national champs baby
Going for the Jugular-An Investigative Report
If you’ve read enough of my pieces you know I don’t put a lot of stock in most of what football announcers talk about. Whether it is harmless and/or mindless cliches or things that are flat out wrong, much of football announcer conventional wisdom is more conventional than wisdom.
One of those cliches I wanted to look at was the concept that coaches love to go for the kill shot after a big momentum change like a turnover or a stop on downs. After a big defensive play, are coaches really trying to seize the opportunity and turn an expected possession into a quick score, and if so, is it working.
One thing to note is that a quick change does not significantly impact the offense’s ability to score. After adjusting for field position, there is virtually no difference in the offense’s expected points whether the drive was obtained by turnover, fourth down stop, punt or kickoff. Of course the field position is a win, but intercepting a ball 40 yards downfield on third down yields no existential benefit over knocking it down and fair catching a 40 yard punt on the next play. Punts and stops on fourth down have very slight positive impacts and turnovers actually decrease a team’s likelihood of scoring, but the effect is so small it’s typically not even worth a field goal over the course of an entire season.
So there is no special advantage of the big defensive play for the offensive side, but how often does the offense attempt to capitalize in a big way right off the bat. To evaluate this you have to figure out what you can measure. There aren’t really running plays that are designed to be big plays, except maybe a reverse, but that’s hard to identify over a large set of data. Same with trick plays. You can’t even tell where a pass is thrown. Was it a screen or a deep ball. Both could be incomplete or big plays.
To try and and answer the question the best approximation I could find was how often the first play of a drive was a pass and went for at least 20 yards. More big passing plays than in other situations would be a good indicator that teams were gunning for a quick strike. For the baseline I looked at drives obtained via kickoff, either after a made field goal, touchdown or start of a half. For these drives, only 8.9% of first plays were passes for at least 20 yards.
Drives resulting from a turnover on downs generated the highest deviation in successful attempts down field, producing big pass plays nearly 35% more often than the baseline scenario. Interceptions and punts were right behind with a 32% increase in big play generation. Coaches were still aggressive but to a lesser extent after a recovered fumble or an opponent’s missed field goals, producing big completions just over 20% more often. Despite safeties being a big momentum swing, that was the most conservative scenario for coaches long passes being less likely than any other scenario, even after adjusting for less field to work with. Even with large deviations, we still aren’t talking about this being a regular occurrence. The baseline is just under 9% and no situation generated more than 12% big pass plays.
So even though the question was answered that yes big plays do happen more frequently in this situation, there are still many things that I am unsure about. Is the increase in big plays because the defense is unprepared for the cliche move or because the opportunity for a big pass play is always there but the offense just doesn’t go for it as much in normal course of play. On top of that, is the increase success coming at a risk for offenses. As noted above, despite getting more big plays on the first play of the new drive, offenses aren’t actually scoring any more points on these drives. Maybe for each big momentum piling pass there are two incompletions that put the offense in an unnecessarily risky situation.
Having exhausted the stretches of my data my personal conjecture would be that yes offenses are going for the jugular at a higher rate immediately after a big defensive play. However, this strategy is probably a high deviation, zero average change result for both offense and defense. The evidence points to teams taking more and completing more big passes, but the untold story are the misses which are the likely culprit to the big defensive play not translating into any measurable offensive boom.
Based on the data and my inferences off of it, if I were advising coaches I would not recommend introducing the new risk to the offense and play it straight unless I was in a trailing or underdog situation. Defensivley, I would make sure the team is prepared to cover a big attempt. This should help reduce the likelihood of the big play for the opposing offense and hopefully increase the likelihood of a wasted down, putting the quick start defense in a good position right off of the bat.