Monday, December 22, 2008

Panthers post mortem II - Field position

When it comes to analyzing football games, I have become a field position freak. By that I mean, that if you reduce football down to its core elements, field position is everything and dictates the outcome of games more than any other factors. Even the turnover differential that everyone refers to is only important because of how it influences field position. Let me explain with a ridiculous, obvious example that is so simple you will think it is stupid. When the offense gains 60 yards on a drive, if it starts at its own 30, it ends up with a FG. If it starts at its 40, it gets a TD.

Sorry to be so obvious, but I just want to emphasize how the hidden yards of kick returns and starting field position is often overlooked. I tried to develop a system to evaluate this that included kick returns, punt returns, interception returns, distance of down field pass before the INT, etc. but gave up after a while because they were too many variations and it was more complex than it was worth. But I will say that it is one reason that offensive yards gained and defensive yards allowed, while far from being perfect statistics to describe the ability of the teams, are at least slightly indicative. If a team gets the ball at its own 20 and has to punt, you may consider the drive a failure, because it didn't produce any points. But if they get 2 or 3 first downs and then punt from midfield, giving the opponents the ball at their own 10, the drive was effective in the ebb and flow of the game. In that previous example, if the defense holds, they might get the ball right back at midfield and be in a position to score. The reason turnovers are so important is because the other team gets the ball back without giving the offense the opportunity to push them back with some first downs and an effective punt. An INT on a 50 yd pass with no return hurts a lot less than an INT on a 5 yard out pattern followed by a 30 yard return. I know this is all ABC's of football, but sometimes we don't focus on it during a game and my philosophy is that this is WAAAAAY more important than we sometimes realize. I think I became most keenly aware of this when I started to go to games regularly after watching on TV for so many years. At the games, with the entire field in front of you, you get a spatial appreciation and awareness of how big the field is and how important positioning is.

With this introduction, let me highlight two factors in the Panthers game that were really important. Based on the theory that field position is king, the average starting field position for a team in a game is an important statistic. Comparing this stat for the Panthers-Giants game reveals that the average starting field position for the Giants in this game was their own 29.8 and for the Panthers, their own 31.1; obviously not much of a difference to give one team or the other a decided advantage. But you may know from my previous post about probability that I am interested in mathematics and statistics and it is certainly true that there is more behind this stat than meets the eye. Specifically, the average field position for the entire game was unduly influenced by one possession for each team: the punt by Feagles that pinned the Panthers on their 1 and the following possession by the Giants that gave them possession on the Carolina 44, but I'll delve into that exchange a little later.

Back to average field position: my contention is that the Giants are getting killed on their kickoff return coverage and I have the stats to prove it. If, instead of looking at overall average starting field position for every possession in the game, and you consider instead, only average starting field position after kickoffs, you will find the following: Giants average starting field position after kickoffs (sometimes referred to as ASFPAK) was their own 23 1/2 and the Panthers ASFPAK was their own 33 1/2, for a full 10 yard difference. Since there were 6 kickoffs for each team it means that the Panthers had a 60 yard advantage for the game in this statistic, far from insignificant. Giants outgained the Panthers by 110 yards in the game, but if you throw in the 60 yard kickoff advantage and the 85 yards that the Giants gained on their extra possession in OT, you can certainly see why the game was so close. I am not sure Giants should replace Carney with Tynes simply because of kickoff depth, because Carney is 100% on FGs this year except for the two that were blocked. I am just pointing out that it is a consideration because of the disadvantage the Giants have on kickoff returns and it might come back to hurt the team at some point in the playoffs.

Based on my 'field-position-rules' philosophy I think you will agree that the single most important play in the game, without which the Giants would have lost, was the punt by Feagles and the incredible, intelligent, athletic play made by Terrell Thomas to down the ball at the 1. Here's the setting: Giants were down 8 and had the ball at the Panther 30 with 10 minutes left and were facing a 3rd and 7. I thought for a moment that this might be 2-down territory for the Giants and that Coughlin might consider going for it on 4th down if they didn't convert the 3rd down. Therefore, since Giants were running the ball so well, perhaps they would consider running on 3rd and 7 and running again on 4th and short; or going for it on 4th and 7 if there was an incomplete pass on 3rd down. The decision was taken out of Giants hands because Eli was sacked on a pass attempt leaving the Giants with a 4th and 15 at the Panther 38. Then comes the biggest play of the game: Feagles comes in and hits a perfect coffin corner punt which rookie CB Thomas swats out of bounds on the 1.

With the ball on the 1, Panthers correctly play conservatively, run the ball 3 times and are forced to punt from the back of the endzone. Even with a great punt from those cramped quarters, Giants get the ball back on the Panthers 44, essentially the same place they punted from and are able to push it in for a TD on the short field. If Feagles had made a sloppy punt and kicked it into the endzone, or even out of bounds on the 10, Panthers would have had the ball with better field position. In addition to the 10 or 20 yard in field position that theoretically would have gained, perhaps more important is that they would have had their entire playbook available to them, would not have had to be quite so conservative and could have pushed the Giants back to their own territory with a long field to go for the tying TD.

Like I said: field position is everything.

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