Last night’s Colts-Dolphins game was a statistical anomaly. Miami had the ball for over three quarters of the game and yet lost. Time of Possession (TOP) is viewed by some as one of the keys to victory in football, but I’ve got a different take.
Coincidentally, just yesterday I received an email from a reader asking me if I had done much research on TOP stats. I haven’t done much, and I’ll explain why.
I believe TOP is an “intermediate outcome” in a football game. In other words, it is a natural byproduct of being good at something else. You can’t be good at “time of possession.”
The way I conceptualize the sport, there is basically running and passing, and teams can have varying levels of ability based on their players’ talent plus coaching and other factors. It’s these core abilities that lead to things like 3rd down percentage, red zone percentage or TOP, and then ultimately lead to winning.
If we want to measure the strength of a team and how likely they are to win games—future games—we don’t want to look at the intermediate outcomes. Intermediate outcomes inject noise from sample error into the process and obscure the root causes of success or failure. To me, TOP is a side-effect of being good at other, more fundamental things.
Of course, late in a game with a small lead, the ability to run out the clock can be critical. But there is no such thing as “running out the clock.” The clock just runs. To run out the clock, a team needs to simply run, or sometimes pass, successfully. Even in this situation, when TOP appears critically important, it’s a byproduct of basic abilities.
There is also an issue of causation. Just like total running yards, lopsided advantages in TOP tend to appear late in games when offenses that are already ahead let the clock run down while offenses that are behind try to move the ball quickly. So it’s winning that often leads to TOP and not necessarily TOP that leads to winning.
I think efficiency stats are the best way to measure core football ability. There are some other more complex stats out there with various advantages, but they add tremendous complexity without an equivalent increase in value. Yards Per Carry (YPC) and Net Yards Per Attempt (YPA), on both offense and defense, can tell us volumes about a team. Efficiency stats also avoid the causation problem. While teams with leads rack up rushing yards and teams that are behind rack up passing yards (without necessarily being very good at either), their efficiency stats are closer to representing their true ability.
In last night’s anomaly of a game, let’s look at which team led in the “intermediate stats” compared to the core efficiency stats. We already know Miami dominated TOP 45:07 to 14:15. Miami had 27 first downs, 14 by rushing and 13 by passing. Indianapolis totaled 14 first downs, 3 by rushing and 11 by passing. Miami’s 3rd down percentage was a phenomenal 73% compared to 43% for Indy.
The Dolphins outgained the Colts 403 yards to 356. The Dolphins ran an amazing 84 offensive plays compared the Colts’ paltry 35.
|Stat|| Colts ||Dolphins|
|Time of Possession||14:53||45:07|
|3rd Down %||43%||71%|
|Red Zone %||100%||100%|
|Passing Eff (Net YPA)||12.3||4.7|
|Rushing Eff (YPC)||5.5||4.9|
Admittedly, this game was very fluky, and I don't intend to draw any conclusions from any single game. Indianapolis had a couple of very quick scores, including one on the first play from scrimmage. But that's part of the problem when looking at TOP. In an example taken to the extreme, consider a team that scores a TD on every play. They would never lose, and their TOP might not total five minutes in an entire game.
So next time you hear a coach or analyst talking about needing to improve a team's 3rd down percentage or focus on "ball control," you can tune him out. Sure, there are some differences in particular situations, but to get better on 3rd down or to control the ball at the end of games, a team simply needs to be better at passing and running in general.