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How can the NY Jets and Mike LaFleur improve their play selection?

Mike LaFleur, New York Jets, Michael Carter, Scheme, 2022
Mike LaFleur, Michael Carter, New York Jets, Getty Images

Looking at offensive play selection on specific downs and distances can give some clues

“He should have run the ball!”

That’s what former New York Jets coach Pete Carroll will face for the rest of his life.

The 2014 Super Bowl (played on Feb. 1, 2015) represented the quintessential play call hand-wringing by millions of NFL fans around the world, not to mention the Seahawks 12th Man diehards and Marshawn Lynch himself.

It’s not second-guessing when everyone thought they were going to run the ball beforehand, is it?

Ultimately, play-calling is a tricky thing. If the coach gets it right, he’s a genius; if he gets it wrong in a key spot, he may lose his job.

Choosing whether to run or pass is a big part of the play-caller’s responsibilities. In addition to playing to the team’s strengths and the defense’s weaknesses, it’s critical for a team to avoid becoming too predictable.

In today’s NFL, running to set up the pass has gone largely out the window. Analytics have shown that it’s both an untrue principle and disadvantageous in the long run for most teams. Still, if the defense knows you’re going to pass, it takes away some of the edge.

This is the cat-and-mouse game that goes on every play, every series, every game. Sometimes, coaches will stick to certain tendencies for an entire game so as to break out the ace up their sleeve in a critical moment.

The 2021 iteration of Jets football was often ugly and at times unwatchable. Play-calling was far from the only reason that this was the case, but it certainly played a role.

Breaking down the Jets’ play selection from last season may give us some clues towards how the team can improve on offense in 2022.

First-half play selection

Any Jets play-calling breakdown from 2021 must acknowledge that the Jets trailed most of the time, often by multiple scores. Obviously, that is going to limit the playbook options.

Still, a breakdown of the team’s first-half tendencies provides some clues, since teams usually stick to their game plan in the first half.

Run-heavy on second down

A noticeable trend is that the Jets tended to run the ball more than they passed it on second down and short-to-medium yardage, at least in the first half of games.

2nd down, <= 3 yards to go: 16 run, 10 pass

2nd down, 4-6 yards to go: 26 run, 16 pass

This is the kind of play-calling designed to get the play to third down, the sort of conservative play selection that drives fans crazy.

The goal on second-and-short, specifically, should not just be to get the first down. It’s an opportunity to push the ball downfield since the worst that will happen is that an incomplete pass will set up third-and-short.

Obviously, there are times when the team needs to get or keep a drive going or the quarterback sees something in the defense that calls for a run. Additionally, the Jets were more successful in running the ball than passing the ball in 2021.

Despite that, this play-calling trend may explain why the Jets struggled so much in the first half: their play-calling was quite conservative.

Third down

On third down in the first half, Zach Wilson threw short of the sticks 29 times, which represents 39% of his passing attempts in those situations. Even though he was relying on his receivers to make a play, that’s still a high rate.

Indeed, of those 29 short-of-sticks throws, the Jets converted for a first down only nine times, which is 31% of the time.

Conversely, when Wilson threw past the sticks, he converted 20 of 46 third-down attempts, which is 43% of the time.

Obviously, that is not entirely a function of play-calling. The quarterback’s read on the play, which receivers were open, and the pass protection on the play will all play a role. But some of it, at least, has to do with receivers running routes short of the sticks. That’s another area that is apt to drive fans crazy.

Goal-to-go situations

In goal-to-go situations during the first half, the Jets called 25 rushes and 12 passes. While that may be somewhat typical of NFL teams, the breakdown of when they chose which play is somewhat troubling.

In 13 out of 14 first-and-goal situations, the Jets ran the ball. Of those 14 situations, four were with three yards or fewer to gain, five were between four and six yards out, and five were seven or more yards away from the end zone. The only situation in which they chose to pass on first down was one situation in which they were between 4-6 yards from the goal line.

That’s some putrid, predictable play-calling. Yes, the Jets offensive line was far superior in run-blocking vs. pass-blocking. Many of the team’s top passing weapons missed significant playing time. They played with backup quarterbacks for several games, and their overall QB play was shaky.

Even so, when the other team knows what you’re going to do, it’s difficult to succeed in doing it.

Indeed, the Jets scored just one touchdown out of those 14 first-and-goal attempts (which was on a running play).

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Play sequencing

In this case, let’s focus on play sequencing when the Jets were in the lead, tied, or trailing by one score or less. We’re also going to filter out the last five minutes of the game. In any of these situations, the play-calling will be narrowed down somewhat at the end of the game.

First down running

In these situations, the Jets ran on first down 57% of the time. This indicates that despite the team’s seeming pass-heavy bent, the Jets clearly wanted to run the ball. Opponents knew that, too.

In today’s NFL, running that much on first down is not going to cut it unless you’re the Derrick Henry-led Titans or the Jonathan Taylor-toting Colts.

The team’s Success Rate when running on first down in these situations was 50%, which is an average consistency rate for those situations. Still, that means that when they ran the ball on first down, the Jets set themselves up with a second down and more than six yards to go 50% of the time. The passing game is expected to yield far better results than that, on average.

In 2022, the Jets plan to be a run-heavy team, but having such a split on first down will make the play-calling predictable.

First and second down run sequencing

When the Jets ran the ball on first down, they ran the ball again on second down 31% of the time.

That includes 32% of the time that the first down run had been classified as a failure, i.e., the first down run gained fewer than 40% of the needed yards (usually fewer than four out of the necessary 10).

While a team does not want to abandon the run, running the ball on first and second down nearly one-third of the time, and sticking with that percentage even if the first down play was a “failure,” is straddling the line between sticking to the gameplan and downright obstinance.

Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich showed a tendency towards obstinance over the course of the season on the defensive side of the ball. Though Mike LaFleur adjusted better to his personnel deficiencies, he remained somewhat stubborn in running the ball when the game was close.


Getting back to Pete Carroll and the play call that ruined his hopes for a dynasty.

The part that no one remembers or acknowledges is that Bill Belichick baited Carroll into that play call. It was the greatest coach of all time outmaneuvering his counterpart, as he has done countless times.

What we do know is that the information taken into consideration showed there was a viable passing opportunity. A lot of people have logically arrived at that conclusion—including Belichick, who acknowledged after the game that if he had three downs and a timeout, he might have thrown in that situation, too.

— Pat Kirwan, former NFL scout, ‘Take Your Eye off the Ball 2.0’

The conventional wisdom and popular opinion may not have been entirely accurate in that situation.

But when the other team knows what you’re going to do, half the battle is lost.

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1 year ago

Rivka, excellent article. I want the facts! I want the stats! I love these statistical breakdowns. I also love the Pat Kirwan quote. I listen to him on Sirius. Its so nice to have a Jets exec give the inside scoop. Nobody knows the NFL and can describe it in an entertaining way better than Pat. I not only love watching the games, but I love the business side of football. I love the contract negotiations, the salary cap, the draft and everything outside the lines. This is the best Jets site ever.

1 year ago

Very good article and insight.
The thing that stuck out to me about last season’s playcalling was the limited amount of misdirection, waggle-type plays. I’ve always thought of the West Coast as a system that runs the spread style rush to set up the misdirection the other way. It also gets your QB out on the edge (moving), which is what Zach excels at. I believe that Lafleur was learning just as the kids were. I also think the deficiencies in the TE game were a reason that the WC couldn’t be run to its full extent.
This year should be head and shoulders better…..should be

1 year ago

Definitely good stuff pointing out some of the Jets tendency to run so much in early downs and gola line situations. This really limited the offense and made it tougher than needed to be successful. Hopefully we find ways to be more creative this season and break some of these habits.