Here at Pro Football Weekly, we like to introduce our readers to new statistics and analytics. Last week, we discussed how success rate is a much better way to judge a rushing game than yards per carry. Essentially, yards per carry can be a “noisy” stat, as it doesn’t offer a ton of context into a running back’s performance in helping his team win. Success rate gives us a better clue as to which rushing attacks are actually useful.
This week, I want to introduce a new metric to our readers: Explosive plays. Now, tracking and charting explosive plays isn’t a new concept by any means. Several smart people in the football community have been using this measurement for years. However, it’s still not a commonly used stat among fans and analysts, but it should be, as it directly correlates to winning. We will get to that in a moment.
Let’s start out by defining an explosive play, which is any rush of 10 or more yards or a completion gaining 20 or more yards. Some teams and coaches define it differently, but usually, this is the standard definition. You’ll often hear these type of plays called by various names, such as “splash plays” or “big plays”. They all essentially mean the same thing.
But why are explosive plays important? What value do they actually bring to an offense? The best explanation I’ve seen comes from SportingCharts. Here is their full description:
“Measuring how many big plays a team is able to complete is important because it is directly representative of a team's ability to score. A team unable to move the ball in large chunks every once in a while will have a difficult time winning games. This is because most teams can move the ball in large chunks, and some can do it way more often than others. A team capable of many big plays in a game usually has many athletic, top-tier athletes on the team. When measured after the completion of a season, the relationship between big plays and winning percentage usually shows that teams with lots of big-play potential make it deep into the playoffs.”
Basically, explosive plays tend to produce points directly or drives that end in points. Teams that have a lot of these types of plays typically score a lot of points. Teams that score a lot of points typically win a lot of games, or so I’ve been told. The same thing is true for defenses. Teams that don’t allow explosive plays usually don’t give up a ton of points.
With that being said, let’s take a look at the team leaders in explosive plays per game and see if we can make some conclusions. But before we begin, it is important to remember this is a relatively small sample size — a handful of teams have only played four games. Without further ado, let’s dive into the number of explosive plays per game through Week 5:
To no one’s surprise, the Los Angeles Rams lead the league in explosive plays per game. Through five weeks, they are averaging nearly 35 points per game and have a record of 5-0. In their past 10 games in which the starters have played, the Rams have scored at least 26 points.
They are creating explosive gains through the air (28 plays) and on the ground (20 plays). Todd Gurley is obviously a big reason why their offense is so successful, but the addition of Brandin Cooks has given the Rams a boost in explosive plays in the passing game. With their ability to consistently rip big gains in both the passing and running game, they’ve become nearly an unstoppable offense.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Arizona Cardinals are dead last in terms of explosive plays. They’ve created just 18 explosive plays (12 passes, 6 runs) in five games. Not surprisingly, the Cardinals have just one win this season. They are transitioning a new quarterback, so a lack of big plays is expected. However, David Johnson’s ineffectiveness as a runner has also held back this offense a bit. As Josh Rosen gains experience, expect this number to rise along with the competitiveness of the team.
One of the surprises here is that Denver has 46 explosive plays — the second-most in the league. However, the Broncos’ record is just 2-3. Their issues on offense have been turnovers, but Denver is probably an underrated team through five weeks.
If you are wondering which players in the league have created the most explosive plays this season, we’ve got you covered. Again, I want to stress that this is a small sample size and not every team has played the same number of games. But here is the list:
As you can see, most of the top players on this list are running backs. That’s not surprising because they touch the ball more often than receivers. They get more opportunities to generate explosive plays and can do so in both the run and passing game. But players such as DeAndre Hopkins and Tyreek Hill — who each have already created double-digit explosive plays — are some of the most valuable players in the league.
The NFL isn’t that hard to understand. Create explosive plays and win in the red zone. It doesn’t really matter how you accomplish those goals. But if you can accomplish these two things, you are likely to be a productive offense. And as you can see from our first chart, generally the teams that create the most explosive plays are usually the teams with the most wins. It’s too hard to consistently put together 10-plus play drives to score points. In today’s NFL, explosive plays are king.