For decades, the draw play has been one of the NFL’s most reliable tricks to fool overeager defensive lineman. The play mimics a pass — in the action of both the quarterback and the offensive line — until the last second, when the ball is handed off to the running back. When it works, the runner can often slice through holes untouched because defenders are busy trying to evade offensive linemen for a sack of the quarterback.
The play may seem like the perfect countermeasure to keep a defense honest in the modern NFL. Yet for some reason, the draw play has been all but erased from teams’ playbooks.
As the story goes, the draw play was invented in the middle of a game to slow unblockable pass rushers. It quickly became a staple of the modern offense by the sport’s “master innovator” Paul Brown, after a desperate hand-off on a busted passing play ended up working. “You fool one guy with a trap block,” Brown said. “You fool a whole pass rush with a draw play.”
Offenses today are more pass-happy than ever before. And defenses have had to respond with more aggressive stunts and blitzes by rushers quicker and more desperate to pressure passers. So what better way to cross them up than by using a draw play? But during the 2018 season, teams ran the play just a little more than once every two games, down from well over two per game just 10 years ago.
This is despite the success rate of the play used on first or second down being better than that of all rushes by running backs on those downs.1 According to the ESPN Stats & Information Group, the success rate2 on first- and second-down draws this year is 41.8 percent, compared with 38 percent on all RB runs on those downs. And draws on any down result in longer gains on average (5.29 yards per attempt) than other running back runs (4.35).
The Los Angeles Rams called only one draw play all season. (It didn’t work.) The New Orleans Saints waited all the way until Week 10 to run their first draw play of the season — a successful one. That two of the league’s most innovative offensive coaches — Sean McVay and Sean Payton — basically ignore the play seems like a bad harbinger for its survival. But the maestro of the NFL’s best offense, Kansas City’s Andy Reid, is one of the league’s greatest proponents of the play. That makes perfect sense: He’s essentially a Brown disciple, given that his West Coast offense was originally conceived by Bill Walsh when Walsh coached on Brown’s staff with the Bengals.
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The Chiefs, who will play Indianapolis in the divisional round this weekend, have run a draw 16 times this year and have had success 10 times. That success rate of 62.5 is by far the best of the 10 teams that have run more than 10 draw plays. The Chargers also have used the draw well, generating 64 rushing yards in 10 attempts, six of which graded as successful.
The draw is often thought of as a play of last resort: When teams are faced with virtually hopeless distance to convert a third down, they can use the draw to stop the bleeding before punting. But only 37 third-down draws this past season were in situations when the offense needed at least 7 yards to convert. The vast majority were used on first and second down (256 out of 307 draw plays) and out of the shotgun (253 total draw plays). Of course, the latter makes sense given that the main purpose of the play is to mimic a pass.
Reid primarily uses the draw when teams have virtually no defenders dedicated to the run, meaning no more than six defenders “in the box” at or near the line of scrimmage. That was the defense deployed 13 of the 16 times Reid called a draw this season, and the call was successful eight of those times. If defenses continue with this look, a draw could be the perfect call.
With the Chiefs offense setting records and NFL coaches looking at it for design and play-calling inspiration, there’s a good chance that teams will soon discover that one of the oldest forms of NFL deception may have even more relevance in the modern game.
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