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Football Concepts of Success, Part I

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In the first of this three-part series, I present some theories about what all successful NFL teams do well

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Every offseason, as a precursor to my “Crunching The Numbers” series, I try to discern statistically what makes for a successful NFL team. What are the most critical areas of performance? How do the offense and defense play off each other? Should defenses focus on bottling up the run game or stifling the pass? These are the kinds of questions that are often argued in blogs and sports bars alike, and over the next two posts I intend to answer them. In the third post, I’ll reveal my new, radically-revamped version of Crunching The Numbers for the 2016 season.

Before digging into statistics, I’m going to start by presenting my own theories and hypotheses about how NFL teams find success. These will be presented as simple statements that can be determined to be CONFIRMED, PLAUSIBLE, or UNLIKELY by the analysis (think of it like an football version of Mythbusters). Additionally, I decided to make these theories more on the “abstract” side so that they would be more difficult to verify. Making statements like “winning the turnover battle is critical” or “scoring more points will help you win more games” is a dumb exercise that doesn’t really get into the nitty-gritty, hard-to-define aspect of football.

With all of the background out of the way, let’s dive in to the first installment in this three-part series!

Hypothesis #1: The offense needs balance, but only the passing game needs to be effective.
Even with the prevailing narrative of the NFL being a “passing league,” a statement like this draws its fair share of controversy. You’ll often hear statements about bolstering the run game to “take pressure off the quarterback,” and in specific cases (such as with Dak Prescott) you’ll see the dominant run game used as reasoning behind the success of the quarterback.

I don’t dismiss the run game entirely, but I also don’t think it serves the same purpose as the passing game in the modern NFL. The passing game is your vehicle for scoring points. The run game is there mostly to keep the defense honest and to create mismatches in the passing game. Essentially, if your running game can gain 3-4 yards against the opponent’s nickel package on 25-30 attempts, it has done its job. You don’t need to have a 1300 yard rusher or consistently rip off 7-15 yard runs to have success as an offense anymore.

Every now and then you’ll see a team pop up that is able to mercilessly run the ball down their opponents’ throats. The 2014 and 2016 Cowboys, along with the Marshawn Lynch-era Seahawks and last year’s Titans, are good examples of this. However, these teams either featured unusually talented offensive lines or mobile quarterbacks. They are the exception that proves the rule rather than the rule itself.

Hypothesis #2: Good coverage is more important than a good pass rush.
This might sting a little since the Eagles will be relying heavily on their pass rush to bail out their inexperienced cornerbacks, save Darby. We’ve often discussed on this site how there is a symbiosis between the pass rush and pass coverage, and I think this is true. However, I think that the best teams have a secondary which can bail out their pass rush if need be, rather than the other way around.

The reasoning behind this is two-fold. First off, the offense has the most control over the football when it is in the quarterback’s hands. He can choose to throw it to any of his receivers, or even throw it away if the play breaks down. It is entirely up to him what happens to the ball up until the moment he throws it, and no amount of pass rush can change that. No matter how bad things are in the pocket, the quarterback will always retain his ability to make a good decision. Of course, whether or not he makes one depends on the quality of the quarterback.

Conversely, once the ball is airborne there isn’t much the offense can do except hope that the pass is completed. There are many more alternative outcomes to this event other than a completed pass. The ball can be batted at the line. It can be intercepted. The receiver can drop it (*shudders*). The ball can be tipped. The ball can be punched out during the process of the catch. Once the ball is thrown, the defense has a variety of options to prevent a completion, and the secondary is in the best position to exercise these options. When reviewing negative passing plays in the film room, analysts will often say that even though the outcome was bad, “it was a good decision by the quarterback.” The fact that the coverage can come up with a play even after a good decision has been made highlights the importance of a good secondary.

And finally, the quarterbacks that are most likely to go deep into the playoffs are partially there because of their ability to handle a pass rush. Even if the offensive line fails to pass block well, a smart and/or elusive quarterback will find a way to (at the very least) mitigate the damage. You can’t entirely neutralize a pass rush this way (see: 2015-2016 AFC Championship Game), but you can definitely prevent it from “taking over a game.” The only real way to accomplish this against a talented secondary is to scheme your way to victory in the classroom. As Sun Tzu says, “Every battle is won before it’s ever fought.”

Hypothesis #3: The goal of the offense is to impose will, while the goal of the defense is to break will.
I've always found the radically different approach to coaching offense and defense to be fascinating. Everything about coaching offense is geared towards the system or scheme that the coach implements. Week in and week out, you can generally expect a given team's offense to take the same approach to scoring points. Some coaches are certainly more adaptive than others (*cough*Chip Kelly*cough*) but a team running a West Coast offense is not suddenly going to switch to an Air Raid or Run and Shoot offense overnight. They will work within the framework of the playbook to try and exploit a particular defense where they feel it is vulnerable. An elite offense will simply run their system and challenge the defense to stop them.

Defenses, on the other hand, seem to have much more flexibility when it comes to stopping an offense. You probably won't see a 3-4 defense switch to a 4-3 just for one game, but a coach might blitz more than usual, switch from primarily man coverage to zone coverage, or utilize personnel in unique ways to achieve the desired results. As much as it pains me to say this, one of the best examples I've seen of this adaptability was during the infamous Tuesday Night game in 2010, when the Vikings pretty much just blitzed Antoine Winfield off the edge every play. That's the kind of "scheme-bending" you see on defense that you won't see as regularly on offense. An elite defense will dictate the tone of the game and force the offense to play in a situation in which they are uncomfortable.

So what does this all mean?
Right now, these are just theories and ideas. If you agree with these sentiments (or don’t) sound off in the comments! The beauty of analysis is I don’t actually care if I’m right or wrong, I just want to find the truth. Whether I’m totally right or blowing smoke out of my ass is irrelevant. What really matters is the analysis, because that’s when I can actually draw real conclusions. I reveal the results tomorrow, so be sure to check back for Part II!