so much for that
A Deeper Look at Special Teams
In a recent forum post I put out a request for diary ideas and Brian requested a deeper look at special teams. So here goes.
As any good Michigan fan knows, punting from the opponents 35 yard line is excruciating to watch. But how painful is it?
As you can see above, net punting holds pretty steady in the 37-38 yard range all the way till around the 40 yard line. At that point it drops a couple yards into 35 yards per punt range. It’s when you get to midfield that the averages really start to tank. Over the next 15-20 yards of the field, the average drops from 35 yards per punt all the way down to 20. This is somewhat obvious as the field shrinks the longer punts turn into touchbacks where they would have been 50 yarders on the other side of the field.
But lets look at it another way. On average, where can you expect to start your defensive drive based on where you are punting from.
It’s a pretty linear relationship all the way to midfield and then it stops. On your side of the field, one more yard on offense takes one away from the opposition if you have to punt. You get to the other side of the field and that relationship disappears. At the 50, the other team will, on average, start their next drive at the 16. If you drive all way inside the opponent’s 35 and decide your punter is still the best call, the 16 becomes the 12. The 15-20 yards of offense only translate into about 4 yards of worse field position for the other team. A punt from the 37 should realistically only be expected to cover a net of 25.
All of this is accounted for in my special teams rankings. Punters evaluations on each punt are measured on gross distance, net distance and then compared to punts from that spot on the field. A punt from your own 20 yards that nets 35 is below average but a punt from the opponents 40 that has a net of 30 is above average.
Last year, Georgia led the nation in my measurements in gross punting, it was worth 8.2 points above average on the season. Zoltan came in 7th (1st in the Big 10) at 4.3 points above average.
Punt returners and coverage teams are evaluated in the same manner. A 50 yard punt that isn’t a touchback or out of bounds (but including fair catches and downed punts) will average 6 yards per return but a 30 yard punt should only expect a 2 yard return. Again, teams are only evaluated against the situation they are given, a 4 yard return on a 50 yard punt is a positive play for the coverage team and a negative one for the return team. A 4 yard return on a 30 yard punt is a negative for the coverage team and a positive for the return team. I don’t currently have a way to split the value between the punter and the coverage, so the coverage is a joint metric.
LSU led the nation last year, gaining 9.7 points more than average on their punt coverage. Michigan came in 28th, 3.7 point above average.
What ultimately matters is the total punting rating, the combination of the punt and the cover. Michigan’s combined value of 8.0 points above average was 3rd nationally behind only Oklahoma and Missouri.
Michigan was somewhat unique in that even when adjusting the coverage rating for distance of punt, there is a negative correlation between punt coverage and gross punting. Possibly meaning that the punters getting the most distance on their punts are doing so by kicking more returnable punts than their peers who aren’t kicking as far as consistently.
Michigan did not fare so well on the returning end of the punt game. Michigan averaged a mere 2.35 yards of return per punt (excluding touchbacks and out of bounds) and was 3.9 points below average on the season. LSU again led the nation with 19.3 points above average for their return team.
Kick - Offs
I approached the kick off in the same manner as the punt, with the obvious exception that almost all kick offs are from a fixed spot on the field.
Unlike punting, kick offs have a correlation between good kick offs and good coverage, even when adjusting coverage for kick length. Good kick off specialists provide a more coverable kick than when weaker kickers get a kick of the same distance.
Michigan had another strong showing out of their kick off teams. Ranking 16th nationally at 6.3 points above average. The coverage wasn’t as good, 1.6 paa and 49th nationally. The 7.9 paa was 25th overall in a category that was dominated by Nebraska. Nebraska’s kickoff team was worth 27.9 paa on the season. 50 of their 74 kickoffs either went for touchbacks or were stopped inside of the 20 yardline.
The Wolverine kick return team was a respectable 36th overall, 2.6 paa. Cincinnati dominated the country at 19.7 paa.
Field goal kickers have never really had a good stat with which to measure them by. So much depends on where you are kicking from. Leigh Tiffin from Alabama garnered All-American honors despite missing 4 extra points and making 24 of his 30 field goals from inside 40 yards. Meanwhile in the same conference, Blair Walsh from Georgia makes a nation leading 12 field goals of 40 yards or longer versus only one miss from the same distance and is perfect on extra points and doesn’t even sniff All-American. Walsh’s performance gave Georgia 21.6 paa where Tiffin providing a respectable but not that close 7.4 paa. So how do you evaluate kickers. The easiest way would be to put up a chart.
A nice straight line, right? Look closely at the attempts and something changes around the 30 yard line. With the 30 as a general benchmark, coaches become more and more reluctant to trot the kicker out from that distance or beyond. With this selection bias, the true field goal percentage of field goals from 47 yards and longer is almost certainly overstated. By only getting attempts from the better kickers, the percentage is artificially high.
So now it’s time for a new chart, right?
Using the assumed misses from coaches foregoing the field goal, the true field goal percent drops. The straight line out to the 25-30 yard line goes south fast as the distance is stretched.
Last year Michigan’s kicking game came in at 44th with 1.6 paa on the season.
In attempting to determine how much coaches were passing up field goals in “no man’s land” I did also produce one more interesting but not necessarily special teams chart. The 4th down decision chart.
Between the 3 and 25 yard lines its a consistent trend, 80-85% field goal attempt 15-20 % go for the touchdown. It rises to 60/40 at the 2 and flips to 20/80 at the 1. The going for it actually peaks between 30 and 35 as more coaches don’t really know what to do so they just go for it.
Final Thoughts and Notes
There are a couple of things not included in this analysis. Exception plays such as blocked punts and kicks and their returns, fumbled returns (not that those ever happen) and the like are all excluded. These play obviously have huge impacts on the game in which they occur but they are so rare and have little or no impact on other plays of that type that they are excluded . The very best teams in the country may block 4-5 kicks in a season and for all but a few teams, these plays have virtually no net effect.
In general, for any one special team unit, the difference between average and the best and worst is about 2 touchdowns in either direction over the course of the season. Being the best at special teams is worth about a half game a season versus the average team and a full game a season versus the worst team. If there is one unit to excel at, the opportunity is on the kickoff team where last year there was a 53 point differential between the best (Nebraska) and the worst (West Viriginia).