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05 Nov 2003

Maroon Zone vs. Scarlet Zone

by Aaron Schatz

Back in the final Tuesday Morning Quarterback column on ESPN.com, Gregg Easterbrook introduced a concept he called Maroon Zone.  Thanks to Tien Mao, we have an archive of the column, but I'll copy TMQ's own explanation of the Maroon Zone here:

Football purists obsess over the red zone, but what about the Maroon Zone? Often it is where the manly men are separated from the individuals who merely have XY chromosome pairs.

The Maroon Zone is the area from the opponent's 40-yard line to 30-yard line -- where logic usually dictates going on fourth down, since it's too far for an easy field goal, but too close to punt. Once in the Maroon Zone, make a first down and you've converted a mere possession into a scoring opportunity; fail to get the first and it's either an embarrassing turnover on downs, a long-shot figgie try that gives the opponent great field position if it fails or, worst, launching a ridiculous, mincing fraidy-cat punt. In the Maroon Zone, the team that wants to win simply must get a first down.

In Sunday action, Denver had three Maroon Zone possessions, from the Pittsburgh 30, 34 and 38. Result? Two scoring drives, one for a touchdown and one for the winning field goal as time expired. Winning Maroon Zone performance!

Kansas City had three Maroon Zone possessions, from the Green Bay 31, 32 and 38. Result? Two scoring drives, one for a touchdown and one for the tying field goal at the end of regulation. Winning Maroon Zone performance!

In the same game, Green Bay seemed Maroon Zone invincible -- its four touchdowns followed Maroon Zone possessions at the Kansas City 31-, 35-, 40- and 40-yard lines. Then in the middle of the fourth quarter the Packers entered the Maroon Zone for the fifth time, ball spotted on the Chiefs' 36. An interception returned for a Kansas City touchdown made it Packers 31, Chiefs 28 and this (plus Mars and Uranus being unusually close to Earth) spelled eventual home-team defeat.

Well, once again we have another idea to test with our "incredibly scientifically advanced database of every conceivable stat from every NFL game," as TMQ put it himself (don't let it fall into the wrong hands!).  So I took the VOA data through Week 9 of the 2003 NFL season and broke it down by zone of the field to see how performance in various zones correlates with wins and points.

First things first, the explanation.  For those new to Football Outsiders, VOA takes every single play during the season and compares the result to the league average, normalizing for a number of variables including down, distance, location on field, and so on.  I'm using this rather than simply yards or first downs, because VOA rewards progress towards both.  VOA is further explained here.  Remember that since VOA represents efficiency at scoring points, defensive VOA is better when it is negative.

Note that I'm using VOA, and not the adjusted-for-opponent DVOA, because if we're going to compare performance to actual wins and points, we need to use actual performance.  Pittsburgh's been crushed by a hard schedule and points and wins reflect that, so we can't compare them to a number that has been adjusted to lessen the impact of that schedule.

OK, first things first.  To show that VOA works to demonstrate the quality of teams, here are the correlation coefficients between overall VOA and points and wins -- actually points per game and winning percentage.  For those who missed Statistics 101 (or, at Brown, Econometrics 162), the correlation gets closer to 1.0 if the two numbers are more closely connected and closer to 0.0 if the numbers have nothing to do with each other.  A negative correlation means the numbers are closely connected, but opposite -- one goes up as the other goes down.

Wins Points
Total VOA .77 .93 .78 -.74
VOA without special teams .73 .90 .76 -.73
Offense VOA .59 .72 .80 -.37
Defense VOA -.57 -.72 -.40 .79

Well, I'm proud of this.  VOA correlates very closely with points, and fairly closely with wins.  The correlation gets even closer when we include special teams VOA.  The fact that the connection between total VOA and point differential is more strong than the connection between either offensive or defensive VOA and points scored/allowed demonstrates what I was saying a few weeks ago about field position being fluid, and points depending more on the total package of offense, defense, and special teams and less on just offense (for points scored) or defense (for points allowed).

Because of this fact, I'm going to mostly look here not at how teams do not on offense or defense but rather both combined, comparing Total VOA (offense minus defense, no special teams since we're breaking down by areas on field) with points differential (how many more points a team scores than it allows per game).  Let's start with looking at the five zones I use to break down my statistics.  Here they are, with correlation coefficients for wins and points.  Note, this is not points scored from this zone, this is total points scored all over the field, and the zone represents what point in the field the offense is on.  In other words, a team's VOA performance in the red zone is the offense's performance at the opponent's 1-20 and the defense's performance at their own 1-20.

Zone Description Wins Points
Red offense on opponent 1-20 .53 .51
Front offense on opponent 21-39 .40 .57
Mid Between the 40s .32 .41
Back offense on own 21-39 .52 .67
Deep offense on own 1-20 .08 .06

Well, that's interesting.  How many of you expected that a team's performance at its own end of the field would have a closer connection to points scored and allowed than a team's performance closer to the end zone?  Notice that a team's success at the two ends of the field means more wins than points.  And that how a team does when backed up into its own end -- or when it has another team backed up into its own end -- is pretty meaningless to winning football games.  Bummer for the Cowboys, who are far and away the best team in the "Deep" Zone.

Alright, so how about that Maroon Zone?

Zone Description Wins Points
Maroon offense on opponent's 30-40 .11 .33

Hmmm, says Gregg Easterbrook reading this article, that's not how it was supposed to turn out.  Well, TMQ mostly wrote about offense, so what happens if we break this down into Maroon Zone offense and defense?  Remember defense is supposed to be negatively correlated here because better defense is more negative.

Zone Description Wins Points
Maroon offense offense on opponent's 30-40 .05 .25 .19 -.23
Maroon defense offense on opponent's 30-40 -.11 -.25 -.11 .30

Ye gods.  That's not good at all.  Even stranger, notice how a better Maroon Zone offense seems to do more to prevent the other team from scoring than it does to get your team points.  That's the "field position is fluid" argument again.

Alright, so if the Maroon Zone is less correlated to winning and scoring than the entire area of 21-40 yards, how about the other half of what I call the "Front" Zone?  For good measure, let's look at the areas from 1-10 and 11-20 yards as well.

Zone Description Wins Points
Front part II offense on opponent's 21-30 .36 .45
Red part I offense on opponent's 11-20 .55 .53
Red part II offense on opponent's 1-10 .26 .27

The idea that the area from 30 to 40 yards should be mean more to winning football games -- since success is the difference between a long field goal try and a new first down that means an easier field goal or more shots at the touchdown -- makes a ton of sense.  Based on 2003 data so far, it just doesn't seem to bear out.  Instead, it is the area between the 11-yard line and the 20-yard line, the back half of the Red Zone, that seems to be the most important ten yards on the field.  One possible explanation is that there is a much larger difference in how good and bad teams do at the beginning of the Red Zone than there is once they get into a goal to go situation.  And, wouldn't you know it, there is.  This tables shows the variance of VOA in each zone, with a higher number representing a larger difference between good and bad teams.

Zone Description Variance
Maroon offense on opponent's 30-40 23%
Front part II offense on opponent's 21-30 57%
Red part I offense on opponent's 11-20 58%
Red part II offense on opponent's 1-10 37%
Front total offense on opponent's 21-40 21%
Red total offense on opponent's 1-20 30%

So, is the zone between the opponent's 21 and 30-yard lines the most important zone on the field?  Actually, no.  I've found a zone that, for 2003 at least, seems to be an even better indicator of team wins and points than that 10-yard chunk, or the Red Zone, or the Front Zone, or the Maroon Zone.  Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the Scarlet Zone

Zone Description Wins Points
Scarlet offense offense on opponent's 11-30 .41 .50 .53 -.29
Scarlet defense offense on opponent's 11-30 -.48 -.52 -.25 .62
Scarlet total offense on opponent's 11-30 .56 .63 .48 -.56

The Scarlet Zone doesn't correlate with points as well as the Back Zone, strangely enough, but it does have a higher correlation with wins than any other 20-yard chunk of the field.  Based on 2003 data so far, it looks like football analysts should concentrate on the area between the 30-yard line and goal-to-go rather than the area between the 20-yard line and goal.

One more thing.  When we broke down the field by ten yard chunks, for the most part we didn't separate offense and defense.  Well, I'm about to show something that frankly blew my mind.

Zone Description Wins Points
Red Zone part II offense offense on opponent's 1-10 .02 .09
Red Zone part II defense offense on opponent's 1-10 -.39 -.31
Red Zone part II total offense on opponent's 1-10 .26 .25

ARE YOU KIDDING ME???  That .02 means basically no correlation whatsoever.  Could it really be that the quality of a team's offense in a goal-to-go situation has virtually no impact on whether that team wins the game, or even scores more points?  Could quality defense be that much more important than quality offense in these situations?  I don't know if this is small sample size based on having only eight (in the case of four teams, nine) games to study, or if this is a definite fact about the NFL.  More study will illuminate, once we have two or three years of data to put together.

But, for now, we can go with the data we have on 2003 so far.  The Maroon Zone isn't as important as you might think, and neither is the Red Zone.  Instead, the area to watch is the Scarlet Zone, from the 11-yard line to the 30-yard line.

Finally, I present to you here the leaders in both Maroon Zone and Scarlet Zone VOA performance over the first nine weeks of the season.  Once again, I remind you that these numbers are not adjusted for opponent quality.

Total VOA Rank Offense Defense
CIN 85.7% 1 19.8% -65.9%
IND 80.2% 2 70.0% -10.2%
STL 62.5% 3 21.8% -40.7%
BAL 56.6% 4 6.1% -50.5%
SFO 50.7% 5 39.4% -11.2%
NOR 49.3% 6 27.1% -22.2%
DEN 42.2% 7 29.7% -12.5%
PIT 39.5% 8 -25.3% -64.8%
NWE 34.2% 9 -10.9% -45.1%
BUF 33.7% 10 15.1% -18.6%
NYJ 30.3% 11 51.5% 21.1%
OAK 20.1% 12 0.3% -19.8%
TAM 19.5% 13 -15.0% -34.5%
CHI 18.1% 14 4.7% -13.5%
MIN 17.4% 15 54.8% 37.4%
WAS 12.4% 16 -21.6% -34.0%
Total VOA Rank Offense Defense
MIA 2.9% 17 4.5% 1.7%
NYG -2.6% 18 19.2% 21.8%
DAL -12.4% 19 -23.2% -10.8%
PHI -21.9% 20 2.2% 24.1%
ARI -24.1% 21 21.7% 45.7%
TEN -24.9% 22 -29.5% -4.6%
JAC -25.4% 23 -25.1% 0.3%
SDG -28.3% 24 -34.6% -6.3%
DET -32.3% 25 -12.0% 20.3%
CLE -34.2% 26 -33.6% 0.6%
CAR -34.3% 27 -31.3% 3.0%
KAN -39.9% 28 -51.7% -11.7%
GNB -48.4% 29 -13.3% 35.1%
ATL -63.6% 30 -13.7% 49.9%
SEA -67.3% 31 -60.9% 6.4%
HOU -141.1% 32 -81.6% 59.6%
Total VOA Rank Offense Defense
SEA 103.7% 1 67.2% -36.4%
TAM 101.1% 2 -8.2% -109.3%
MIN 100.2% 3 50.9% -49.3%
KAN 91.9% 4 59.6% -32.3%
MIA 77.6% 5 41.6% -36.0%
NWE 54.1% 6 9.9% -44.2%
PIT 53.0% 7 59.6% 6.6%
CLE 36.0% 8 9.4% -26.6%
GNB 33.9% 9 64.7% 30.8%
PHI 31.4% 10 -25.3% -56.6%
IND 22.4% 11 9.9% -12.5%
OAK 14.8% 12 -9.5% -24.3%
TEN 9.5% 13 7.8% -1.7%
DAL 8.8% 14 -4.3% -13.1%
SFO 8.7% 15 -0.1% -8.8%
NYG 5.4% 16 -23.4% -28.8%
Total VOA Rank Offense Defense
STL 4.1% 17 3.3% -0.8%
BAL -2.9% 18 -26.6% -23.7%
WAS -3.2% 19 12.9% 16.1%
JAC -14.1% 20 -9.1% 5.0%
CAR -29.5% 21 -26.6% 3.0%
SDG -32.9% 22 16.9% 49.8%
HOU -37.2% 23 -11.2% 26.0%
CIN -41.3% 24 -7.6% 33.7%
BUF -44.1% 25 -12.7% 31.3%
ARI -52.8% 26 -28.8% 24.0%
NOR -53.6% 27 -12.8% 40.8%
NYJ -54.4% 28 -23.5% 30.9%
CHI -77.4% 29 -15.9% 61.5%
DEN -82.6% 30 -26.5% 56.2%
ATL -104.8% 31 -81.2% 23.7%
DET -135.2% 32 -88.6% 46.6%

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 05 Nov 2003