Should the Jaguars Pass Less in the Red Zone in 2016?
free agency

A sentiment I’ve seen several times this offseason, in various forms, is that the Jaguars will or should pass less and run more in the red zone in 2016. I’m not sure they should.

Let’s start with what happened on plays where the Jaguars passed in the red zone in 2016:1

Screen shot 2016-04-25 at 6.20.39 PM

Overall, the results are very positive. Sure, they had five turnovers and six sacks, but they also scored a touchdown on more than a quarter of their plays. They only averaged 3.10 yards per play, but they were also only 7.04 yards from the end zone on average.

Let’s see what happened on plays where they rushed the ball in the red zone:

Screen shot 2016-04-25 at 6.19.43 PM

There’s not really a meaningful difference in the yardage numbers given the average distances to go. And they turned over the ball less, with only a single fumble, as is to be expected. But they got a first down (including TDs) only about half as often. They also only scored a TD on 7.5 percent of their rushes. Overall, they were clearly more efficient when passing rather than rushing.

Let’s narrow it down a bit and just look at plays within five yards of the end zone. Here are the pass plays:

Screen shot 2016-04-25 at 6.20.50 PM

They were actually even more efficient passing within the five, throwing a TD on a full half of their pass plays and only throwing a single interception. For context, the rest of the NFL threw for a TD on 43 percent of these plays.

Here are the rushing plays:

Screen shot 2016-04-25 at 6.21.07 PM

While these numbers look better than the rushing numbers above, if only because all of their TDs came within five yards on a smaller number of plays, the difference between the passing plays is still stark. Rushing plays resulted in a TD or first down half as often despite having a shorter average distance to go. For context, the rest of the NFL scored a TD on 39 percent of these plays despite having 2.22 yards to go on average. The Jags were miserable running near the goal line.

I should probably also mention that of their four rushing TDs, two came from Blake Bortles. One of those was definitely a designed running play, but I am not sure about the other. So it’s possible that these rushing stats are actually inflated.

Here are some broad takeaways for 2016: They really weren’t that unbalanced in terms of play volume within the five yard line, passing almost as frequently as they ran. So I’m not sure I would expect a huge change there, and if anything they should probably pass more. They were unbalanced in the red zone in general, but so was their efficiency. Will they be more balanced in 2016? Maybe, just because of regression to the mean or a conscious effort to be more balanced. Should they be? I’m not sure that they should be given their 2016 results. It doesn’t seem clear or obvious that being unbalanced hurt their bottom line when passing.

Some more specific takeaways: I wouldn’t target TJ Yeldon in the hopes of benefitting from positive TD regression. I agree with Shawn Siegele that Chris Ivory is actually the back to target in Jacksonville. In fact, Ivory’s probably the best argument for the Jaguars being more balanced in the red zone. Here’s what he has done within the five yard line in his career:

Screen shot 2016-04-25 at 7.22.05 PM

He has scored a TD on a full third of his rushes, which isn’t quite as good as the 2015 Jags were when they were passing, but it’s helluva lot better than they did rushing. Though once you expand it to the full red zone things start to get a little more grim again:

Screen shot 2016-04-25 at 7.26.32 PM

I’m not overly concerned about Allen Robinson even if they do pass less in the red zone because he’s not likely to live up to his draft price regardless. That shouldn’t be considered a knock against him- I don’t expect most highly drafted players to live up to their draft price. I would still rather have Robinson than the WRs being drafted behind him.

If they are more balanced in the red zone, I suspect Allen Hurns would suffer more. I like Hurns in general, but six of his 2015 TDs came in the red zone. For context, only 22 players had six or more red zone receiving TDs last season. Hurns was only one of four of those players who didn’t lead their team in the stat.

Julius Thomas might be a player with a lot of TD potential. He scored TDs on half of his red zone targets while in Denver. He only had three red zone TDs on 10 targets last season, while only playing in 12 games. If he can play 16 games and increase his TD conversion rate, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he had eight or more TDs if the Jaguars repeat their 2015 red zone play balance.

As for Blake Bortles, I think whether or not you should target him in 2016 really comes down to your QB philosophy. Bortles is currently being drafted as the QB8 in redraft and the QB6 in dynasty. If I’m drafting a QB that early in either format, it’s because I think they have a lot of upside. As Bortles’ QB3 2015 finish demonstrated, he certainly has that. And I think looking at his red zone efficiency, it’s certainly possible that the Jags continue to pass as much or even more in the red zone than they did in 2015. It would make the most sense assuming their running game hasn’t dramatically improved. But for these same reasons, Bortles may be particularly sensitive to a loss of red zone passing volume, so if you’re looking for a safe pick he’s probably not it.

My final thought is that this is by no means meant to be an exhaustive look or definitive take on the situation. This is looking backwards at a small sample. My main point would be that while regressing to be more balanced is certainly possible, it may not be in the team’s best interest, and as such we probably shouldn’t just assume it will happen.

  1. Stats come from the Pro Football Reference Game Play Finder.  (back)
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