Anyone who follows football and can fog a mirror knows that winning the turnover battle is important. Games often hinge on a team getting an extra possession, and when analysts have tried to quantify the edge, they’ve found that it’s large: Teams win around 78 percent of the games in which they have a positive turnover differential.
What’s less well-known is the size of the edge that play-action and pre-snap motion provides. It turns out it’s also considerable: Since 2017, if all you know after a game ends is each team’s share of offensive plays that featured play-action and the share of plays that had some form of pre-snap motion, you can correctly guess the winner around 65 percent of the time. This is fairly impressive, since neither metric directly measures the volume of yards gained or points scored. Instead, these are play design choices made before the ball is snapped and the play’s outcome is determined. And, unlike turnovers, both pre-snap motion and play-action rate are completely under a coach’s control.
While the league has been slow to aggressively exploit these edges, it’s clear they aren’t unknown to San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan’s offenses have featured large helpings of pre-snap motion and play-action fakes each year of his tenure with the Niners. Since taking over in 2017, Shanahan’s teams have led the league every year in pre-snap motion rate — a rate that’s grown each season he’s been in San Francisco. During that same span, the 49ers have hovered around 10th in play-action percentage, peaking at second in fake handoffs in 2019, the season they lost to Kansas City in the Super Bowl.