Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

03 Jan 2008

ESPN Numbers Crunching: Wild Card Weekend

Here is this week's stat notebook for ESPN.com, with notes about all four games. This notebook has some interesting stuff about the shotgun formation as well as the asterisk next to Tennessee's "59th in the DVOA era" defense.

This is going to be a weird year for writing previews: I'm doing these stat-only things for ESPN, and then very short previews for the New York Sun, and then somehow I need to extend the writing from the Sun, add some of the stats from ESPN plus some stuff that I had to cut from ESPN for space, and have it read well for Football Outsiders. If it seems a little disjointed, well, now you know why in advance.

One thing that got cut from ESPN but doesn't really fit into the flow of a preview: You may remember that the 2006 Jaguars set a record with the slowest situation-neutral pace since our pace stats begin in 1998. This year, Pittsburgh broke the record. They also broke the record held by the 1998 Falcons for the slowest total pace, seconds used per play no matter the score or time remaining. The Jaguars, on the other hand, had an average offensive pace this year.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 03 Jan 2008

26 comments, Last at 04 Jan 2008, 6:06pm by Jim G


by pawnking (not verified) :: Thu, 01/03/2008 - 7:42pm

"This year, Pittsburgh broke the record. They also broke the record held by the 1998 Falcons for the slowest total pace, seconds used per play no matter the score or time remaining."

Now, the real challenge is figuring out how to work this into the conversation during the game, without appearing as if you're just showing off. Any suggestions?

by Brian (not verified) :: Thu, 01/03/2008 - 8:05pm

So does pace correlate with anything meaningful? I'm sure they don't score as frequently, but do slow teams win more or lose more?

Or is it just trivia?

by Scott C. (not verified) :: Thu, 01/03/2008 - 8:25pm

However, the San Diego defense is heavily weighted towards stopping the pass. For the season, it ranks second against the pass and 19th against the run. That could be an issue since the Titans offense is built around the ground game. The Titans were one of three teams to run on more than half of all plays (the others were Minnesota and Pittsburgh).

Another possible asterisk stat (much like the Titan's D with/without Haynsworth).

The chargers had some significant health issues on the D-Line this year. Jamal Williams was partially injured for about 10 games, and sat out a few others. Luis Castillo was out for several games as well. Both of these guys are excellent against the run.

Castillo just returned, and is nearly 100% but will still rest in several situations. His lateral mobility isn't quite 100% yet.
Jamal Williams has rested two weeks and the San Diego Union Tribune says:
Jamal Williams practiced after sitting out the last two games and Turner said the nose tackle looked “quick” and “fast” in drills. “I feel refreshed,” Williams said. “It was a smart thing to do.”
He will likely continue to rest on many passing downs. If he really is "refreshed" look out, he'll be taking double teams all day.

With the SD D-line refreshed, linebackers healty, and the Titan's O-line banged up -- I expect the Charger's run defense to do just fine. The games with those guys in versus those without have extremely different results in the opponent's ability to run against the Chargers.

This is going to be a very defensive oriented game.

by turbohappy (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 12:20am

Re: 2

As I understand it, a slow pace makes it more likely that the lesser team wins since relatively rare plays (a turnover, return for touchdown, etc.) are more likely to decide the outcome.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 1:53am

#2 and #4 And like Princeton playing Georgetown in hoops (that's how old I am--the NCAA tourney game I am thinking of has to be over 20 years ago), if you can gobble up time on both sides of the ball you take away opportunities for a fast-break team.

The average number of possessions per game is about 12. Indy had 8 in a few games last year--think about having 2/3rds of the chances a typical team has. I am frustrated just writing this. So a fumble or INT has a greater impact on their scoring chances (you forego 1/8 instead of 1/12). Unless that team is extremely efficient, they are in trouble.

It is also frustrating for less disciplined/experienced teams, meaning that a young hotshot QB might force a pass or two... leading to another INT, more frustration, etc. Or a young WR might over-extend with the ball to get extra yardage and lose it on the way down. There goes another 1/8 of their chances.

by Brian (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 1:55am

4-Very good point. That's how I've always thought if it intuitively. I guess I was hoping for some hard numbers that might show something interesting.

But that makes me wonder why an apparently good team like PIT would intentionally play at slow pace. Maybe it's unintentional. And maybe it's why they had a couple of blown games this year against weak teams--ARI and NYJ.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 2:10am

Wow, so according to this, what HAD seemed like a pretty good Pitt/Jax game will end up being a Jax blowout? Pitt has porous pass pro to begin with, and now are down 2 OTs. Missing their #1 RB, and their D is no longer dominant. uh-oh. I was hoping for a more competitive game.

If Tampa attempts even one pass they're nuts. Perhaps I exaggerate. Perhaps not.

And although the Titans really don't seem to belong here, especially with SD apparently peaking, they still have a solid run game and a QB on whom there is little useful game film. But no healthy receivers. 07 Rivers looks a little like 06 Grossman to me. Phat Albert vs LdT might decide it. I hope there are no simmering brawls left over from last game.

And in my hometown, just based on the SoS issues, the Skins look stronger to me. Qwest is a noisy heck-hole to play in, and both D's look like they'll run the show. Until the Skins fold in the 2nd half, according to DVOA.

by Scott (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 4:05am

Re: Pace

I "get" the argument about turnovers being more significant and possessions being more valuable, but what difference does it make if we assume they turn the ball over at the same rate with 8 possessions a game versus 12 or 14? Or am I wrong in assuming that the rate of turnovers would stay the same?

by Tom (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 6:32am

Imagine if the rate of turnovers is 1 in 10 possessions.

by socctty (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 9:54am

9 - Yea, so over a season, you have less turnovers and limit your opponent's ability to score, but you also present yourself with less opportunities to score. So an average team goes 8-8 and wins and loses games with scores like 14-10 instead of going 8-8 with scores like 28-20. Same result, right? What am I overlooking?

by B (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 11:10am

10: In the 14-10 game, you might get a Int return for a touchdown to make the game 17-14. In the 28-20 game, also getting an Int for a TD means you lose 28-27.

by AndyE (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 11:20am

#5 Bobman - interesting - most of NE's games were 8-10 possessions this year. Here's my thought:

From a weaker team's perspective, reducing the number of possessions favors you, because of the random chance. Imagine that you and I are rolling dice competitively, and I have a d6 and you have a d4. You want to minimize the number of times we roll dice, so that luck plays a bigger factor.

From a much stronger team's perspective, reducing the number of possessions favors you once your ahead, because it minimizes the effect of freakish luck. If I rack up 4 die rolls over you in the above scenario, I can guarantee a victory if I can stall and ensure that we don't roll the dice more than 3 more times.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 11:52am

Re: 10

A good team is able to compensate for their mistakes. So if the number of possession is limited, the better the chances are that an inferior team will win.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 11:54am

Very nice metaphor AndyE. I rewrote my previous post 3 or 4 times trying to articulate that exact point.

by MattB (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 12:23pm

While slowing down the pace of each play decreases the number of possessions each team has during a game, long sustained drives also reduce the number of possessions each team has. I don't have any numbers on this, but that would seem to me why Indy last year and the Patriots this year had many games with only 8-10 possessions.

As you could imagine, regardless of the pace of each individual play, if teams are frequently going 3 and out each team will have quite a few possessions during the game.

Furthermore, there is a difference between when slowing the pace would be beneficial and when it wouldn't be . If a good team is up by 2 scores in the 3rd or 4th quarter, they will frequently try to slow the pace intentionally by taking maximum time off the clock before running a play and by running the ball to grind out first downs. This is a smart move as it limits the number of possessions the other team will have to try and stage a comeback.

I haven't watched many Steelers game this year, but it would be interesting to note if the pace of their plays changed significantly when they were ahead later in the game vs. when they were behind or tied in the game.

by B (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 1:27pm

15: That's what situation neutral pace accounts for. The steelers have been running their offense at a slow pace regardless of the score or time remaining.

by Costa (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 1:36pm

A slower would certainly be a factor in how many possessions per game a team has, but it is very small in comparison to the much bigger factor of drive success rate that MattB mentions in comment 15, as evidenced by the fact that the teams with the fewest drives in the past two seasons are the Colts in '06 and the Pats in '07. The Colts no-huddle offense in particular works at an extremely fast pace, often snapping the ball with more than 15 seconds on the clock. Thus, the effect of pace on the number of possessions per game is effectively negligible in the face of drive success.

Which brings us back to the bigger question asked in comment #2 by Brian... "Does pace matter, and if so, why?"

The answer is yes, it does matter. This aspect is very well explored and documented by advanced stat fans of basketball, and it can be used as a good illustration. The layman fan will often use a team's average points scored and allowed totals per game to make a judgment on the quality of that team's offensive and defensive play. This works reasonably well often, but it does not take into account the team's pace. If a team constantly uses up the full 24 seconds on the shot clock, while another team races up the court on every possession and shoots while there's still 14 seconds to go on the shot clock, over time, regardless of the quality of their play, the first team will score and allow far fewer points then the second. The San Antonio Spurs play a very slow paced game. This artificially makes their offense look less effective than it actually is when you look at the amount of points they score on a per game basis. On the other side of the spectrum, the Denver Nuggets play an extremely fast paced game, with a very high amount of possessions in a given game. This has created the illusion in today's NBA that the Nuggets are a bad defensive team that still wins due to a potent offense. Advanced stat-inclined basketball observers however don't look at the number of points-per-game though, they look at points-per-100-possessions (100 possessions serving both as a reasonably close approximation of a normal pace and a convenient round number). This shows that the Nuggets actually have been a very very good defensive team this year and only an average offensive team. You can click my name for an article that describes this surprising fact in more detail if you are at all interested.

Anyway, enough basketball talk. All that huge amount of text to say is that pace, while perhaps less important in football as opposed to basketball, is an important factor in telling whether Team A that averages 350 yards and 22 points of offense or defense per game is a better team than Team B that also averages 350 and 22. =)

by AndyE (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 1:37pm

Not to turn this into a Pats thread, but you can use pace to affect the game in other fashions. Against blitz-happy teams, the Pats have often been getting to the LoS with a decent amount of time, but then holding the snap until 0-1 seconds are left, and using the time to force blitzers to declare themselves, or for Times Square defenses to reveal their patterns. It's worked very nicely from what I can tell on TV.

by socctty (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 2:23pm

Just to clarify, how are we defining pace? Is pacing the average amount of time between offensive snaps (constantly letting the play clock get under 5 seconds)? Is it the average amount of offensive snaps per drive? Is it average amount of possessions per game?

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 2:35pm

Re: 19

I don't know for sure, but I would assume (depending on how much is parsed from the pbp) it's either time of possession divided by number of offensive plays or the average time between the start of one play and the start of the next play.

by socctty (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 2:38pm

18 - I've always wondered about waiting until the last second to snap the ball, however. Doesn't that make it easier for defensive players to time the snap, thus getting a good break towards the quarterback? It must demand a lot more of your linemen and backfield, and maybe even exceptionally crisp route-running as well.

I only got into FO after buying PFP2007 - are there FO articles specifically on pacing? I find this pretty interesting.

by nat (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 3:43pm

re: pace

The Steelers took the most time per play this year. The Patriots led the league in time per drive (3:18), edging out the Jaguars (3:14), the Steelers (3:07), and the Colts (3:01) as teams averaging more than 3 minutes a drive.

I'm using TOP from the NFL, plus drives from FO drive stats.

There is more than one way to control the clock: The Steelers and Jaguars use a slow pace. The Colts and Patriots use sustained drives, but have a pace that is closer to the league average. (The Colts are a bit faster than average; the Patriots, a bit slower)

The Patriots' league-leading success in burning clock is largely due to their sustained drives. I wonder how much of that is due to their willingness to throw the ball and/or go for it on fourth down when ahead?

by socctty (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 4:57pm

Articles on pacing and it's effect on winning:

- http://www.footballoutsiders.com/ramblings.php?p=1867&cat=11
- http://www.footballoutsiders.com/2004/10/17/ramblings/stat-analysis/1880...

Both are pretty good articles. It seems as if there isn't a clear link between fast and slow paces and winning, nor is there between the propensity for each of those options to turn the ball over (fast and slow paced teams turn it over at virtually the same rate).

Rather, the research suggests that teams fare best when they are consistent with how they pace themselves.

by socctty (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 4:59pm
by Herm? (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 5:40pm

If you look the improvement of pacing or TOP between last year's Colts and previous years, you'll see why they won a Superbowl.
Take last year's AFC Championship game. Keep the other team's defense on the field. You can't win if you can't breathe.

by Jim G (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 6:06pm

Re 4& 5.

"...a slow pace makes it more likely that the lesser team wins since relatively rare plays (a turnover, return for touchdown, etc.) are more likely to decide the outcome..."

True arithmetically, and in dice and board games, but far too simplistic for complex sports played by people.

E.g., people get tired, and defenders who must cover the entire field every play are more prone to this than O-players. Also, any D can be exposed if the O probes it sufficiently to figure out what it is doing,. So many good D-oriented teams and coaches play "slow" O to keep their D-players fresh and reduce the other team's chance to probe and expose them.

Also, tactically, a generally slow moving O may opportunistically shock an opponent by suddenly moving fast, but no generally fast moving O will shock an opponent by suddenly moving slowly.

Even arithmetically, reducing possessions *won't* help an underdog pull an upset if to do so it plays so conservatively as to reduce its own points *per* possession, PPP, which is the real key "possession" stat to winning. (See Herm Edwards, wherever he's been.)

After last year's Super Bowl Dungy said the Colts had intentionally weakened their run D to strengthen their pass D. Then he laughed at the teams that went run heavy to keep his O off the field and reduce possessions. "We average 8 yards a play passing, they average 4 yards running, who's going to win? They just run the clock out on themselves".

Teams should play the tempo that maximizes their net PPP using the players they have. That tempo varies with the kind of players and their depth.

"like Princeton playing Georgetown in hoops (that’s how old I am–the NCAA tourney game I am thinking of has to be over 20 years ago), if you can gobble up time on both sides of the ball you take away opportunities for a fast-break team. The average number of possessions per game is about 12. Indy had 8 in a few games last year–think about having 2/3rds of the chances a typical team has..."

But the other team has only 2/3rd the chances to score too, so if they reduce their own PPP by shifting conservative, they cut their own throat. Dungy's point.

BTW, I'm that old too and Princeton's teams back then didn't pull upsets because the "Princeton Offense", which is also played in the NBA, was so slow, but because it was very efficient, very high PPP. The introduction of the college shot clock had no effect on it.

The really slow basketball offense back then that reduced the game to a few plays was the Four Corners, the masters of which were North Carolina, where there never was a lack of scholarship talent.