The NFL is an interesting beast. With the exception of Brady and Manning, you never know what might happen on 'any given Sunday' – it's sad and cliché, but completely accurate. There are several critical factors that casual fans overlook when enjoying this heralded Sunday pastime. They are characterized below as simplified as possible to give those fans a better appreciation of what it takes to succeed on the gridiron.
Aside from dominating offenses that march up and down the field at the whim of the helpless defense, or the stone-wall defenses that affix the chains in place down after down, special teams can – and often does – determine the victor in the NFL these days. Couple that with the carefully orchestrated annual schedule designed to produce as many 8-8 records as possible, and it pays to dissect the game on every appreciable level.
While the minutia of the game can bog down the most sound analytic minds, therein lies the precise secret to exploiting your enemy and consistent success. This is why NFL coaches work 16-19h days and commonly sleep in their respective offices. It's why every position has its own coach, and why the quarterback watches as much film as the defensive secondary. It's a league where Belichick and Dungy are the only sure things, and it's why those inside the game are increasingly focused on fine tuning the lesser fundamentals.
If you had to place a bet on a game with the aid of one statistic, most would recommend terse examination of the Turnover Ratio (TR = takeaways – giveaways). The TR documents a given teams ability to change the course of the game. The importance of maintaining possession of the ball, and thus effectively controlling field position, while simultaneously stealing the ball from the other teams lead to victories. Year-over-year teams atop the TR list find themselves situated similarly in the overall standings, and this year is no exception. All of the undefeated teams (Indy, New England, Dallas & Green Bay) and other stand-outs (Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Seattle; all 3-1) find themselves tied for 5th or better in this category at +3 or better through 4 games.
The consequence of a turnover is typically favorable starting field position for the opponent, something that 'Big Tuna” Bill Parcels recently touched as one of the most important factors in the game. Continuing with role of field position leads us to punt proficiency.
Punting signifies the loss of possession following the failure to convert a first down. Quite easily we make the logical extension that the teams that the best teams punt the least. Among the elite teams in the NFL thus far, only the Steelers and the Packers out of the top 10 in fewest total number of punts. To illustrate these consequences with respect to the standings, we just have to compare a few ratios. The 10 teams with the highest number of punts total a meager 35% winner percentage (WP) which projects to an average of 5.6 wins. Excluding the outlying Saints, the 10 teams with the fewest punts have a 68.5%WP, projecting to 10.97 wins.
Where punting is truly critical is fringe teams, those in the middle of pack that rely on field position to squeak out a few extra scores per game. There is a trend among those teams thought to be overachieving through the first quarter of the NFL season. The Steelers (3-1), Titans(2-1), Texans(2-2), Browns (2-2) and Raiders (2-2) leave their opponents with 80 or more yards to score greater than 46% of the time. In other words, in more than 4 of 10 times their foes must start from within 20 yards of their own goal line. This is 6 yards better than the average starting field position over the past 5 years. If this trend continues among average teams, look for their continued success.
Three of the top teams in the league: Indy (4-0), Pittsburgh (3-1) and Dallas (4-0) are ranked 1-3 respectively in total scores via the 3-pointer. Furthermore, when we eliminate the struggling Ravens who occupy the 4th rank on the list, the surprise Texans (2-2) and undefeated Pats and Packers round out the top 7. While these opportunities may be fostered through their respective strength on offense, it is noteworthy to consider that field position is the difference between a punt and three points, given the same number of yards gained. Before dismissing the importance of field goals examine the New England Dynasty of the past 7 years and you'll find several instances where games were decided by last second field goals. Yes, Adam Vinatieri is a football god, but Belichick is the mastermind behind keeping those games close enough for a field goal to matter.
Other trends in favor of game management and attention to detail are left out for brevity, but team penalties (which correlate negatively to win at -0.21), reduced pass attempts over the past three years (passing correlates -0.17 with wins), and increased rushing (correlate +0.58) desire weight when determining winners in the NFL.
Enjoy the hits, the speed and precision of 60-yard passes and corner blitzing, but allow your mind to wonder unto the microscopic detail of game planning in the NFL to fully appreciate the efforts required to win on a regular basis