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Updated: Aug. 30, 2005, 11:37 AM ET


Third down, red zone efficiency are significant

By John Clayton
ESPN.com



When it comes to offense in the NFL, efficiency can't be judged with just one statistic.

Maybe one day, the computer geeks and sabermetric converts of baseball can figure out a proper statistical model for a sports league that hasn't fully exploited the meaning of its stats. In the NFL, for years, offensive and defensive efficiency were judged by yardage gained, but those numbers can be misleading.

"I try to look at yards per play and turnovers as two of the keys to determine an efficient offense. You have to be able to get first downs to keep the football. ”
—Colts coach Tony Dungy

The "Run-and-Shoot" offenses of the 1990s tended to skew the stats on offense. In the Run-and-Shoot, perfected by Warren Moon and the Houston Oilers, offenses spread the field with four receivers and moved the chains through the air. The 300-yard passing days were commonplace, but yardage didn't tell the whole story. Minus a tight end and not consistently using a pound-it-out running style, the Oilers lacked consistent success in the red zone.

While the Run-and-Shoot is now a memory, continual rules changes have made the NFL an offensive league. The Chiefs, Colts, Packers, Vikings, Broncos and Rams were the top six offenses in terms of yardage last season. The numbers seemed to have some bearing on winning -- five of those squads (all but Kansas City) made the playoffs. However, defensive stats told a different story. Half of the teams ranked in the top 10 for yardage allowed didn't make the playoffs. Yet those numbers can be skewed based on the team's offense.
Once in a while, a team with a poor run defense finishes in the top 10 statistically because opponents aren't forced to pass against it to pick up first downs. If an opponent can gain 170 yards rushing, there is no need to risk interceptions by constantly throwing.

So what is the best way to judge efficiency?
Perhaps the best barometer is being able to rate in the top group of four statistical groups -- yards per play, gross turnovers, red-zone efficiency and third-down efficiency. Sure, NFL folks are creatures of habit. Though the cliché is defense wins championships, a good defense can't deliver a title without an efficient offense. Though it's true there hasn't been a Super Bowl champ since 1983 that didn't rank in the top 10 in points allowed, that champion had to have enough offense to win games.

"I try to look at yards per play and turnovers as two of the keys to determine an efficient offense," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "You have to be able to get first downs to keep the football."

Dungy is right. Yards per play must be above the league average for an offense to be efficient. The league average was 5.2 in 2004. Look at the teams that surpassed it. The Colts were the best at 6.7 and they were followed by the Vikings (6.4), Packers (6.0), Chiefs (6.1), Eagles (5.9), Broncos (5.9), Rams (5.8), Chargers (5.6), and the Patriots (5.5), Raiders (5.5), Jets (5.5), Seahawks (5.4) and Panthers (5.3). Ten of those 13 teams made the playoffs.

The two playoff teams that didn't make that top group weren't that far off. The Falcons were at the league average of 5.2, and the Steelers made it with a rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who helped his offense gain 5.1 yards per play.

But yards per play can't be used alone. John Fox of the Panthers and Bill Cowher of the Steelers are among the handful of coaches who practice the concept that a good defense and a ball-possession running game can get a team to the playoffs. Running the ball 38 times a game like the Steelers did obviously would result in a drop in yards per play.

That's when limiting turnovers is important. The Jets (16), Colts (17), Chargers (18), Lions (20), Vikings (21) and Steelers (21) were the league's best for fewest turnovers. Yet, protecting the ball in itself isn't enough. The Lions averaged 4.9 yards per play, below the league average. They also were among the league leaders in dropped passes. Drops tend to end drives and lead to punts, not to mention the frustration that goes with watching repeated dropped passes.

Red-zone efficiency often is the difference between a great offense and an average one. Touchdowns win games. Look at the top group. The Chargers led the league converting 63 red-zone chances into 44 touchdowns, an impressive 69.8 percent that partially explains why the Chargers finished third in scoring (27.9) and won 12 games. The best of the rest included the Chiefs (67.8 percent), Eagles (63.8), Colts (62.7), Panthers (59.6), Texans (59.1), Patriots (58.7), Seahawks (58.5) and Jets (58.1). (RAMS NOT HERE!!)

And third-down efficiency is the final category that illustrates the ability of a team to keep drives alive. The league average was 37.6 percent. The top group includes the Vikings (52.3 percent), Packers (47.3), Chiefs (47.2), Chargers (46.6), Patriots (45.1), Steelers (42.9), Colts (42.7), Jets (42.5), Rams (42.2), Panthers (40.3), Bengals (40.2), Texans (38.4) and Broncos (37.9).
Not surprisingly, those numbers help indicate the top group of teams for time of possession, which was led by the Steelers, Broncos, Chiefs, Jets, Titans, Patriots and Chargers. For what it's worth, those are all teams from the AFC, the dominant conference.

"If you finish in the top group of yards per play, gross turnovers, red-zone and third-down efficiency, you are going to have an efficient offense," Colts general manager Bill Polian said.

The Patriots were up there in virtually all of those categories.

In judging quarterback efficiency, offensive coordinators have to look at the big picture. A nice completion percentage is important, but timing is significant as well. If a quarterback completes 70 percent of his passes but the offense has a 30 percent third-down efficiency rate, the team is potentially looking at a high number of three-and-outs.

"In looking at quarterback efficiency, we look at moving the sticks and getting first downs," Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. "The first thing you go to is completion percentage. Ben Roethlisberger had 66.4, but you aren't always going to get that. We think in the neighborhood of 62 percent is efficient. You also look at interception-to-touchdown ratio along with management of the game. Another big thing is third -down conversions."

Yardage alone doesn't mean a lot. The Steelers' offense finished 16th in yardage. Roethlisberger threw for only 2,621 yards, but his quarterback rating was 98.1 and he threw only 11 interceptions. The Steelers won 15 games.

For efficiency, Roethlisberger and the Steelers were among the best in 2004.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.