After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
15 Jan 2014
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Mike: One thing that has really stuck out at me this year, for no particular reason, has been the commentators' insistence that teams must be adept at turning drives into touchdowns rather than field goals to be successful. Granted, I believe every team would rather have seven points than three (we can ask the AT&T kindergarten panel for confirmation of that one), but this seems to be downplaying the positive value of scoring some non-zero number of points on a drive. While drives are a scarce commodity, it does seem that there are a number of non-awful teams this year –- the Ravens spring to mind -– that at first blush seem to have relied an inordinate amount on their kicker to score. While the Ravens backed out of the playoffs in rather spectacular fashion, they were a contender, and they were a contender largely on the strength of All-Pro kicker Justin Tucker.
This set me to wondering; are there any legitimately good teams that relied on field goals more heavily than other, more conventionally good offenses? What do those teams look like? How do we measure this? My first thought was a sort of tally for the kicker's share of a team's non-try points. This would give us a reasonable estimate of the kicker's value to the offense to start with, and whittle away from there.
Tom: (FG points)/(Team Points - XP). Ravens 38.8 percent, Jets 37.6 percent. Broncos 14.1 percent, Bengals 14.3 percent. Those are the extremes at both ends.
Mike: Unsurprisingly, the Broncos and the Bengals are in the top three red-zone offenses this year. Baltimore, however, merely has the 28th-ranked red zone offense, and the Jets have a nearly league-average red zone offense.
Tom: After looking over the data, this calculation is basically touchdowns divided by field goals, which is on our drive stats page. We also have points per red-zone trip on the drive stats page.
Mike: It is quite close to TD/FG, although that measure does not include safeties. In that sense, we are presented with an incomplete picture of the team's total points, and therefore the kicker's share of those points. In a much more pragmatic sense, safeties are pretty rare and over the season are basically noise, and we already have TD/FG on a table on our site. So TD/FG wins. Now that we have a measure of a team's reliance on their kicker, the sensible thing to do is see how this measure matches up with offense efficiency. In other words, our old friend offensive DVOA.
Mike: The relationship between high TD/FG ratios and offensive success seem to be real but overstated.
Mike: In retrospect, this table is somewhat more boring than I had hoped.
Tom: Aren't they all? I think there are real, actual skills related to good red zone performance, but some good red zone teams are not actually good offenses.
Mike: New England has an offensive DVOA of 16.4%, fourth-best in the league, but scores a mere 1.16 touchdowns per field goal, 26th in the league. Conversely, Detroit is fantastic at scoring touchdowns instead of field goals, at a rate of 2.32 TD/FG. The Lions are, however, a below-average offense at -1.9% DVOA, 19th in the league.
Tom: Interesting. The Patriots aren't stalling out on the edge of the red zone, because they're eighth in front zone (21-40) DVOA. Instead, over the course of the season, they've struggled to run the ball inside the 20, coming out 19th in red-zone rushing DVOA.
Mike: Looking at our other odd duck, the Lions stall in the mid (22nd) and front (25th) zones, but are excellent everywhere else.
Tom: The weird thing is, the Lions aren't the opposite of the Patriots here. The Patriots aren't good running in the red zone, the Lions are really bad at it. They're 29th, -20.3% in red-zone rushing DVOA.
Mike: Quite bad, although they are quite good (40.7% DVOA, third) at red-zone passing. So they simply have an unbalanced attack, one that seems to result in many touchdowns regardless.
Tom: Well, the other thing was that they liked to fumble at the goal line. That will kill their DVOA and not affect their TD/FG ratio.
Mike: I had a brief theory that teams with low TD/FG ratios, like the Patriots and Chargers, had offensive success because their offenses were consistent and consistently had drives that at least reached the 40. San Diego fits this theory with, 3.8% offensive variance. New England ... not so much. 8.8% variance, 24th.
Tom: The tempting explanation is turnovers, but the Patriots were not a high-turnover team. The better explanation is probably the boring one, that their variance was a function of them turning over much of their receiving corps from last season. And the effect of that meant they stumbled around on offense the first six weeks of the year before figuring out what works. For this little project, the effect of that far outweighs red zone performance, important though that is.
Mike: It does seem that my pet theory is valid, however; field goals appear to be undervalued, at least by the commentariat.
Tom: It's weird, because obviously red-zone performance is incredibly important for an offense in terms of winning games. Part of what we think about a good offense is that they're able to turn possessions into more points. Yet, as I noted earlier, there are some offenses that are much better in the red zone than they are overall, and vice versa. Some bad offenses struggle in the red zone and some good offenses are good in the red zone.
Going back to Baltimore, Justin Tucker is one of the big reasons the Ravens drew such a high percentage of their points from field goals. He was 16-of-18 from 40 yards and beyond. We shouldn't think less of the Ravens because he's so good. The Jets finished fourth in FG/XP value, so it's not a big surprise they're 31st in TD/FG, especially given the overall caliber of their offensive talent.
This is also of course more evidence of how great the Broncos were this year. The Bengals were below-average in terms of FG/XP value. The Lions were well below average.
Mike: Yes, it's one thing to say your kicking game consistently contributes points, but your offense consistently contributing touchdowns is even better.
Tom: The Broncos ranked third in FG/XP value. Their kicking game struggles did not artificially inflate their TD/FG ratio the way it did for the Lions. All Hail Peyton the Magnificent.
Mike: That might be the origin of this distaste for the kicking game, actually. We are obsessed with teams like this year's Broncos and the 2010 Patriots' ability to move up and down the field and into the end zone seemingly at will, so anything less is considered a steep disappointment, even if it does add significant value to the team.
Tom: Well, this is the postseason. As I like to harp on, you generally need to be able to play at a high level on both sides of the ball to win a couple games in a row against good teams. An offense that can turn possessions into points is part of that, and especially important in short games (in terms of number of possessions) like both 49ers-Panthers and Broncos-Chargers this past weekend.
Mike: I'm not sure San Diego-Denver is really a poster child for playing at a high level on both sides of the ball. But your point is taken.
Tom: Denver scored 24 offensive points in eight possessions, with a tipped ball interception, a fumble, a missed field goal, and a drive that ended the game. San Diego never once stopped them out of scoring position in a conventional way. Yes, Chargers defense, granted, and you got my point.
Mike: Yeah, that is also kind of my point. In any case, the question was whether settling for field goals made an offense bad. I think the answer is that, while generally it's not a good idea, if you have a ponderous, ball control offense like New England, San Diego or San Francisco, kicking a lot of field goals is A-OK.
Tom: The other point is that kicking field goals is okay if you're still scoring points. Even kicking an above-average number of field goals, the Chargers finished second in points per drive, the Patriots sixth, and the 49ers twelfth. In the immortal words of Chip Kelly, "!#$!ing score points."
Rivers still holds the lead, but with only 30 points in Week 2 and just a kicker and defense remaining, his lead seems unlikely to last. The new favorite is Aaron thanks in part to 40 points from LeGarrette Blount. He is the only staffer with two running backs remaining. He is one of two staffers with two wide receivers remaining. And he still has his quarterback. Sean and Mike Kurtz are rooting for points in the AFC Championship Game so their quarterbacks can power them into contention.
|FO Playoff Fantasy Update|
|Pos.||Sean||Mike R.||Mike K.||Rivers||Tom||Aaron|
|QB||Peyton Manning||Aaron Rodgers||Tom Brady||Nick Foles||Drew Brees||Russell Wilson|
|RB||Stevan Ridley||Jamaal Charles||Marshawn Lynch||LeSean McCoy||Frank Gore||Knowshon Moreno|
|RB||Donald Brown||Danny Woodhead||Eddie Lacy||Gio Bernard||DeAngelo Williams||LeGarrette Blount|
|WR||Eric Decker||Wes Welker||Demaryius Thomas||DeSean Jackson||Julian Edelman||Anquan Boldin|
|WR||A.J. Green||Marvin Jones||Randall Cobb||Jordy Nelson||Steve Smith||Golden Tate|
|WR||Riley Cooper||James Jones||Doug Baldwin||T.Y. Hilton||Michael Crabtree||Keenan Allen|
|TE||Vernon Davis||Jimmy Graham||Brent Celek||Coby Fleener||Julius Thomas||Gregg Olsen|
|K||Alex Henery||Phil Dawson||Stephen Gostkowski||Steven Hauschka||Graham Gano||Matt Prater|
After two weeks, bledderag is in the lead with 117 points. Only six points behind him is BlueStarDude, who is probably the favorite thanks to having all of bledderag's remaining players, plus Shane Vereen and Patriots defense. Full Best of the Rest results can be viewed here.
KEEP CHOPPING WOOD: Even if the lateral was planned and he should not just have stepped out of bounds as the common sense of most viewers seemed to recommend, Marques Colston had sufficient time to set his feet and ensure that he did not throw the ball forward, ending his team's last chance at advancing in the playoffs. Colston receives bonus points for not only committing a bone-headed penalty, but doing so in a situation that included a runoff. Not only did he completely misapprehend the situation, misthrow the ball, and demonstrate a slavish devotion to the instructions of his coach at the expense of common sense, his penalty cost his team even a last-ditch attempt at victory by ending the game on a penalty runoff!
MIKE MARTZ AWARD: The Panthers did well on offense in the first half of Sunday's game ... except when they got close to the goal line. Then, they struggled. They were stuffed in short yardage. Outside of a long sneak, they failed to use seemingly their most dangerous runner, Cam Newton. Why, Mike Shula, why? At least Ron Rivera was smart once, going for it on fourth-and-goal from the one. That aforementioned sneak failed, but the Panthers converted the ensuing short field after a defensive stop into a score. Naturally, Riverboat Ron could not stand this prosperity and kicked on fourth-and-goal the next time around.
16 comments, Last at 16 Jan 2014, 9:28pm by Mike Kurtz