There is No Red Zone: The NFL's Scoring Myth

This article at Grantland is interesting, obvious, and obnoxious all at the same time. The basic idea of the article is that nothing magically changes when you cross the 20. Points don't suddenly become much easier to score, teams don't dramatically change how well they play, and the red zone is a totally arbitrary measurement. In reality, once you pass midfield, every single yard you get closer to a score is more important than the yard before.

And yet... Football people have developed terms like "red zone," and as analysts, it makes it easy to use those terms as a nice shorthand for a more general and vague concepts. Maybe there are old coaches out there who think something magical happens when you cross the 20. But FO writers and probably most coaches know that there is only a small difference between the 19 and the 21. Everyone reading this probably knows this. Most of the people who will see this article on Grantland probably understand this too.

However, we do need a shorthand way to talk about whether certain teams are better or worse than average when they get to the point where the field is condensed. (For example, Baltimore's passing game really struggles down there because you can't throw a deep bomb when there isn't very much field left.) If we want to talk about this in a way that allows us to explain the results to 99 percent of the reading public, we need to pick a well-known yard line as the "starting point" for this zone. And so, we go with the red zone as it is generally understood, starting at the 20. The same goes for pretty much anyone else writing about football.

So yes, there is no red zone. But really, there is a red zone. It just happens to be a general concept rather than a tangible, physical area that exists only between the 20-yard line and the end zone. You can't ask coaches and writers to explain this nuance with a whole paragraph every time they want to talk about teams getting close to a score. Sometimes, it's just easier to have a two-word phrase. Anybody who has a real problem with this -- and I'm not sure the writers of this piece even fall in that category -- is just being pedantic, and holding sportswriting to an absurd standard of strict intellectual rigor.

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42 comments, Last at 23 Jan 2013, 1:48pm

#1 by Chappy (not verified) // Jan 18, 2013 - 4:35pm

Well put. I thought the same thing about the article. The other thing I found annoying is that the red zone actually does line up where you might want to put it in terms of points expectation. Right around the twenty, points expectation moves to above 3 points. I realize it is a bit arbitrary, but in addition to being a condensed field, this is the area where there is a general expectation for more than a field goal. Again, I realize that there are plenty of touchdowns scored from beyond the twenty, but I'm guessing the probability of a touchdown is much higher there.

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#32 by JonFrum // Jan 19, 2013 - 7:15pm

"I'm guessing the probability of a touchdown is much higher there."

I'm guessing it's not. I'm guessing that the probability of a touchdown is much higher at the five yard line than the 20, but not much higher at the 20 than the 25. The 'expectation' for more than a field goal is more a hope. Just because you feel like you're close and it would be great if you scored, that doesn't make the probability of it happening jump. The increase in probability in incremental.

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#2 by chitown_jim (not verified) // Jan 18, 2013 - 4:44pm

Anyone who has played Madden knows it's actually easier to score from outside the so called red zone most of the time because it's easier to complete a farther pass and dodge a defender (or just completely beat them) and get into the end zone versus being much closer. The field becomes amazingly short and the defense is at an advantage when trying to pass the ball (generally) because they have a whole lot less field to cover. No stats to back this up but my general observation.

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#8 by Dan Slotman // Jan 18, 2013 - 5:31pm

So you are saying that every time you get to the 20 in Madden, you take a bunch of delay of game penalties to make it easier to score? I think this says more about Madden than football.

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#13 by Theo // Jan 18, 2013 - 7:36pm

It's about 40 yards actually. I don't take a delay of game, but from the 40 I know I can't bomb it deep anymore.
If I want to set records, I score quicker and easier from the 50 than from the 20. All one needs is protection and a speed advantage. It's easier to score a 60 yard bomb than 2 30 yard passes in madden. Or 3 20 yarders.

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#28 by Mountain Time … // Jan 19, 2013 - 3:06pm

Oh, you DON'T take penalties to push yourself back out to the 40 or 50 every time? Not even SOME of the time? I wonder why that might be? Maybe because NONE OF WHAT YOU SAID IS TRUE! Sounds to me like you're just complaining about your own shortcomings in the short range passing game.

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#29 by Mountain Time … // Jan 19, 2013 - 3:53pm

I never felt the 20 was all that important in Madden, the "red zone" is more like the 10-15. That's where on defense I'll only call cover-2 out of a 3-4 set. Rush three and drop eight into coverage. Good luck finding a hole in that zone!

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#39 by Dean // Jan 22, 2013 - 4:06pm

I'd say that's more evidence that video games aren't reality than anything else. Perhaps you should spend more time with the REAL game and less time with the synthetic derivative?

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#3 by MJK // Jan 18, 2013 - 4:52pm

People in general have a hard time thinking in stochastic terms. Everyone wants the world to be nice and deterministic, when really it isn't.

There is no red zone in the sense that there is a magical change that happens when you cross the 20. (Just like a RB's legs don't fall off when he rushes for his 370th carry). There is a general increase in the probability of certain things happening as you move closer and closer to the goal line. But that's nebulous. So people try to draw a bright line.

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#4 by dryheat // Jan 18, 2013 - 5:12pm

According to a Parcells interview I saw a number of years ago, "Red Zone" was originally a defensive coaching concept -- red as in a Stop sign. Somewhere along the line it became a point of reference for offensive efficiency.

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#5 by corrections (not verified) // Jan 18, 2013 - 5:14pm

The arbitrariness complaint is rather hilarious to me as is the analogy to the strike zone (something totally different from the red zone). First, the strike zone isn't really arbitrary in the sense that it is based on a reasonable swing plane on a persons body. But second to the extent its arbitrary it's arbitrary for the same reason most sports rules are arbitrary. That you can only pass behind the line of scrimmage is arbitrary. That in basketball you must dribble to advance the ball yourself is arbitrary. Arbitrariness is a feature not a bug in many rules.

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#7 by RickD // Jan 18, 2013 - 5:29pm

I think you're a bit loose with your usage of "arbitrary" there. The dribbling rule is central to the game of basketball.

I would disagree completely with your last sentence.

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#12 by corrections (not verified) // Jan 18, 2013 - 7:28pm

The author of the piece seems to be using it in the meaning "having only relative application or relevance; not absolute. Given that context I think what I said makes sense. All games are the channeling of physical activity through (mostly) arbitrary rules. 3 strikes and 4 balls for example is arbitrary. Yes its central to the game of baseball just as dribbling is central to the game of basketball. That doesn't make it any less arbitrary.

As for feature and not bug I'm not talking the application of rules (where arbitrariness is terrible) but the design of rules themselves.

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#18 by LionInAZ // Jan 18, 2013 - 9:36pm

Game rules are not arbitrary in the same sense as the 'red zone' concept. The former are absolute limits on what is allowed on plays. The latter is simply a demarcation to assist in the post facto analysis of game outcomes, and as such is not necessary to actually play the game.

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#6 by Rikki (not verified) // Jan 18, 2013 - 5:17pm

I love this!

If football analysis was taught in school, everyone would be coming across many teachers who a) insist that the red zone is "real" or b) make you sit in the corner when you mention it.

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#9 by Bab (not verified) // Jan 18, 2013 - 6:05pm

We could call the remaining 80 yards on the field the 'periwinkle zone' and it would also be arbitrary.

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#14 by Theo // Jan 18, 2013 - 7:38pm

I don't know who or what periwinkle is, but I do know it's the "let's-talk-about-the-history-of-the-nickel-corner zone".

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#19 by LionInAZ // Jan 18, 2013 - 9:41pm

We already have the 'maroon zone' where it's too long for a FG and too short for a punt -- i.e., the zone where you should go for it on 4th every time. Outside of that should probably be labeled the 'yellow zone'.

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#11 by Aloysius Mephi… // Jan 18, 2013 - 7:14pm

I don't share the writer's belief that 'red zone' refers to likelihood of scoring - or at least I think that that's fan-speak, not coach-speak. My understanding is coaches call it the 'red zone' because it's harder for offenses to advance the ball due to the defense having a smaller field to defend (red meaning 'stop', as opposed to 'warning'). When I read the headline I assumed the writer would marshal some kind of evidence that it's not much harder to advance the ball inside the 20, but he doesn't even acknowledge what I consider to be the primary meaning of 'red zone'.

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#15 by Bab (not verified) // Jan 18, 2013 - 8:24pm

I generally agree with you. When the defense has less space to cover, they can play tighter more easily. It is harder for the offense to find space. That's why you put in TEs and power forward WRs to play the vertical edges in passing.

The origin of the red zone, though? It's probably a psychological method. Despite whatever statistics exist for scoring opportunity in the red zone, defense thinks "danger" because the offense is close to scoring.

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#17 by Dr. Mooch // Jan 18, 2013 - 9:08pm

If the "red zone" did indeed refer to the risk that an offense will score, then the 20 yard line almost seems annoyingly arbitrary. Maybe you could pick a better hard line through analysis. If scoring chances don't change linearly down the length of the field, maybe there's an inflection point in a graph that would be a good line to use.

The expected points maps are a little hard to interpret. They don't mean all that much to most people's conception of the red zone. Most people would expect that something like a red zone relates to the rate of change of expected points with field position, and that's not well represented on those maps. On the other hand, the maps do show, for instance that the 20 yard line is precisely the point where you get 4 expected points on 1st and 10. The spot on the field where your expected points is more than a FG isn't a bad concept for a red zone, right? (Then maybe we should use around the 33 yard line where EP gets to 3.1.)

If the red zone concept is indeed a defensive idea than it's hardly arbitrary, although maybe the 20 still isn't the most appropriate. At that point you'd expect it to refer, for instance, to defensive landmarks. What's the basic depth for a safety? A basic depth to which underneath zones will be able to stretch?

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#20 by Bab (not verified) // Jan 18, 2013 - 10:12pm

The interesting thing you point out, but don't quite get at, is the red zone as a *defensive concept* is not arbitrary. It's actually quite important, in that respect.

The problem with that, though, is an offense could be on their own 20, with 2:00 left to go in the game, down by 2 or what have you. In that case, the offense is technically in the "red zone" on their own 20. So if we define the red zone by a sense of urgency the defense feels, than the definition becomes far less stable.

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#21 by Tom Gower // Jan 19, 2013 - 12:50am

You know what else is arbitrary? Coaches dividing the season into four-game quarters. I think some Bears fans wanted Lovie Smith fired just for how often he talked about those quarters.

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#22 by Bright Blue Shorts // Jan 19, 2013 - 2:49am

Bill Walsh said it many years ago and it's written in at least one book ...

"In Scoring Territory
I have seen many teams march the ball beautifully, but right around the 15-yard line, they are already warming up their placekicker, because right at that point defenses change, the field they can operate in changes, and suddenly their basic offense goes all to pieces.

My contention is that if we are on their 25, we're going for the end zone. Failing at that, we will kick a field goal. In an evenly matched game, I don't want to try to take the ball from their 25 to the goal line by trying to smash it through people, because three out of four times, you won't make it. Unless you are superior. Of course, if you are vastly superior it makes very little difference how you do it."

I'd say he was describing his red zone ... and it should be very clear that as you get closer to the goalline - there is less space for the defense to defend, and that must make it harder to some degree to score than when you're further away.

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#23 by Shylo // Jan 19, 2013 - 6:55am

The random reference to the Muta Scale makes this article awesome.

Also, I agree with the red zone makes it harder for the offense to gain yards and score due to the compressed space.

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#24 by batesbruce // Jan 19, 2013 - 12:29pm

Data please, data.

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#25 by zenbitz // Jan 19, 2013 - 12:39pm

I wonder what kind of game parameters you would need to make a "hockeystick" curve for the redzone? 10,000 yard field? 300 points for a TD and 3 for a field goal? Different amount of points for running vs. passing it in?

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#26 by Kurt (a differ… (not verified) // Jan 19, 2013 - 1:26pm

The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the red zone.

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#27 by JonFrum // Jan 19, 2013 - 2:12pm

Did I read the same article? It's certainly not what I expected for the defensive, stathead-on-stathead-crime comment from Aaron above. The concept of the red zone is discussed in the first two paragraphs, in order to introduce a graphical way of looking at offensive possessions.

The best, the use of the term red zone signals 'we got this far, and it would be really disappointing to not score a TD.' That's it. The truth is, you can score from anywhere on the field - there is no 'scoring zone.'

If you really think that 'red zone' has some other use, then tell my why it's not ten yards, or thirty. For any field position that's not pulled out of your ass, you'd need something better than 'kinda close.'

For instance (doing your work for you), the red (touchdown scoring) zone could be said to be inside the point at which a field goal is considered a high probability. One could say that the object of each possession is to get into at least field goal range, and having accomplished that, and having it to fall back on, the object is to score a touchdown.

So a more sensible (and necessarily arbitrary) definition of a red zone would be anything inside where you would kick a field goal on fourth down. And yes, that would have to be under normal conditions, not coming from behind late in a game, etc. It could be defined for each team, or for generic use it could be defined by a league average.

This definition, as opposed to the last 20 yards of the field, actually means something in the context of the game. It refers to how coaches actually make decisions. No coach ever changed expectation because his team got from the 21 to the 19 yard line, but they do change expectation when they have a field goal in their pocket.

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#31 by nat // Jan 19, 2013 - 5:50pm

The set of "first and ten from the opponent's twenty" plays must be weighted pretty heavily for good offenses playing against bad defenses. Each yard closer means (a) scoring is easier, and (b) we're using a more skewed sample.

Maybe the idea that red zone yards are more valuable is entirely wrong. Maybe it's just that good teams spend more time in the red zone than bad ones.

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#33 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jan 20, 2013 - 11:54pm

Perhaps, like many football terms, it's terminology that once served a direct purpose, and has since become a traditional reference.

There used to be a time the quarterback lined up 1/4th the depth of the deepest offensive man. Hitler was in office back then.

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#37 by Bobman // Jan 21, 2013 - 1:32pm

He probably ran the shotgun. His QB, Walther Mauser, had an arm they called Big Bertha. That is, of course, where blitz and bomb came from as football terms. Tried to draft Jessie Owens in 36 but Owens wisely held out for a better deal (I could go on there, but the humor gets decidedly darker and less universal).

I wonder if you are right about QB... what a funny origin for the name. And explains why Hitler did not call Mauser his pfennigbach.

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#34 by Anonymousest (not verified) // Jan 21, 2013 - 11:14am

The red zone as it stands has plenty of utility.

- Kicking - the edge of the range (38 yds) just before kickers' failure % drops substantially.
- Familiar landmark - both sides know how much distance they need to cover/protect.
- Important - as the on-field dynamic shifts in the red zone.

He doesn't propose a workable solution for the broadcasts to eliminate the red zone (though he does segue into his main point of EP). Noteworthy is that the EP hits 4 only once you are inside the 20 (red zone!) - did not see his possession change offset though.

Personally, my concern is mainly that the analysts understand #s such as W% or EP and tailor their comments to them. This would trickle to the fans. And give credit that most fans who watch football regularly have a good idea down over down of PE improvement/regression. The only difficult things are really when you hit tricky down/distance/situation/weather combinations.

For as many reasons as there are to include predictive stats in a broadcast, I feel there are plenty of reasons to exclude them from of the broadcast and land on that side.

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#36 by Bobman // Jan 21, 2013 - 1:27pm

A modest proposal inferred from the article, based on: "First-and-goal from your opponents’ 1? You’re happy.
Third-and-15 from your own 1? You’re fucked.:

Divide the field into three sections, The Happy Zone (have at it, Troy Aikman), The 98 yards of Regular Field (this one goes to Phil Simms because it's bland and meaningless) and the Fucked Zone (I'm thinking Gruden has this one all to himself). "Well, they're in the Fucked Zone, but let's see how The Seriff gets the Broncos out of it. From the Fucked Zone to the endzone, that's his specialty." Stunned silence from his booth partner.

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#38 by Pottsville Mar… // Jan 22, 2013 - 11:37am

I have two reactions:

1) It's obvious that scoring probability does increase continuously as the offense gets closer to the end zone, and nobody seriously thinks there's a bright line at the 20 where the game suddenly changes. That said, both offensive and defensive strategies do change somewhat near the end zone as a reaction to the changed dimensions of the field. So in this sense, the "red zone" is not meaningless - if you're going to simplify, you have to draw the line somewhere.

2) The red zone is still useful as an explanatory notion, even if it's not a predictive concept. If a team gains 350 yards but scores 28 points, success in the red zone would be one way to explain that. On the other hand, if a team gains 450 yards but scores 19 points, failure to capitalize on red zone opportunities would also be a valuable explanation. The fact that the stat might not be very predictive doesn't mean it's useless.

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#40 by Stats are for losers (not verified) // Jan 23, 2013 - 10:31am

tl;dr, but look at that graph!

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#41 by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) // Jan 23, 2013 - 10:54am

"This article at Grantland is interesting, obvious, and obnoxious all at the same time."

If that's not already Grantland's corporate mission statement, it should be.

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#42 by Ryan D. // Jan 23, 2013 - 1:48pm

I get the feeling that Bill Simmons would love it, Bill Barnwell would hate it, and Cousin Sal wouldn't give a shit about it either way. That makes it perfect, right?

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