3rd Down: Ponying Up The Percentage

Posted on May 26 2014 - 2:56pm by Luke Schultheis
(Image Courtesy of Yahoo!Sports)- QB Andrew Luck and the Colts were fairly average at converting 3rd downs in 2013. Just how important is the offensive statistic?

(Image Courtesy of Yahoo! Sports)- QB Andrew Luck and the Colts were fairly average at converting 3rd downs in 2013, ranking 15th. Just how important is this offensive statistic though?

At LuckAtLuke, we don’t just try to do things. Simply put, we try to do them analytically better. We have previously covered the importance of statistics such as Time of Possession and Offensive Plays from Scrimmage (see: “Is Time of Possession Horseplay? Part I & II”). As the third part of this series, we would like to investigate another highly relevant offensive statistic, third down percentage. As an overall percentage, the Colts were very middle of the pack offensively with this statistic in 2013, finishing the year ranked 15th overall at 38%. However, just how important is this statistic offensively? Does it directly correlate with elite offenses and ultimately winning games?

Proponents of the 3rd down percentage statistic will tell you that the most successful teams at this tend to be among the best offenses at sustaining drives, which typically leads to scoring points. Not only do they keep their offense on the field, but they keep their defense off of it and seemingly rested up. This, in turn, keeps the opposing starting quarterback right where they want him, on the sideline holding a clipboard. In theory, it’s a win-win situation for generally successful 3rd down percentage teams.

Being a Colts’ fan, as a personal anecdote, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched this team struggle on third downs, particularly as it relates to third and short. During the “Peyton Manning Era” of Colts’ Football, the team would typically struggle in short yardage situations, forcing them to throw rather than run. As a result, thrown balls would get tipped/deflected or receivers would simply drop crucial throws. Head coach Chuck Pagano and his Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton have boasted of having a “smash mouth” offensive identity, which will surely mean more running in these 3rd down situations. At least, one would reasonably conclude in theory.

However, does being an elite offense directly coincide with being successful at converting third downs? We take a look as part of our analysis. In order to investigate, we’ve included the 3rd Down Percentage for each NFL team in 2013, then ranked them, while including their offensive and defensive rank (by points scored and allowed respectively), in addition to each’s overall winning percentage. Please see our table below:

3rd down percentageMy initial impression is that there is no clear-cut correlation between a team’s third down percentage and its offensive ranking. Out of the Top 5 teams in 3rd down percentage in 2013, only the Denver Broncos had a corresponding Top 5 offensive ranking at #1 in ppg.  Instead, we had the San Diego Chargers at #1 (#12 ppg), the New Orleans Saints at #3 (#10 ppg), the Carolina Panthers at #4 (#18 ppg), and rounding the Top 5 out, the Atlanta Falcons at #5 (#20 ppg). While I think converting third downs is logically indicative of an efficient offense and ultimately scoring points, the numbers surprisingly don’t directly support this notion.

3rd down percentage2

Digging even further into the numbers, you see that a Top 5 offense in the Dallas Cowboys, only finished 25th in 3rd down percentage at 35%. This tells me that not all elite offenses were proficient in scoring as a direct result of being able to convert third downs and consistently “move the chains”. Rather, these offenses may have simply made plays and looked to strike on first and second round, rather than look to simply grind their way to a manageable third down situation.

third down percentage3

But what about the Colts’ transformation from a seemingly pass happy team to a proposed “smash mouth” offensive team, now running the football with authority on third downs? Well, the advanced statistics show that running on third and short is more likely to convert than passing on third and short. On the topic, FootballOutsiders.com has performed some exceptional research, which we’ve noted:

“On average, passing will always gain more yardage than running, with one very important exception: when a team is just one or two yards away from a new set of downs or the goal line. On third-and-1, a run will convert for a new set of downs 36 percent more often than a pass. Expand that to all third or fourth downs with 1-2 yards to go, and the run is successful 40 percent more often. With these percentages, the possibility of a long gain with a pass is not worth the tradeoff of an incomplete that kills a drive. Teams pass roughly 60 percent of the time on third-and-2 even though runs in that situation convert 20 percent more often than passes.” –FootballOutsiders.com 


While it’s true that not all of the Colts’ third downs in 2014 will be short yardage situations, in theory and for the purposes of this analysis at this juncture, we will make the assumption that their offense has done well enough on first and second down to put the team in a manageable short yardage 3rd down situation.

Likewise, we now know that the advanced statistics generally indicate that running on third down is widely more successful than passing the football. Sorry Peyton apologists, smash mouth it should be going forward, right? Chuck Pagano and Pep Hamilton are truly onto something. Hoorah. Not so fast, most teams do not have the great fortune of having a star QB like Andrew Luck. There’s a strong belief in football, as well as any other sport really, that you should place the football in your best player’s hands. By handing the ball off to a running back, you’re taking the ball out of #12’s hands and instead instilling that trust and responsibility in your running back and offensive line to make the play.

Like anything else, I don’t necessarily have a problem with this if the situation calls for it. Every offense needs to maintain some resemblance of balance. What this means is that they should be able to consistently run or pass when they need to. By being able to both run and pass, the offense keeps the opposing defense off-balance, which generally creates more points. The opposing defense can’t load the box, they can’t stay in a Nickel package, they have to either play a guessing game (run or pass) or stay in a rather “vanilla” defensive formation.

For analysis purposes though, as well as our own natural curiosity, just how good was QB Andrew Luck in 3rd down passing situations? Our friends at ProFootballFocus.com had Andrew Luck at #10, right behind Aaron Rogers at #9, as Luck converted 42.86% of his 3rd down throws in 2013. This was a very impressive feat. #1 was, you guessed it, Peyton Manning at a sparkling 49.07%.

This leads me to believe that Andrew Luck was pretty efficient in 2013 among NFL QB’s in converting third down throws. While the advanced statistics indicate that the Colts should look to run the ball first and foremost in third and short situations, in all third down situations, the Colts should be confident when they place the football in Andrew Luck’s hands as he has proven he can make the required completions to convert third downs. With another year of seasoning in 2014, I expect he’ll only improve, as will the Colts’ overall 3rd down percentage.

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