Friday, January 7, 2011

Weird stats

I was checking out smart football, and I enjoyed Chris' recent article on underdog strategy (great stuff).

However, Mr. Brown ends his article with some troubling findings, courtesy of the gentlemen over at Advance NFL Stats.

Given the choice between kicking or receiving, conventional wisdom is to always take the ball. The only time you consider kicking is when you defer your decision to the second half, as a strategic tactic. If you use that strategy, then you always elect to receive after halftime.

This is not ground breaking to anyone……you want the ball, unless you can get it later.

What Advance NFL Stats discovered, however, is the team that receives to open a half will actually LOSE a majority of those respective halves.

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, even challenging that long held, irrefutable tenant of successful football: maintaining possession.

I have only one plausible justification, albeit an anecdotal explanation (and I am wide open to other thoughts).

I'll take the word of this man:

You may recognize this gentlemen (Elmer Layden, Notre Dame Head Coach 34'-41') from a more famous picture from his playing days:

I remember reading "It Was A Different Game: The Elmer Layden Story" when I was in high school (I highly recommend it both for history of the game, and insight into Coach Rockne), and in the chapter where the late coach was espousing his football strategy, he mentioned he often considered a quick kick on 1st down when backed up against his own end zone.

Being 18 and knowing it all, I immediately wrote this off as archaic football strategy from the days of no facemasks and 7-3 thrillers.

Maybe, without the use of the internet and fancy algorithms, Coach Layden knew something we lost………that field position, not possession of the football, is the prime asset.


The average NFL kickoff return nets 22 yards.

If the defense forces a punt inside their opponent's 40, and given an average net punting yardage of 40 yards, then the starting field position for the team who kicked off can be expected anywhere from their own 30 to mid-field, segments of the gridiron where the odds of a drive ending in a touchdown increase substantially.

In short, it is (or may be) better to kick-off and then receive a punt, because of the relative real estate you are afforded in those respective situations.

This also serves to underline the important role garnering explosives plays in stemming the field position tide. If one can complete a 20 yard pass during the drive, and subsequently can punt from their opponent's 40, then they have relieved their burden and placed it on the other team.

Finally, in another fine article from Advance NFL Stats, this dynamic serves to highlight the importance of a player like this.

I don't think it is enough to make me not want the football, although I have some serious rationalizing to do to overcome the weight of these findings.

If anyone has any other ideas, feel free to share.


Tyler said...

To me the decision rests on the relative strength of the kicking off team's defense versus the returning team's offense, meaning, "Can we get a 3 and out/force a punt inside the 35?" If the probability is high enough, you elect to defer your choice to the second half. If the probability is low, choose the ball.

Dubber said...


I agree. The probability changes based on your opponent.

In those "even money" games, which in the NFL is practically every week, this becomes more important.

Obviously, there were games this season our high school team could score even if we started our drive on the baseball diamond.

Versus opponents with closer talent levels, however, field position became oh-so more vital.

What is wild is this article suggests that it is advantageous to kick off BOTH halves, because the odds are the team that kicks off will win the half.

Why that is, I don't know, but this post explains my theory.

I also think back to Red Grange, the galloping ghost. In a game versus Michigan (the game that made him famous), he returned the opening kickoff 95 yards.

Per the strategy at the time, Michigan choose to kick off AGAIN!

That was how important field position was/is......

Now, it backfired on the Wolverines, as Red Grange scored on a 67 yard run that series (he went on to score 4 TD's in the first quarter, and was involved in 6 for the game), but that example serves to highlight what we are talking about here.

Will said...

Could it be not field position (or field position alone) but the number of possessions per half? Is the kicking team more likely to score last in the half without leaving time for the receiving team to score again? An extra possession in each half is nothing to sneeze at in a close game.

Jon said...

Bob stoops took the wind both haves in one OU game in the early 2000's. OU lost that game.

I also think quick kicking on 3rd down and long is a great strategy. I think giving up one down for a 50+ yard net punt versus a 30 yard net is a good idea. (depending on your offenses ability to pick up 15 yards on 3rd down)