James Leroy Wilson's blog

Sunday, October 09, 2005

How Do You Win a Football Game?

Unless I'm missing loads of data and entire communities, it seems to me that the game of football has not been broken down and analyzed as baseball has.

What made me think of this recently is when I wondered how indicative fantasy football statistics were to team success.

Someday I'd like to break down and tabulate box scores of every NFL game, but also go beyond that. I'm curious about, among other things, field position.

So I'd like to find out how these things tend to contribute to victory:

1. Time of possession (keeping the other teams offense off the field)
2. # of offensive snaps (wearing down the opponent's defense)
3. total yards, yards passing, yards rushing
4. # of no gain and loss plays (including incomplete passes)
5. # of First downs
6. Avereage yards gained on first down
7. turnovers
8. average starting position
9. Field control - how much of the game was played on the opponent's side of the field (regardless of whether you were on offense or defense).
10. Missed field goals
11. punts falling inside the twenty
12. # penalties
13. penalty yards
14. The kind of penalties - do good teams commit high yard, aggressive penalties like holding, whereas bad teams commit low yard penalties like false start?
15. # of "big plays"

Maybe the cheapest way an average team can get into the playoffs is find a great punter. Who knows? I have lots of questions like that.


  1. Boy, I'd be interested in that kind of research. Perhaps the reason it hasn't been done is that football is much more complicated and intense.

  2. Contra Jim above, I reckon football is a pretty simple game. Many of the variables you have listed are proxies for successful play or represent spurious relationships. A successful team has to work with its strengths and account for its opponents' stengths and weaknesses. In the present environment in the NFL, the passing game is everything, and running serves only to bolster the pass.

  3. Ahh, contra Vache, the passing game wasn't everything in the very recent past. It used to be that you had to "establish the run game." In fact, some coaches who have bad weather as part of their season still coach as if that's true. Now, how to account for Vache's (IMHO, accurate) assertion that the run now just sets up the pass? Is that because of rules changes? I think it is. But that would probably be a "spurious relationship." Real study of the question, by someone mathmatically qualified, would shed light.

    Oh, and Vache also asserts that talent is more important in football than baseball as well. Not true. The New York Yankees are perennially in the playoffs even when the players are hotdogs who can't stand each other. The New England Patriots win Super Bowls with teamplayers who may not necessarily be the best at their positions. And if football is simple compared to baseball, why does firing a coach in football matter so much more than firing a manager in baseball?

    I concede that one of the hardest things to do in the world of sports is hitting a baseball. But that doesn't mean baseball is more complicated than the world's most physical chess match.

  4. Baseball was seen as a simple game, until the sabermeticians looked at the game from a different perspective. I'm just curious if what we think we know about football - what appears as common sense - isn't true at all.

  5. Doctor Lenny's build a punting stat. Add the yards gained by the ball placement to the net of the punt inversely (ball on the 16 = +4, ball on the eight = +12 and touchback - netpunt -20) then multiply by the hang time dived by the league average hang time - normalized to one. This would give you a score that is relative punter value, which you could correllate to the standings.

    You might ask a punter if there is something that a punter uses to rate other punters that the public doesn't consider. Like who has a work ethic and who has raw talent. You know, standard GM type evaluations.

  6. Compare your baseball card collection to your football card collection. Baseball is a much more "The One and the Many" type of philosophy. Its minutia are quantized to a huge extent. But football, which is essentially won in the trenches, has no statistics for offensive linemen.

    Fantasy stats are just that, fantasy. They don't relate to the game itself. They're attention given to the most popular stats-producing positions. Breaking down and analyzing football happens in the sky booth amongst coordinators with high tech video equipment and radio communication and isn't digestible by the average fan.

    As for punters. The Raiders drafted the greatest punter in history #1 and racked up the highest winning percentage. The only reason Ray Guy didn't have THE highest average all time is due to the lack of a good field goal kicker. His average was held down by too many coffin corner kicks from the 30 yard line.