One of my biggest pet peeves (in all of life, not just football) is when I see someone refer to a football team’s ranking in offensive or defensive total yards as if that stat alone showcases exactly how good that team is on that side of the football.
If things don’t get better against Seattle’s 14th-ranked defense Sunday
Jets Offense Rankings: Total: 32nd Pass: 32nd Run: 30th
the No. 2-ranked Chicago defense
The Jets had the league’s 25th-ranked defense in 2018
The way these numbers are presented makes it seems like total yardage tallies are the single determining factor as to where an offense or defense ranks in overall productivity. That’s not even close to the case, though.
If a team is 10th in yards per game, that’s the fact right there — they’re 10th in yards per game. That’s all the stat tells you. It doesn’t mean they’re the “10th-ranked offense.” They’re 10th in yards, period.
What if that offense ranked highly in yards because they played so poorly in first halves, that they were always trailing big in the second half and were able to rack up garbage time yards against soft defenses? This was the 2018 Buccaneers. They ranked third in yards, ahead of teams like the Steelers, Patriots, Saints, Chargers, Colts, Seahawks, Texans, and Falcons, who all scored more points, turned the ball over fewer times, and won more games than they did.
What if that offense consistently moved the football well, but always stalled in the red zone? This was the 2017 Chargers, who ranked fourth in total yards but 28th in red zone efficiency, thus placing them 12th in points scored per drive.
What if they lead the league in turnovers? What if they have nice yardage totals because they never go 3-and-out, but they get to midfield and punt from there more than everybody else?
If a team ranks 10th in yards but also struggles with any of those issues, then they are clearly not the 10th-most productive offense in the league even if they are 10th in yards. You can rack up yards all day, but if you’re not putting up points, then the yards you picked up barely matter.
Even points per game can be misused at times. For one, points per game tallies usually include points scored by the defense and special teams, so it’s poorly representative in terms of the picture it paints about a particular offense or defense’s quality of scoring defense. Points per drive, available on Pro-Football-Reference, is a better way to go. It counts out non-offensive touchdowns and accounts for pace of play.
Here in 2019, there are plenty of more advanced metrics that paint a much better picture of how good or bad a team’s offense or defense truly is, and they’re all easily accessible. Football Outsiders’ DVOA comes to mind first. It weights factors such as down, distance, field position, score, and game time to truly capture the value of each play.
Say two teams hand the ball off and pick up 11 yards. Team A did it on 4th & 22 while trailing by 34 in the fourth quarter. Team B did it on 4th & 10 from the opponent’s 20-yard line while trailing by five with two minutes left in the fourth quarter. Team B clearly made the much more valuable play, and stats like DVOA will capture that. Total yardage tallies value both plays exactly the same.
There are plenty of other good metrics to use that are better alternatives to saying “the Jets have the 25th-ranked defense” just because total yardage says so. Estimated Points Added, which can be found on Pro-Football-Reference, is a similar metric to DVOA.
Here is a great example of total yardage telling the wrong story. In 2018, the Browns defense ranked 30th in yards per game allowed (393.0). That would lead you to believe their defense was awful, but they ranked well in stats that actually matter. They were tied for 12th in fewest points allowed per drive (1.88). DVOA and EPA each ranked the Browns defense 12th as well.
How does this happen? Well, one key was that the Browns defense did well situationally. They ranked third in percentage of drives resulting in a takeaway (15.4%) and seventh in third down conversion rate allowed (35.7%). A defense that excels in both of these areas can be difficult to beat regardless of how many yards they give an opponent outside of scoring range.
Pace of play is also a huge factor. Some teams play a lot of overtime games. Some teams play none. Some teams tend to score quickly and allow scores quickly, leading to more drives being played and volume statistics being inflated. Some teams take their time to score, and play a defensive style that leads to their opponents holding the ball a long time. Thus, they play fewer drives.
The volume of drives per game that a team plays is a huge factor in their total yardage tallies. But total yardage doesn’t matter. What really matters is what a team does on their average drive, whether they have 10 in a game or 15 — because both teams are generally getting the ball the same amount of times (sometimes halftime gives a team an edge of one).
Total yardage tells us the 2018 Browns had the “30th-ranked” defense, but that ignores the fact that the Browns defense faced 201 drives last season, fewer than only the Jets (202). On a per-drive basis, the Browns allowed only 31.0 yards per drive, tied for 13th-fewest in the league, which lines up perfectly with their other defensive metrics and makes them look 17 spots better than total yardage does. A key part of this was the whopping total of four overtime games the Browns played last year, inflating their volume of plays faced, making them look worse defensively on the total yardage list.
Total yardage tells us the Browns defense was brutally terrible last year, but in reality, they were pretty good. Anybody could easily find that out just by looking in the right place and searching beyond simplistic total yardage rankings.
The NBA community has quickly accepted offensive and defensive ratings (per 100 possession scoring efficiency) as the go-to way to rank offenses and defenses (although I’m still waiting for people to stop using field goal percentage). MLB has had ERA for a long time, and has been leading the advanced stats wave for awhile. Stats like wRC+, wOBA, FIP, and OPS+ among many others have become the top ways to evaluate the effectiveness of offenses and pitching staffs.
It’s time for the NFL community to catch up. The numbers are out there. Let’s use them!