What Makes Teams Win? 1

This is the first part of a four part article summarizing the relative importance of each phase of the game in winning.

INTRODUCTION

Passing is much more important than running, and offense appears to be more important than defense. Turnovers matter a great deal, interceptions more than fumbles. Penalties matter too, but not like you’d think.

We've been told by NFL analysts for years that defenses win championships and that a solid running game is the key to winning. I'd agree that things appear that way. Teams with lots of passing yards aren't always winners, but teams with lots of running yards almost always are. But, as you're about to find out, appearances can be deceiving.

One way to measure the relative importance of passing vs. running, or offense vs. defense, is to measure their statistical correlations with season wins. For example, the correlation coefficient of a team's total rushing yards correlates with its number of wins in a season is 0.45. A correlation of 1.0 would be perfect correlation, while a correlation of 0.0 would indicate no relationship. So 0.45 implies that total rushing yards is a moderately strong indication of how many games a team would win.

In comparison, total passing yards correlates with wins at 0.31. Compared with total rushing yards, total passing yards is less important in terms of winning games. This is what most fans and analysts notice when watching games or glancing at team stats. But does this mean that passing is less important than running in the NFL?

Before we settle on an answer, we need to consider the number of attempts of runs and passes. In baseball, the statisticians understood this 150 years ago when they created the batting average. If one player has 300 hits and another player has 350 hits, who is the better batter? The answer is we don't know until we divide the number of hits by their at-bats.

RUN AND PASS EFFICIENCY

How often have you heard an NFL commentator say, "When running back X gets at least Y carries, his team wins?" The clear implication is that the team in question should feed a steady diet of carries to the running back, and this will cause his team to win. What if we stated the same observation this way, "When his team is winning, running back X receives at least Y carries?" And by the way, why don't we ever hear, "When QB X passes at least Y times, his team wins?" Here's why:


Stat Win Correlation
Rush Attempts0.58
Pass Attempts-0.17


The negative correlation for pass attempts means that the more often a team passes, the less likely it is to win. The correlation of rush attempts with wins (0.58) is even stronger than that for total rushing yards (0.45). This is a curious result, and it’s where conventional NFL analysis begins to crumble.

When we see two things that appear correlated, it is natural for us to say that one causes the other. The runs come during the game, and the win comes at its conclusion. Therefore most fans and analysts assume the running causes the winning. The problem is, it usually doesn't. It's the winning that causes the running. Teams that are ahead, and likely to win, run the ball to take time off the clock and to minimize the risk of a turnover. Teams that are behind, and likely to lose, abandon the run in favor of the pass. Statistics can measure the correlation, but it can't determine the direction of causation.

The critical question then becomes: how can we truly measure a team's passing and running abilities and their respective contributions to winning? The answer is football's equivalent to the batting average--efficiency stats. If we want to know how good a team is at running, the best way is to know how many yards it tends to gain each time it runs the ball--yards per rush attempt. The table below lists basic passing statistics and their correlation with season wins.



StatWin Correlation
Pass Yards0.31
Pass Attempts-0.17
Pass Yds/Att0.61


Yards per pass attempt is merely pass yards divided by pass attempts. So we have a relatively weak statistic (0.31) divided by an even weaker one with a negative correlation with winning (-0.17). We would expect to have a fairly meaningless result, but we don't. Passing efficiency turns out to be strongly correlated with winning (0.61). And unless having a lead in a game ‘causes’ a team’s passes to be more successful, we can safely say that passing efficiency leads to winning.

Because sacks are an important factor in the passing game, I include plays that result in sacks as pass attempts for the purpose of calculating efficiency. Likewise, I also subtract sack yards from total passing yards. I call this true pass efficiency and have found it correlates better with both offensive points scored and wins.

Continue reading part 2 of the article.

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32 Responses to “What Makes Teams Win? 1”

  1. Derek says:

    As someone who was avid TMQ reader (not so much now), I was of the opinion that teams need to run to win the game. The reasoning seems sound because of play action and keeping the defense guessing. You need to at least balance things out and not go "pass-wacky." Looking at box scores validated that when I saw winning teams were well balanced in terms of rush and pass attempts.

    Then Football Outsiders shoots back with this really solid bit of logic: Teams that are ahead will run the ball more to run out the clock. Teams actually call more passes early in the game. So it seems that passing game opens up the running game rather than vice versa, the common wisdom.

    I guess we're grounded in the tradition of teams like the 70s Dolphins, who could get away with 8 pass attempts in a Super Bowl because they had 2 HOF RBs. But the Dolphins were also #2 in pass efficiency in 1972.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The Dolphins of that era did not have 2 HOF Running Backs. The HOF players were QB-Bob Griese, FB-Larry Csonka, WR-Paul Warfield, C-Jim Langer, G-Larry Little, MLB-Nick Buoniconti. Someday we will likely see either Jake Scott or Dick Anderson in the HOF, these gentlemen were the Dolphins safeties.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I doubt running efficiency and passing efficiency are independent of each other enough to provide a stronger causal relationsip between one of the two and winning. For example, at the end of the article above, you shrug off the concept of "leading a game 'causes' a team to pass more efficiently". But isn't that what would happen if a team leading were running the ball more (so as to move the clock) and the defense was playing that team to run more - i.e., of the few(er) passes that the leading team would throw, they would be more likely to be completed as the defense would be looking for a run.

    That said (and not having read past part 1 yet), I would think that games are won with a balance of both - that may sound like a cliche, but it is up to the coaches and offensive and defensive coordinators to prepare their players before the game and then make the right calls from the booth's by adapting and reacting accurately to the patterns they observe on the field during the game.

  4. Brian Burke says:

    You'd be surprised. Over the past 6 seasons ('02-'07), off running and passing efficiencies correlate at 0.12 (p=0.08).

    I've tested a regression model that uses an interaction of run and pass efficiency, hoping to find the synergy of run/pass balance. The interaction's coefficient was actually negative! (As in: being good at both hurts. But I would tend to believe the interaction effect is actually very close to zero, and the negative non-significant coefficient was just noise.)

  5. Anonymous says:

    The Titans are the only undefeated team yet they have one of the worst "Yards per Pass Attempt" in the NFL....

  6. Brian Burke says:

    Actually, the Titans have a very solid 6.1 net yards per pass attempt. That's exactly middle of the pack for the '08 NFL season to-date. The main reason that they are undefeated so far is that they've had the softest schedule by a significant margin. Plus, their net defensive YPA is second best in the league. (Perhaps you've mistaken that for offensive YPA?) The blown roughing the passer call in Baltimore didn't hurt either.

  7. Anonymous says:

    After all you got that right. I do that passing research since i read a article in the early 90´s. PASSING efficent wins. Here is the shocker: You even can COMPLETLEY abondon the run and win. Why?
    1.) Martz once called 18 consecutive passes. Nothing the D could do. He did call 31passes of 35 plays in 1st half of SB 1999. Nothing the D could do.
    2.) Dungy´s (he is conservative) Indy once called 31 (!!) consecutive passes vs. GB. Nothing the D could do.
    3.) Most important: I tried to guess the play-calling in Live-Games. On 1st & 2nd Down i was at 50%, meaning i could have rolled the dice. But on 3rd downs i called the play correct in 70%+ of the cases. Mostly i called a pass and was wrong when a run came.
    So important is this: when the Defense KNOWS a pass is coming, nothing they could do about it. Evidence: Overall-League-Passing-Efficiency does NOT go down on 3rd Downs. Prediction: The NYG and Titans will NOT win the SB, if some strong opposing Play-off-Defense together w/an opposing efficient passing-offense come their way. Those teams can be: AFC; Pittsburgh or SD (if they make the Play-offs). SD has a strong Run-Defense and the most efficient passing-offense, a great point differential but a idiot coach, thats the problem here (see also the other post here, he is one of the worst coaches in history).
    NFC: Minnesota and Philadelphia (if they make the play-offs).

    P.S.: I would have liked to give my name, but problems with URL

  8. Anonymous says:

    Here is the actual stats for this season (w/o MNF):
    Y/PP 182-57 (.762 Winning-Pct.)
    Y/PP (Differential more then 0,75 Y/PP = equals a turnover) 162-27 (.857)
    Y/R 117-121(.492, one tie)
    Total Yds 173-64 (.728, two ties)
    TO-Differential: 143-46 (.757)
    TO-even 47 Games
    if TO even:
    Y/PP 36-11 (.766)
    Y/R 23-24 (.489)
    Total Yds 37-10 (.787)
    I do this stats since the early 90´s. Its always the same as this season (only total yards have a higher then normal Wng.-Pct. this year): You win with efficient Passing, it does not matter how efficient you run, you can overcome minus 1 turnover and still win if you pass or defend the pass eficient. Exeption to the rule: NE Patriots. They always won, no matter how "unefficient" their passing was. It was real ugly in the season they upset the SL Rams. Like the author of this page, since then i have my doubts about this team. There is something REAL wrong.

  9. theladyinspring says:

    I'm not really mathematically-minded and I'm more just a fan than anything, but as an Eagles fan I am scared to death that all of the local media pressure to have a "balanced run/pass ratio" will impact coaching decisions in the playoffs and lead to an early exit. The Philadelphia media and fanbase have gone crazy over the notion that they need to "run as much as they pass", even though the running game is not very effective (especially in short yardage), they've never won a game because of their running though it can be helpful to set up play/action, and their offensive scheme is built around passing. I guarantee if you read the Philly sports pages over the last few weeks nearly every Eagles article will have something in there about "balance", and the coach is constantly questioned about it. I just hope he ignores it all.

    Players need to hold onto balls and run their routes, quarterbacks need to throw accurately, and offensive line needs to protect. That's how you get effective yardage. It's certainly true of the Eagles.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Question for the people...I am working on a college assignment regression.

    I want to predict WINS like this article. However, my variables are in per game averages and my dependent variable (WINS) are based on the season. For example AZ cardinals have 74 Rushing yards per game average and 9 wins for the season.

    What should I do to correlate the two and be able to interpret my regression results.

    here is a brief snapshot of one variable rushing yds (per game) the coefficient is 0.017174406.

    Does this mean for every additional rushing yard in a game the number of WINS in a season increases by .0171 or should I multiply the coefficient by 16 or divide by 16 to have the same units?? I hope this question makes sense.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Brian sent me an answer to the question above so I am posting his response here...

    The coefficient for any linear regression is in "units of the dependent variable per unit of the predictor variable."

    Let's take RYDS in your model. The coefficient is 0.017. So for every additional running yd/game a team averages, it should expect to win an additional 0.017 wins in the season. (I'm assuming season wins is the dependent variable.) So if a team averages 10 yds/game running more than average, it should expect to win an additional .17 games more than if they were average in running. If they were average in everything else, you could say they'd win 8.17, which the average # wins + 0.17. This is what statisticians mean when say "holding everything else equal..."

    You can take the entire set of coefficients and build one master equation to calculate any team's expected wins based on their per game stats. It's a simple linear equation, just like from algebra (y = bx+ a). But this time there are a whole bunch of 'bx's.

    y = a (constant or intercept) + b1x1 + b2x2 + b3x3....bnxn

    So, in your case, for any given team:

    wins = 16.6 + 0.017*RYDS - 0.227*PCMP - 0.028*RYDSA ... + 6.996*AFC

  12. Ketch Rudder says:

    The creator of this site abuses statistics routinely.

    A good example would be applying the past to an open system (football) to make specious prediction.

    The story above gives us another fine example of this abuse.

    The writer writes, "... how can we ... measure a team's passing and running abilities and their respective contributions to winning? The answer ... efficiency stats. If we want to know how good a team is at running, the best way is to know how many yards it tends to gain each time it runs the ball--yards per rush attempt."

    The writer above expresses a false belief.

    In truth, accumulated yards beyond those needed to score amount to inefficiency -- the inability to score.

    One team with a higher yards per rush attempt could be a loser, if those rushing yards accumulated without scoring.

    Only those yards accumulated during a scoring drive count.

    As always, the correct way to measure is to establish the correct context -- the correct ratio.

    The correct ratio is the run yards during scoring drives per attempts on those drives to run yards during failed drives per attempts on those, respectively.

    That measure shall give you an effectiveness measure.

    The same holds true for passing. What counts is passing per completed pass on scoring drives to passing per completed pass on failed drives.

    With passing effectiveness, what counts is a completed pass, not an incomplete nor interception since the rules specify that a team must possess the ball, except for a safety.

    Probability and prediction can take place only in closed systems, e.g., cards, dice and roulette.

    It's impossible to predict any future in any open system.

    At most, all that can be said is what were the chances had you engaged in some act during some past time frame.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Ketch's claim that "Only those yards accumulated during a scoring drive count" is clearly rubbish. If, in the context of a tied game, you drive from your own 10 yd line to the opponent's 10 yd line, you've clearly produced quantifiable value, even if you lose possession without scoring.

  14. Ketch Rudder says:

    Our befuddled "Anonymous" writes, "If, in the context of a tied game, you drive from your own 10 yd line to the opponent's 10 yd line, you've clearly produced quantifiable value, even if you lose possession without scoring."

    Poor-minded "Anonymous" suffers from false beliefs, as many do.

    What has happened in the story world of "Anonymous", even if he lacks the ability to perceive it, is that the first team turned over the ball (presumably on downs) without a score. The first team racked up 80 useless yards.

    If yards accumulated not in scoring drives counted as Anonymous believes, falsely, of course, then all teams would accept the kick-off, advance the ball to the one-yard line and instantly take a knee, thus giving themselves the potential maximum number of yards to accumulate in a possession.

    Moreover, teams would catch punts and run them backward to their one yard line, again, taking a knee, and again to give themselves the potential maximum number of yards to accumulate in a possession.

    Because most football fans lack understanding of the design of the game, they get confused and thus do not get the game they watch and perhaps love.

    In the Science of Winning, scoring counts. Only those teams that score more points than their opponents can win.

    Only those yards accumulated during a scoring drive count. Accumulated yards beyond those needed to score amount to inefficiency -- the inability to score.

  15. Brian Burke says:

    Ketch-Very untrue. Those yards set the opponent back further from scoring, plus they make it that much easier to score on the next possession, given the defense makes a stop. Those yards have value.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Hmm . . . so a team takes the ball from its own 1 to the opponent's 1 in 7 plays, but then fumbles, for 7 yards per rush on an "unsuccessful" drive. The opposition (now on its own 1) fumbles the ball back, and the team drives the final 1 yard on the subsequent play, for 1 yard per rush on a "successful" drive. That's a 1:7 successful-unsuccessful ratio! Such waste! Such inefficiency! This team has forgotten the goal of the game!

    I doubt that I've ever read anything so mind-numbingly stupid couched in such pompous, self-assured language. I even visited "Hail the Ale" to learn more about such a confused mind. I left . . . confused.

  17. Anonymous says:

    That's 14 yards per play in the former case of course, not that it matters for the illustration . . .

  18. Anonymous says:

    Why is it that teams who win the rush battle cover the spread 70% of the time? Teams need to be able to milk the clock late in the game. When a team leads by more than one score, there comes a point where burning the clock is more important than trying for additional points.

  19. Anonymous says:

    It's always nice to be lectured about "not understanding the game" and that long drives that do not result in points are worthless from those who've never played a down.

    I invite you, Mr. Rudder to line up on the defensive line for a 13 play 85 yard drive.

    Regardless of the outcome of the drive, be it a touchdown, field goal, or turnover on downs, if your offense can't keep you off the field for four to five minutes you'll likely give those points up next drive.

    Discipline breaks down.. LB's and DB's bite quicker than they should on fakes, the pass rush loses it's ferocity, screens and reverses enjoy a higher level of success, and QB's begin dragging out the snap count to let the lactic acid building up in your thighs and calves work on you.

    While professional athletes are better conditioned than amateur athletes, the competitive nature of the game renders that advantage moot since they are opposed by equally well conditioned professionals.

    I.e. An amateur athlete could wear down another amateur in 20-25 plays, a pro could wear down an amateur in 7-10 plays, but a pro could only wear down another pro in 20-25 plays.

    I would heavily wager that you will find increased passing and rushing efficiency, and more points scored per drive on drives that begin less then 3 minutes after a 10+ play drive.

  20. Ketch Rudder says:

    You amuse, Anonymous.

    You write an amazing fallacy, "... if your offense can't keep you off the field for four to five minutes you'll likely give those points up next drive."

    Before such, you write, "I invite you, Mr. Rudder to line up on the defensive line for a 13 play 85 yard drive."

    And in your story world, on the 13th play, the possessing team could fumble and turnover the ball.

    Exactly no correlation exists between the outcome of previous play and a current play.

    Because your team moved the ball 4 yards in a previous play doesn't mean your team is going to advance the ball another 4 yards on the current play.

    On any play, only one of two outcomes can happen. Either a team scores or it does not.

    If the team does not, rules of the game dictate forthcoming possession.

  21. Tim Folkerts says:

    I'm coming to this discussion a little late, but here's my $0.02 on some of Ketch's comments.


    "Exactly no correlation exists between the outcome of previous play and a current play." **

    This is certainly true in traditional statistics like flipping coins or rolling dice. Getting 10 heads in a row in no way gives you information about the next flip. Some might say "you are on a roll and the next will more likely be heads too". Others might say "after all those heads you are due for tails". Of course we know neither is true -- the odds are still 50-50.

    But football *IS* different. Dice don't get psyched up, but players do. Coins don't get tired, but players do.

    So yes, previous plays COULD affect the results of future plays. A defense tired out from just being on the field for a long, grueling drive could quite possibly give up more yards more easily on the next drive.



    ** "If yards accumulated not in scoring drives counted as Anonymous believes, falsely, of course, ..." **

    Yes, we all (including Anonymousm, I'm sure) agree with you that the actual score is the only thing that "counts" in the end. A rushing play, no matter how long that does not score does not "count" when you decide at the end who won and who lost.

    But that does not mean that only scoring plays are of any value. Any play that gets your team closer to scoring or gets the other team father from scoring is a good thing. On any given down, rushing +5 yards is better than rushing 0 yards, which is again better than rushing -5 yards -- even if you don't score!


    " ... then all teams would accept the kick-off, advance the ball to the one-yard line and instantly take a knee, thus giving themselves the potential maximum number of yards to accumulate in a possession."

    ummm ... wouldn't that one extra yard be a net positive, even in your odd scenario? :-)


    ** "Moreover, teams would catch punts and run them backward to their one yard line, again, taking a knee, and again to give themselves the potential maximum number of yards to accumulate in a possession."

    No one is saying that yard rushing are the ONLY good thing! Return yards are ALSO good, so running the punt backwards would more than negate the potential gain from the potential to rush for more yards.


    ********************************************
    There WERE two statements I found interesting:

    1) "In truth, accumulated yards beyond those needed to score amount to inefficiency -- the inability to score."
    I agree to a point. Yes, it would have been BETTER to score after racking up yard than, say, fumbling. But that doesn't negate that fact that the yards rushing were still a good thing. It is just that some OTHER aspect of the game was not good (perhaps turnovers)


    2) "You write an amazing fallacy, "... if your offense can't keep you off the field for four to five minutes you'll likely give those points up next drive.""
    Not that i agree or disagree. I just think it is an interesting hypothesis to settle with something other than "Argument By Bald Assertion" -- both sides presented a conclusion without any specific statistics to back up their claim. Some simple statistics should be able to provide the answer to the hypothesis: "does the time of possession by the previous team correlate with the ability to score by your team?"

  22. mscott says:

    I'm a retired qausi-stock market quant, but not a real gear head. I learned a simple rule in coaching youth sports. If you can keep the ball away from your goal, it makes it very hard for a ten year old to score on your team. Part 2 if you can keep the ball near your opponents goal the odds of you scoring is better, regardless of technique. This applies to fishing, just at day break, on an overnight sailing trip, I asked my expert fishing buddy whether is was light enough for a fish to see the lure. He explained about the sun had to be visible or something. Bored to tears after sitting on a boat for 20 hours I put the lure in the water and boom , the biggest mahi-mahi any of us had ever caught.

    Simple statistics having something to do with proximity to a win. My friend may have been right right about the odds of catching a fish. When I put my bait in the water my odds went up substantially.

    If I drive down to my opponents 1 yard line, my opponents chance of scoring/winning is less than it was when we were at my one yard line, and mine go up substantially.

  23. CellarDB says:

    Have you taken into account that teams who are already winning tend to run the ball late to control the clock while the losing team is forced to pass more often?

  24. Anonymous says:

    If passing efficiency has a higher correlation to winning than does running efficiency,does one assume that passing inefficiency (i.e. interceptions,sacks, a higher fumble rate,put a team closer to losing?

  25. mathmandan says:

    I see that I am late to this discussion, and several other posters have done a nice job responding to user Ketch above. Still, I would like to add:

    Ketch: "Only those yards accumulated during a scoring drive count."

    If this is true, then no team should ever punt. A punt is nothing more than an attempt to advance the ball without scoring.

    If you believe that punts are inherently worthless, then you disagree with every coach and player, ever. You therefore have a high burden of proof--you'll have to produce some meaningful evidence. Asserting your belief will not cut it.

    On the other hand, if you believe that punts are valuable, then you have the burden of explaining how punting 40 yards (net) is better than driving 40 yards and then giving up the ball.

  26. Ketch Rudder says:

    A punt is acknowledgement that the coach does not believe his team can retain possession by rule subsequent to the next play.

    Football. How do the rules of possession affect strategy?

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  28. Adrian Edwards says:

    Ketch: "Only those yards accumulated during a scoring drive count."

    This is probably the stupidest statement I have ever read.

  29. Ketch Rudder says:

    Likely that is so Adrian because it went over your head.

    Say a team takes a kick-off and runs it out to their 20. Then lets say they maintain possession until their opponents' 40. Their team gained 60 yards but no points.

    Tell us again how those 60 yards mean anything?

    Yards tallied for any reason is a meaningless stat.

  30. Dave says:

    "Tell us again how those 60 yards mean anything?"

    Because the ball is now 60 yds further from your own end zone, thus the expected points from your opponents next drive is much lower.




  31. gmopro says:

    You say how you subtract the yards lost from sacks to get a truer passing yards, but how bout subtracting yards lost to Interceptions also? I guess that just figures in to non-completed passes. It is really negative pass yards though, like sacks. Do INTs count at least as attempts?

  32. gmopro says:

    How does Yards per Point or Yards per Point overall differential comparison correlate with winning? Is it useful?

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