About a week ago, Jason and Travis Kelce were discussing short-range play on their podcast, “New Heights.” Travis, a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, seemed to think a passing game was the way to go. “I’m running a type of deployment,” said the younger brother. Philadelphia Eagles center Jason was adamant that a quarterback was the ‘only correct answer’.
Why? Well, according to older brother Kelce, he has a 92% chance of winning that meter. Jason is shocked that more teams aren’t running this game in close range situations. It’s an idea I’ve had for some time. Why aren’t more teams playing this game? It works almost every time. Even when teams knew it was coming, like when Tom Brady constantly ran it in New England, it still worked. Think about this past weekend. How many QB sneaks can you think of off the top of your head?
Kenny Pickett’s first touchdown was a sneak QB, and wouldn’t you know it was on third and goal. The Pittsburgh Steelers needed that yard, and the game they went to was a QB sneak — and it worked, just like Jason Kelce said it would.
The Chiefs didn’t throw a traditional QB against the Bucs, but instead waved at their tight end, Gray Noah, through the tight wing formation, then moving it under center for a quick snap. You could attribute this one to more trickery than an actual QB sneak, but it worked. Gray entered the end zone at third base.
There were more who didn’t go for touchdowns, but most of them earned the yardage the teams employing them were looking for. Then you start looking at some goal line positions from last weekend. Even in a game where the Seahawks defense couldn’t stop anything, Seattle nearly held the Lions out of the end zone late in the first half. The Lions ran the ball twice and kicked an incomplete before finally pushing the ball with Jamaal Williams at fourth and on goal. It took Williams three tries to score that touchdown, and he finally did it with zeros on the clock late in the second quarter. It’s a bit too close in my opinion. Why not just let Goff wear it on the third try and get your sevens and never have to worry about the fourth try?
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Obviously, it’s not a guarantee that Goff would’ve gotten in, but the percentages don’t lie. If more teams ran QB sneaks in short-yardage situations, it would probably become less viable, but until teams start picking up on it, why not, right?
According to a 2015 report from Yale, between 1998 and 2015, QB sneaks were converted to fourth-and-1 82.8% of the time. For comparison, non-QB running plays had a 63.4% conversion rate and passing plays were converted at just a 62% success rate. That’s a huge difference, and the gap only widens when looking at advanced metrics. On fourth and second, QB sneaks were even more effective – an 89.7% success rate.
In terms of EPA per game type, QB sneaks on fourth and 1 gave teams an expected 1.61 points added to their drives. Non-QB running games earned an EPA of 0.83, while passing games fell to 0.84. Between 1998 and 2015, there was only one season (2002) where QB sneaks weren’t the most effective fourth-and-1 play. Passing plays had an EPA of just over 1.5 this season, while the Stealth QBs had a year down to around 1.4. This 2002 season can probably be considered an outlier. The passing games have only had one more season with an EPA above 1.2 in the fourth-and-1 situations.
Of course, quarterback injuries are the biggest concern and likely the reason more teams aren’t running QB sneaks in short-range situations. In the clip from the podcast, Travis Kelce even remembers when Patrick Mahomes dislocated his knee during a QB sneak in 2019. However, the same people concerned about injuries on stealth seem to feel great when the same quarterback rushes for six yards and gets blasted by a linebacker. Draws and QB scrambles are far more dangerous in terms of potential injuries (assuming the quarterback doesn’t slip), but these are held in high regard. Mahomes’ injury was terrible, but he only missed two games. Brady has performed QB sneaks numerous times throughout his career and has never suffered an injury from a single one. It’s hard to think of a time when a quarterback was injured on a stealthy QB outside of Mahomes.
Sure, the idea of being stacked by multiple players on both sides isn’t appealing, but it’s not as dangerous as it sounds. The real concern should be what happens at the bottom of those stacks – grabbing and tearing the ball up, trying to fool the referees into thinking there’s been a fumble. It’s a legitimate concern, but using a case as a benchmark for why stealth QBs should never be called is a disservice to the good he can do in those short-range situations.
Jason Kelce may be biased when he says “it’s blowing his mind” that more teams aren’t running QB sneaks. After all, offensive linemen love to run plays where they can simply push their opponents into oblivion. However, just because he has a bias doesn’t mean he’s wrong. He’s absolutely right, and maybe if more teams listened to him, we’d have more offense than ever before, instead of cowardly coaches kicking fourth-and-first from the 43-yard line of their opponent.