.2 percent rushes on second-and-10 and 57.4 percent rushes on first-and-10). Los Angeles is keeping offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, despite the Chargers being the least-balanced second-and-10 team in football in favor of the pass (78.8 percent). Perhaps Lynn's presence will bring the Chargers back toward center a bit, seeing as how all over the team was a year ago (fifth most likely to run on first-and-10, least likely to run on second-and-10, 11th most likely to run on third-and-1).
» The Browns and Panthers were among teams that tended to throw more on first-and-10 out of traditional "power" formations. Hue Jackson threw the ball nearly 50 percent of the time out of a formation with more than one running back, while the Carolina Panthers threw the ball on first-and-10 more than 60 percent of the time (60.8) with two tight ends on the field.
» It will be interesting to see how Texans head coach Bill O'Brien changes from 2016 to '17, if at all. Last season's 56.7 run percentage on second-and-10 was a pretty significant indicator of his feelings toward Brock Osweiler. Will a year of Tom Savage/Deshaun Watson change that?