Going for the Jugular-An Investigative Report

Submitted by The Mathlete on June 6th, 2012 at 2:04 PM

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.



June 6th, 2012 at 2:15 PM ^

You mention that you can't tell whether a big pass was a screen or a bomb. When you talk about an incompletion, the same holds true. So there are successful 20yrd passes on first down, a number that would really help your data would be incompletions where the ball is thrown 20 yards downfield. Then, even if they fail, coaches are going for the jugular.


June 6th, 2012 at 9:31 PM ^

x percentage of pass attempts are completed for over 20 yards (out of all pass attempts), so the number of passes completed over 20 yards gives you a number directly proportional to a ratio that takes into account short completions and incompletions as well.  

x = PassCompletedFor20 / PassAttempts

If x increases, the assumption is that the coach is being more aggressive.

In other words, I think the OP has taken it all into account correctly, given this assumption.


June 7th, 2012 at 12:03 PM ^

A quick out to the flat or bubble screen can go for 20 yards just as easily as a corner or post if a LB or CB misses a tackle in open space, yet that play probably wouldn't be considered as risky or aggressive as a 20 yard bomb. The important figure here, I think, is YAC. I don't know if that statistic is accurately tracked or not, but I think that would be very telling.

Drew Sharp

June 6th, 2012 at 2:44 PM ^

I think the increase is based from emotion and the need to seize the opportunity. All of sudden your offense has the ball. The thought process is "i wasn't expecting this. I need to maximize it." This is not too dissimilar to people blowing a bonus or tax refund check. Human emotion says we shouldn't waste that which we weren't expecting, especially when it's a great opportunity.


June 7th, 2012 at 9:46 AM ^

Do you understand that the world does not revolve around you and your do whatever it takes, ruin as many people's lives, so long as you can make a name for yourself as an investigatory journalist, no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied along the way, just so long so you can make a name for yourself as an investigatory journalist, no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied and dying along the way?


June 6th, 2012 at 6:27 PM ^

I don't think this is as solid as your other work but only because of the data. I think with some better data this could be a really interesting piece. Also investigating how emotion in other football situations affect coaching decisions would be cool.

steve sharik

June 6th, 2012 at 11:54 PM ^

...coaching knowledge and actually watch cuts of every single snap following a TO.  Almost every single pass play has a receiver or two going deep to keep deep zone defenders from jumping underneath routes.

The true nature of these routes is to open up holes in the underneath coverage.  Even if the QB does throw it deep, he may be reading the defense incorrectly or simply deciding to throw it deep on his own and to hell with the design.

You'd have to watch and do some analysis to see if the offense was truly taking a shot at a home run.

Blue in Seattle

June 7th, 2012 at 5:16 PM ^

definitely appreciate the attempt at myth-busting.  To me the mentality that a turnover is a different opportunity is a complete falsehood, but is propigated because the viewer believes it's unexpected because it doesn't happen as often as punting to end a drive.  Yet both punting and funbling/interceptions are "turn-overs".  All turn-overs get the defense off the field and put your offense in control.  Changing risk management based on type of turn-over is ill advised.  Changing risk management because of score and time remaining is the only way to make a risk change decision.

But you definitely hear announcers stating after a successful drive resulting from a fumble as a "14 point turn around" yet they never say that after a drive resulting from a punt return.  Yet making the opposing team punt, and then scoring a touchdown is "taking" 7 points away, and adding an additional 7 points to your score.



June 7th, 2012 at 11:06 PM ^

Are you doing any controlling for field position? If nothing else, I think it might be a good idea to eliminate situations where teams get the ball within 20 yards of the end zone, thus making it impossible to have a 20+ yard play, or within 5-10 yards of their own end zone, which would make it more likely to be very conservative (and I would guess would be more likely following a punt than a fumble or interception).


June 8th, 2012 at 12:21 AM ^

If I remember correctly, you have posted about the impact of field position. One impact of the TO and 20 yard play is fIeld position change, so it may have an impact but not on the immediate drive after the TO. Not sure if that theory holds water but it would be something to look at.


June 10th, 2012 at 9:38 PM ^

I feel like sometimes coaches get caught up in the momentum swing themselves. As a coach I know I do. And I think sometimes this influences coaches to go for the "kill shot." However, I believe sometimes going for the "kill shot" is more risk than reward. It's not a high percentage play and can result in a T.O. giving the opponent the ball right back. It wastes a down if it doesn't work. I think sometimes the most prudent move after a T.O. is to go to your base plays. The plays in your offense that get you yards and first downs. If you get a T.O. and then go on a long drive and score I think this has an even more demoralizing effect on the opposing team than a "kill shot" play. That may be a considered a little conservative in this day and age, and I like agressive football but I believe there is times coaches are over agressive. And I think at a time when you just get a T.O. and you have the momentum and things going your way... going for a "kill shot" can be over agressive.