Many supposed sports experts hate the idea of using analytics to inform coaching decisions. Mike Wilbon, in particular, feels that analytics numb coaches to on-the-field instinctual impulses and rob the game of its soul. This is a confusing stance since 99 times out of 100, coaches make conservative decisions and “go by the book” to avoid fan and administration criticism. Rarely do coaches follow gut instincts, which is why Nick Saban’s decision to bench Jalen Hurts in favor of Tua Tagovailoa in the national championship game was so earth shattering.
What Mr. Wilbon should consider is that analytics could update the coaches’ book, so the safe decisions coaches like to make would have a basis in facts. Here are some examples from the 2017-2018 college football season.
A touchback on a kickoff now gives the ball to the receiving team at the 25 yard line. The rule was adopted to discourage returns which are among the most physically hazardous plays in the game. But, coaches don’t seem to have adapted to the rule change and perhaps analytics can update their infamous book so they know how to take advantage of the rule.
During this season, opponents of the twenty-one teams we ranked kicked off 1151 times and 519 of them were touchbacks (45.1%). The ranked teams either attempted to run back a ball kicked into the end zone or were forced to return a kick that fell to earth short of the end zone, 632 times (54.9%). Of the attempted returns, 55.4% failed to reach the 25 yard line. In other words, the ranked teams surrendered yardage by attempting a return and the kicking team gained yards by coercing a return, more than half the time. Although I don’t have a statistic for it, I can tell that the vast majority of returns that bested the 25 yard line, failed to reach the 30 yard line. In other words, the rule designed to promote player safety was overridden by coaches or circumstances and players were put at risk for no material gain.
Our twenty-one ranked teams kicked off 1777 times and 818 (46%) were touchbacks on which the ranked teams surrendered yardage. Of the 959 kickoffs that were returned by ranked team opponents, 595 (62%) were stopped short of the 25 yard line and thus gained yardage for the ranked teams.
The lesson for coaches is that a ball kicked into or through the end zone losses yardage for the kicking team. A ball returned from the end zone, losses yardage for the returning team. So, a ball should always be kicked short of the end zone, sort of like a coffin-corner punt, and a ball caught in the end zone should never be returned. Coaches don’t seem to have these factual choices in their “book.”
Although the game is designed to allow the offense four tries to gain a cumulative ten yards, coaches typically think of three plays to make ten yards and one play to give the ball away. Coaches may be surprised to learn just often 4th down plays are attempted and what the success rate is. This season, our twenty-one ranked teams and their opponents combined to attempt 679 4th down plays in 283 games or 2.4 per game. The teams combined to convert 387 1st downs (57%). This conversion percentage is significantly better than the teams’ third down conversion rate of 40.6%. Granted, third down yardage to make is typically greater than 4th down yardage to make but the huge difference in conversion rates should tempt to consider any plus field situation to be four down territory.
There isn’t a college coach in the country who doesn’t mention in his pregame interview that turnovers will impact the outcome of the game, but the facts simply don’t bear this out. Our ranked teams won 78.8% of their games this season and they won 64.4% of the games in which did not have a turnover advantage. The relative ease with which good teams win games in which they have a turnover disadvantage should tell us that there are more powerful forces that determine game outcomes.
Here are a couple of reasons. Special teams turnovers scare the daylights out of coaches but the twenty-one ranked teams only committed 22 special teams turnovers, about one per team per season. Coaches also fear the scoop-and-score and the pick six but special teams and defenses combined to score just 5.5% of ranked teams’ points or about 1.9 points per game. Hardly decisive.
The other way in which turnovers might impact a game is by giving the opponent a short field on which to score. Short field possessions resulted in an average of 3.4 points per game for ranked team opponents but only 32.2% of those short field possessions were the result of ranked turnovers. So, those turnovers produced about 1.1 points per game. Hardly decisive. Special teams—bad punts, long returns of punts and kickoffs—produced more short field possessions than did turnovers.
The truth may lie not in the gross number of turnovers, most of which aren’t much different from a punt, but in turnover margin. Ranked teams were 33-0 when they had two takeaways more than their opponents and they were just 2-12 when they had two or more giveaways more than their opponents. In between, ranked teams won at their average pace whether they had more or fewer turnovers. So, if a team is sloppy enough, it can hurt itself with turnovers or help itself with opponent turnovers, but margins of more than two turnovers occurred in only 16.6% of the games, one in every six games played or twice a season.
So the coaches’ play book could be updated with the following factual information:
- Kickoff short of the end zone to produce poor opponent field position;
- Go for it on 4th down in enemy territory; and,
- Don’t fear the turnover, be aggressive in play calling.
Be sure to tell boosters and AD’s so coaches can still save their jobs by “going by the book.”
230 days till next kickoff!
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