You're sitting down for a Sunday slate of NFL games. You crack open your light beer (because NFL Sunday commercials have brainwashed you into believing light beer is the only phylum of beer) and take a bite of partially stale potato chips and immediately regret your decision not to go to the grocery store since it's Sunday and, dammit, Sunday is your day. You turn on your quite large TV whose specs you recite to any first-time viewer and glorious football is engaged.
Now if I told you that NFL game you're watching would be a perfectly average NFL game, would you keep watching it? Do you even know what an average NFL game looks like?
Maybe we can't capture everything, but using Advanced NFL Stats' data (except when otherwise noted), allow me to take you on a tour of a perfectly average 2013 NFL game (all data is through Week 11, a total of 162 games). Please maintain an average level of excitement while reading.
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The game starts with the first of 10.5 kickoffs. My apologies in advance if you like returns, because 5.7 of those kickoffs will be touchbacks. Of the plays you will see this afternoon, there will be 80.5 passes and 53.1 runs, so I hope you enjoy passing. From those 80.5 passes, 5.4 will result in sacks, all of which will be immediately followed by a very large man dancing as if he were a much smaller man. The remaining 30.9 plays will be kickoffs, punts, field-goal attempts or kneel-downs.
There will be 133.6 "regular" plays (runs or passes). Just fewer than seven percent will be for 20 yards or more (about nine plays), meaning a vast majority of plays will be conveniently confined to the width of the play-by-play camera angle. Sixty-five percent -- or 87.9 plays -- of runs or passes will gain yards; 11.1 runs (21 percent) will be stuffed for no gain or a loss; 45.9 (57 percent) pass attempts will gain yards and 22.8 (a little more than 28 percent) will be for longer than 10 yards.
There will be a total of 24.7 possessions, or about 12 per team and 3.2 of them (13 percent) will end in turnovers. There will be 2.3 fumbles, but only 1.2 of those fumbles (50.7 percent) will be lost (because fumbles are recovered randomly, as these numbers demonstrate). Two interceptions will be thrown. There will be 3.1 passing touchdowns and 1.6 rushing touchdowns. You can expect a defensive touchdown every other game. There will be 10.3 punts -- 2.5 of them will be fair caught -- and of the 4.1 field-goal attempts, 3.6 (87 percent) will be made.
The game will be stopped. A lot. There will be 8.9 penalties and 1.6 reviews and about 55 percent will come from the replay booth. Of the reviews triggered by the replay booth, 58 percent will be upheld. Coach's challenges will be more successful, as just less than half will be upheld. These reviews will take a total of 3 minutes and 30 seconds, or 2:08 per review (this data comes from my own timing of 48 reviews this year).
The final score will be 29.0 to 17.8. Via Pro Football Reference's game length data, all this will take 3 hours, 10 minutes and 34 seconds, 100 percent of which you will never get back.
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OK, that was a lot of numbers. Obviously no game unfolds precisely that way. To demonstrate, despite the winning team's average score of 29 points, that is a pretty rare point total; according to Pro Football Reference, only 200 teams in NFL history (out of 14,775 games) have scored exactly 29 points in a game, whereas 28 points have been scored almost five times as often. So while this can't be taken too literally, there are some lessons to be learned:
The average football game is actually longer than the average baseball game. According to The Boston Globe, baseball games average 2 hours, 57 minutes and 33 seconds. This isn't to suggest baseball is inherently more exciting. But one of the contemporary knocks against baseball is its games take too long. It's curious that few complain about NFL game lengths, considering they take 13 minutes longer, more time than the 11 total minutes of actual game play during an NFL game. In other words, you could fit all the action of an average NFL game into the spare time after an average baseball game ends.
Big plays happen much less frequently than we might think. Let's say a "big play" is a turnover, sack, pass/run of 20 yards or more or a touchdown (sorry, but field goals -- with their 87 percent success rate -- are typically uneventful). Eliminating double-counting, there are 20.8 such plays per game. But we watch 143.4 other plays. Obviously some of those plays could be exciting as well (deep incomplete passes, a LeSean McCoy run with nine jukes that goes for two yards, etc.) but how many? Even when the game is actually being played, there's a lot of filler before you get to the meat.
I'm all for getting the calls right, but how many reviews are too many? Reviews take a while. There's no reason why it should take two minutes to watch a couple of replays. They're often a time-consuming process because the referee has to go to the coach and find out what he's challenging, then go to the booth, then walk to the field and announce his decision (which can take an insanely long time, like this 44-second explanation from Gene Steratore). Perhaps a clue as to why the NFL has little interest in making reviews more swiftly: About half the time (48 percent) networks use them to break for commercials. Reviews give networks more flexibility in terms of when to go to commercials, or catch up on their slots after (or during) a long drive.
The average NFL game isn't that close. The average point differential is 11.2 points, though the median offers a more competitive eight-point margin of victory. While eight points would still be one score, the fact that the average is 3.2 points higher than the median suggests that there are a fair number of blowouts. Almost half of all NFL games (48 percent) finish as two-score games (a nine-point differential or greater) and just about one out of every four games (24 percent) were three-score games (a 17-point differential or greater). There's a lot more to be said on this topic, but a quarter of all games being total blowouts doesn't seem like a selling point for a league so focused on parity.
By the numbers, there's a lot to suggest that the NFL's product isn't all that great. But the league has done a brilliant job of hiding its average and subpar games. TV contracts require networks to show the local team, implicitly guaranteeing a majority of viewers will care about a game regardless of whether it's a good one or not. Late afternoon and prime-time assignments are made to showcase the very best matchups of the week. The Redzone Channel(s) allow you to see only the most exciting moments. Paradoxically, it doesn't really matter what the average NFL game looks like, because so few people actually watch one. And that's probably a good thing.