Training camps are opening as I type this. The Giants, for example, practice for the first time on Tuesday. Tuesday!
Holy "early bird catches the worm," Tom Coughlin! Could you have waited until Thursday or Friday like a normal coach? My kids still have orthodontic appointments! Hall of Fame Game, gall of blame game, coach: you are just trying to rinse last season out of your mouth a few days early.
With just days until actual hitting (hooray) and holding out (sigh) starts, the time for tap-dancing and offseason rankings is nearly over. So let's get primed for camp with a rundown of 10 statistics and trends you absolutely have to know to be one of the cool kids this NFL season. From the rise of the hurry-up offense to increased field goal accuracy, these are the numbers that are shaping the game, which makes them more interesting than learning who showed up for camp out of shape. So enjoy the numbers while I pack my bag and wrestle with my flight schedule, or at least get mentally prepared for turnpike traffic.
- Teams used a no-huddle offense on 12.2 percent of offensive snaps.
The NFL no-huddle statistics are dominated by two teams, the Eagles and Broncos, which use the tactic so regularly that they distort the overall percentages. The Eagles used the no-huddle on 68 percent of their plays; take them out of the league totals, and the tactic is only used 10.4 percent of the time, not 12.2 percent. The Broncos use the no-huddle on 48 percent of snaps. The Ravens, Bills and Steelers were the only teams to use the no-huddle more than 20 percent of the time.
Use of the no-huddle can be highly situational, and many teams still only use it during two-minute drills or when trailing in the fourth quarter. Thirteen teams used the no-huddle less than five times in the first quarter last year, meaning that for over one-third of NFL teams, it is not a tactic to be used in non-desperate circumstances except in rare cases (preventing a challenge or hurrying for a fourth-and-inches sneak, perhaps). The Eagles and Broncos went no-huddle on 73 percent and 60 percent of first quarter plays, by contrast.
The Ravens are in for some no-huddle whiplash. Jim Caldwell used the tactic 37 percent of the time, including on 30 percent of first quarter snaps. Gary Kubiak used it zero times for the Texans in the first quarter, though of course they needed it at the end of many games. The change in pace will be more noticeable than any other change in Baltimore.
Pace is the final frontier of NFL strategy, and there is room to grow from the current 12.2 percent usage rate. Caldwell is bringing the no-huddle to Detroit, Frank Reich wants to use it in San Diego and the new Dolphins offensive coordinator is such a Chip Kelly disciple that his name is Lazor. The Patriots are fans of the tactic, though they geared down last year because of so many inexperienced receivers. The Eagles' 70 percent rates may never catch on, but a no-huddle that appears about 25 percent of the time may become as standard in the NFL as full-court ball-pushing tactics are in basketball.
- The shotgun formation is now used on over 58 percent of offensive plays. Three or more players are lined up as wide receivers on 56 percent of offensive plays.
The base formation in the NFL is a shotgun formation with three receivers, one back and one tight end. Of the just-over 33,000 offensive plays executed last season, 14,395 (43.5 percent) involved a shotgun quarterback with one back, one tight end and three receivers. That rate would be higher if situational formations (goalline, most notably) were removed from the figures, but it is pretty huge as it is.
As I wrote in a Jimmy Graham blog posting early in the week, most NFL playbooks still begin with a description of base offense and base defense, usually accompanied by a quant diagram of a football formation that looks like it was taken from The Nuclear American Family: How it Can Survive the Creeping Red Menace:
Both offenses and defense start by looking at this old-fashioned formation, then learning all of the interpretations and adjustments needed to turn this split backfield with a quarterback under center into something translatable into Sean Payton's latest fever dream. It's like learning Castilian Spanish for eight years, then going to work the ER ward in the barrio. It's like all the computer code still buried in your company's operating systems that was written to communicate with the mainframe. It's like my old teacher's manuals, which had whole sections devoted to kids carrying pagers or dress code violations involve black patent leather shoes or parachute pants, but nothing about the procedure for dealing with a kid Instagramming a video of another kid's butt. We all deal with modern systems built off obsolete infrastructure, and we all muddle through, but the inertia of building new ideas atop a crumbling base is inefficient and frustrating.
I have not had a look at an NFL playbook lately. I am willing to bet that some of these up-and-coming innovators tore the figure above out of the book and replaced it with something like this:
Along the way, those innovators de-emphasized the playbook pages devoted to covering the gaps the fullback might try to attack in favor of detailing option assignments or more techniques for coping with bunched receivers. Offensive coaches made similar changes based on the knowledge that they damn sure don't face a vanilla 4-3 when they come out empty trips right. The changes streamlined the learning approach and tossed away all of the leftovers in the back of the strategic refrigerator. Instead of starting the lesson with "Pardon me, which train will get me to Barcelona in time for the bullfight?" it starts with "How long has your baby had a fever?"
When coaches talk in the offseason about simplifying terminology or streamlining their systems, they are probably speaking broadly about taking concepts out of the "exotic" section of the playbook and moving them up to "ordinary," stripping away all the lingo that came with their long-ago status as something alien or foreign. So coaches tear some pages out of the playbook and move others to the front. But how many have attempted a full rewrite, down to the foundation? I don't know. These guys are just evolving out of the mimeograph era, so sweeping changes take time. I'll bet that coaches who rethink the entire playbook for the 21st century, starting with what "base personnel" and "base formations" are considered and called, will gain an edge from players who don't have to stop and translate everything they have learned.
- A team will only use its most common "starting lineup" on offense for an average of 8 percent of plays in a year. It will only use its most common "starting defense" an average of 5.5 percent of plays for the year.
This amazing tidbit comes from the NFL Games Statistics Information System, NFL GSIS, or "NFL Jesus" to those of us who have been saved by it. Those lovely depth charts we all see in magazines or at Ourlads are essentially fiction because of injuries, situational substitutions, promotions/demotions, suspensions and so on. NFL GSIS tracks the number and composition of all the 11-man lineups each team uses, at the start of games and on every snap. The most common of those lineups usually take the field on far less than 10 percent of a team's plays.
The Bears used their most common offensive lineup a league-leading 20.8 percent of the time. The Bears don't substitute much and they were blessed with great health at all offensive positions except quarterback, but they still only used their "starters" -- Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Black Unicorn (aka Martellus Bennett), Tony Fiammetta, Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, Kyle Long, Jordan Mills -- on one-fifth of their total plays. The Raiders' most common lineup appeared on just 1.9 percent of snaps, making their depth chart something akin to quantum foam.
Four teams -- the Colts, Seahawks, Buccaneers and Saints -- used 16 different offensive starting lineups last year, exactly one per week. The Cowboys used 16 different defensive lineups. Combining offense and defense, the Eagles had the fewest total starting lineup changes, with 15. The Saints and Patriots each used 29 different offensive or defensive lineups; because the Saints also changed kickers, they win the trophy.
Some of these "starting lineup" differences are the result of substitution philosophies, not injuries or upheaval: the Saints may start in the I-formation with Pierre Thomas at running back one week and four-wide with Darren Sproles (or his 2014 replacement) at running back the next. Whatever the reason for all the changing personnel, it's obvious that depth and player development are incredibly important. Seventy-three players took the field for the Colts last season; 22 (two starting platoon's worth of humans) caught at least one pass. Forty-one players lined up on defense for the Cowboys.
That's a long way of saying that people currently classified as a "backups" are going to be on the field for about 80-95 percent of a team's plays. Those backups had better be good.
- On designed runs, quarterbacks carried 418 times for 1,844 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and 33 touchdowns in 2013.
Two years after the read-option revolution, quarterbacks run by design an average of 13.1 times per team per season, or less than once per game. The "designed runs" in the total above include sneaks, which accounted for 41 carries, 61 yards and four touchdowns last year.
Quarterbacks in 2012 rushed by design 467 times for 1,832 yards (3.9 yards per carry) and 53 touchdowns. The touchdown decrease is due to fluctuation, not defenses "figuring out" read options: the 2012 data has many more one-yard sneaks and bootlegs by the likes of Matthew Stafford and Joe Flacco than the 2013 set. The overall numbers are similar enough in the two seasons to suggest an "option rate" is beginning to establish itself, with quarterback keepers representing 1.5 percent or so of all offensive plays. Of course, some teams will run their fast quarterbacks 45 times per year while others run their slow ones only when no one suspects it.
The longest designed quarterback run of last year was a 93-yard option by Terrelle Pryor. There were 10 other designed quarterback rushes of 20-plus yards. The distribution of short and long rushes was not much different than the distributions for running backs: when Colin Kaepernick or Nick Foles keeps the ball, they are not statistically different from change-up backs, although some are more dangerous than others.
Designed quarterback run rates should not be confused with "read option" rates. A team can use a Chip Kelly playbook and still only send the quarterback on 33 designed runs per year (Foles and Michael Vick's combined 2013 total). At the 13-to-40 carry-per-year rate, quarterback options do not appear particularly risky from a health or turnover standpoint, and represent an efficient way to diversify the rushing game while using more of the no-huddle, shotgun, single-back formations discussed earlier in this article.
- Non-wide receivers line up in wide receiver positions on 25 percent of all offensive plays.
That percentage includes all tight ends in the slot or flex, running backs split wide and all other "wrinkles" that now occur on one play out of every four. The percentage includes some built-in assumptions about the official positions of a few players: Dexter McCluster, for instance, is treated as a wide receiver, and not included.
The high percentage of mystery men at wide receiver is germane to the now-resolved Jimmy Graham situation. Graham could argue quantitatively that he lined up in non-tight end positions more often than most or all of his peers, but he could not argue that he was doing something qualitatively different. Any in-depth formation parsing was going to classify him as an extreme example of a Jason Witten or Tony Gonzalez; it would take some statistical torture to make him Dez Bryant or Roddy White.
Only a handful of the moonlighting receivers are superstars like Graham. Dolphins tight end Charles Clay lined up in slot/flex 242 times and split wide 35 times last year in just under 1,000 Dolphins offensive plays. He also lined up in the backfield 76 times, and wears uniform No. 42, which adds to the confusion. Clay is a very versatile player, but not an exceptional one, and there are tight end/H-back or halfback/slot receivers around the league forced to wear similar numbers of hats.
Here is a little more food for thought, just in case you think you have this whole "I know what a tight end is" thing figured out. Teams used six or more offensive linemen on 3.7 percent of snaps last year. A sixth offensive lineman is more than twice as common as a designed quarterback keeper, with the caveat that over one-third of the "6OL" personnel groupings take the field with one or two yards to go for a first down or touchdown. Eben Britton of the Bears played 44 snaps as a sixth lineman: a tight end, essentially. What does that mean? It means that NFL strategy has completely outgrown the terminology we use to explain it.
- A total of 839 passes were dropped last season.
The total was 880 in 2012. The exact number may vary among sources, but Football Outsiders collates with another major database, so these numbers are as close to accurate as you can be when talking about something as open to interpretation as a dropped pass. Using 860 as an average, the typical team suffers 26.9 dropped passes per year, a little less than two per game. If receivers were infallible, the NFL completion rate would jump from 61.2 to 65.8 percent!
Twenty-six of last season's dropped passes turned into interceptions. It happened 31 times in 2012. A typical starting quarterback is likely to see a should-have-been completion tapped to a waiting defender about once per year. In 2013, it happened to Drew Brees, Tom Brady (twice), Aaron Rodgers (twice), Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Andy Dalton (twice), Joe Flacco (twice), Robert Griffin, Kirk Cousins (twice) and poor Blaine Gabbert twice in one game. The Bills and Bears defenses each benefited from three dropped-pass interceptions last year.
I am forever fascinated with the uncounted and essentially random events that have a huge impact on everything from championships to player reputations. A completion that becomes an interception is a receiver error, but it is also dumb luck; guys like A.J. Green, Antonio Brown, Jordy Nelson and Golden Tate were among the perpetrators, and it's not like you can solve the problem by not throwing to those guys. Fumble recoveries are truly random (forced fumbles are not, which is subtle and important), as are 55-yard field goals made and 30-yarders missed by an opponent, once blocks and minor weather effects are filtered out. Football is full of blind-luck plays that change the outcomes of seasons. Predicting what happens in future weeks is often a matter of filtering out any unsustainable and unpredictable nonsense that occurred in past weeks.
Someday, I am going to collate all of the fluky opponent field goals, tipped interceptions, fumbles that bounced weird ways, opponent's third-string quarterbacks making their first start and other factors no team can control into a "Luck Index," then rank the luckiest teams. Chances are, several playoff teams will rank as "lucky," and won't it be swell fun debating those rankings with the local fans?
Luck is a four-letter word, of course. Some teams have more random factors go their way than others, and the difference often manifests in the final standings. Those are statistical facts, not fightin' words.
- In a typical season, 20-30 percent of interceptable passes are dropped by defenders.
Here's another one of those random events that have massive impact.
Football Outsiders tabulated 138 dropped interceptions last year. A total of 502 passes were intercepted, so the drops represent 21.5 percent of all passes which were within the grip of a defender. The counts for 2012 were 210 drops and 468 picks, so the drops that year represent a whopping 31 percent of interceptions that could have been. Dropped interceptions are not an official stat, of course, and other game charting organizations may have slightly different counts depending on how they interpret, say, a ball bouncing off a linebacker's facemask. Also, one play in 2012 involved a pass dropped by one defender but intercepted by another. That Brandon Weeden is amazing.
Look carefully at that last set of numbers. Quarterbacks threw 640 passes last year that would have been intercepted by infallible defenderbots. They threw 678 such passes in 2012. Total pass attempts went up a smidge, so the rate of interceptable passes clearly went down from 2012 to 2013. But the league interception rate went up from 2.6 to 2.8!
Now, imagine you were asked to interpret the rise in interceptions in 2013. You might cite last year's unprepared rookie quarterbacks, the rise of the Seahawks secondary or some other variable. The correct answer is far less buzzy and meaningful: defenders just dropped fewer passes in 2013!
Dropped interceptions are not quite random, to be precise. There is a slight correlation to raw interception totals: a defense that steps in front of 25 passes is more likely to have a handful of drops than one that steps in front of seven. Some defenders have better hands than others. But with such small sample sizes, these influencing factors don't get much opportunity to balance out.
Using 138 and 210 dropped passes as benchmarks, each offense can expect to benefit from anywhere between 4.3 and 6.5 dropped interceptions. Similarly, each defense can expect to cope with 4.3 and 6.5 potential turnovers bobbled to the turf. But random variation is a cruel mistress, so numbers anywhere between zero and double-digit dropped interceptions are within the probabilistic "just one of those things that happen sometimes" zone.
On offense, the correlation between dropped interceptions and total interceptions is easier to spot. Joe Flacco, not at his best in 2013, benefitted from nine dropped interceptions, though as you saw earlier, he also had two catchable balls become interceptions. Matthew Stafford had eight would-be picks dropped, including four during his vicious late-season slump.
Quarterbacks with amazingly low interception totals sometime benefit from a fluky number of drops. That did not happen with Nick Foles last year -- three dropped interceptions are well within expected totals for a split-time starter -- but Foles did benefit from an abnormally generous eight dropped interceptions late in 2012. Much changed for Foles and the Eagles between 2012 and 2013, but when people ask why I haven't strapped myself in to the Foles bandwagon and stomped on the accelerator, it's because I like to wait past 16 starts to see if random elements start to settle.
- Defenses rush exactly four defenders on 62.9 percent of all pass plays.
A quick survey of depth charts reveals that exactly half of all defenses are listed as 3-4's right now. Also, a quick survey of coordinators reveals that about 95 percent of them insist "we are going to be multiple and hard to categorize," and 100 percent of them are going to be both "attacking" and "aggressive." At any rate, whether a team is officially a 3-4 or 4-3, whether they use tons of 2-3-6 personnel groups and blitz safeties on 1st-and-10 or come from the Tony Dungy school of Cover-2 fundamentalism, teams are going to rush four defenders on about two-thirds of pass plays.
Innovative, wacky, ultra-aggressive coaches rush defenders four at a time, just as they pull up their pants one leg at a time. The Cardinals, Chiefs, Packers, Saints and 49ers defenses were coached by a rogue's gallery of wild men and mad scientists last year. They combined to rush four defenders on 59.2 percent of pass plays, an insignificant smidge below the NFL average. Game situation and personnel quality are greater variables in determining how many defenders rush the quarterback than coaching philosophy. A coach who does not trust his cornerbacks is not going to blitz safeties, no matter what. A conservative coach whose defense forces lots of 3rd-and-long situations will blitz more than a barbarian whose defense cannot force obvious passing downs.
Five-man rushes occur on 22.8 percent of passes; six-man rushes (a pretty big blitz) occur on 7.2 percent of pass plays. Three-man rushes occur 5.8 percent of the time, despite all of those 3-4 defenses, which of course usually feature one or two linebackers who specialize in pass rushing. Rushes of seven or more defenders are typically reserved for red zone situations.
There's a fundamental mathematics at work with the four-man rush. A minimum of five defenders are needed to match up with five eligible receivers, a sixth defender is usually needed for double coverage, deep safety, quarterback spying or what have you, and diminishing returns kick in if three or fewer pass rushers make it easy for the quarterback to check his voicemail in the pocket. The aggressive defensive innovators of the 2010s express their individuality by sending four unexpected defenders. Bob Sutton of the Chiefs might send a nose tackle, a cornerback, a safety and Jamaal Charles (he does every other darn thing in Kansas City, so why not?), but he is more-or-less as likely to send four rushers as Lovie Smith is to send two tackles and two ends.
- There is an 8.3 yard-per-drive split between the best and worst teams in the NFL when it comes to starting field position.
If a player contributed 8.3 yards per drive to a team's offense, that player would be pretty important, right? Think of field position as an invisible player nudging the football down the field. The Chiefs got nudged to the 33.6 yard line, on average. The 49ers got nudged to the 31.9. The Redskins, meanwhile, started their drives on the 25.3, the Jets the 26.0 and the Rams and Texans on the 26.3. It's the old tilted field phenomenon, and it tilted some teams toward the playoffs and others to the top of the draft board.
Field position is a function of many complex factors: giveaways, takeaways, special teams quality, the ability to force three-and-outs on defense, the ability to avoid three-and-outs on offense, random forces and smaller factors like weather effects. In the Redskins' case, bad field position was a symptom of organizational sickness. The team had lousy special teams, turned the ball over too often and had a nasty habit of going three-and-out on their first handful of drives.
The 49ers of the last few years have been an object lesson in how good organizational health promotes good field position, which feeds back to good organizational health. They finished fourth in the NFL in forcing three-and-outs and seventh in the NFL at avoiding three-and-outs on offense last year. They had a plus-12 turnover ratio, for sustainable reasons rather than "lucky bounce" reasons. Andy Lee is awesome. It all works together to provide the 49ers a greater margin for error than most teams: they can trade punts for a quarter and end up 35 yards downfield from where they started.
When examining a team and determining why they are succeeding or failing, it's a great idea to look at where their drives start, then figure out why they are always starting at midfield or their own 12-yard line. Maybe it's bad luck. It may also be four or five little problems (or benefits) that add up to one huge one.
- The field goal conversion rate inside 50 yards in 2013 was 89.8 percent.
Field goal accuracy has improved steadily, quietly and remarkably over the last 20 years. Here's an every-three-years snapshot of the conversion rates. Trust me, I am not hiding anything sneaky in the missing years, just keeping chart size manageable:
|Year||Field Goal Accuracy|
Kickers attempted 143 50-plus yard field goals in 2013. They attempted just 91 in 2004. The job requirements of the modern placekicker are: a) be automatic from 49-yards or so in, b) kickoff deep into the end zone every time and c) break even on the four-to-six 50-yarders you attempt per year, with a premium on the important ones (52-yarders in the fourth quarter down by two points, as opposed to 58-yarders before halftime when a drive is stalled).
An old Football Outsiders statistical standby states that kickers are better judged by their kickoffs than field goals, because kickoff distances don't vary much from year to year, while field goal rates do. A clearer way of stating that is that accuracy rates are reaching 100 percent under ideal conditions, so judging a kicker by his misses means taking a handful of data points across weeks or months out of their context (including actual distances and weather) and stringing them together to form a conclusion. One windy day can have a major impact when as few as five misses in 16 games can brand a kicker as "inaccurate."
That said, teams need to be alert when their kicker misses routine less-than-45-yarders under good conditions once or twice a month. That was not unusual 15 years ago, but it has become an inexcusable loss of marginal points. Some coaching staffs (Saints) may not have realized that they should be getting near-100 percent accuracy on short-to-medium kicks when playing at least nine dome games per year, resulting in lots of points getting left on the table in the heat of an annual playoff chase. If your kicker goes two-of-seven from 50-plus yards, those kicks are hard and you should be extending drives better. If he is 11-of-15 inside 40 yards, you have a major kicker problem.
Next Week: Real reports from real training camps! Betcha I am more excited than you are.