Is Time of Possession Horseplay? Part II

Posted on May 15 2014 - 9:18pm by Luke Schultheis
(Image Courtesy of LA Times)- Will Pep ponder plays from scrimmage? The Colts' offensive coordinator may have to debate between utilizing a power running game (time of possession) and using a no-huddle (plays from scrimmage).

(Image Courtesy of LA Times)- Pep Pondering Plays from Scrimmage? Colts’ offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton, may have to debate the usefulness between utilizing a power running game (time of possession) vs. using a no-huddle (plays from scrimmage).

In the first part of this series, we looked at the relevance of the statistic, time of possession, and whether it was ultimately conducive to winning. What we discovered was that although the statistic can be useful, it does not directly correlate to winning football games by itself. In recent seasons, the Colts have boasted about becoming a “smash mouth” offense by emphasizing a power rushing attack. While establishing an effective running game is largely beneficial, more so by maintaining offensive balance, controlling the time of possession clock by itself is not necessarily the key to winning. Well, this then brings up the question, “What ultimately determines winning?”

One alternative to controlling time of possession has been the statistic of plays from scrimmage. Proponents of this stat will tell you that it’s not so much holding onto the ball for extended periods of time, as much as it, what you do with it during that controlled time. Teams with high plays from scrimmage counts typically are pass happy and run a no-huddle type offense by nature, leaving opposing defenses gasping for air. The theory is that more plays from scrimmage provide “more attacks” on an opposing defense, giving you more opportunities to both move the football and ultimately, score points.

(Image Courtesy of Chip's-a-hoy, a thousand plays per minute! While Eagles' head coach is a  big proponent in plays from scrimmage, the numbers don't universally back this up.

(Image Courtesy of Chip’s-a-hoy, a thousand plays per minute! While Eagles’ head coach, Chip Kelly, is a big proponent in plays from scrimmage, the numbers don’t universally support its usefulness. Sorry, Chip.

A key supporter of the plays from scrimmage statistic is the offensively innovative Philadelphia Eagles’ head coach, Chip Kelly, who in an August 2013 interview with CSN Philly, detailed his offensive philosophy:

“I’ve heard the question about time of possession, but we’ve talked about all the time — time of possession is how much time can the other team waste. Most games, we lose the time of possession, but it’s how many snaps do you face? And I think in both (preseason) games we’ve played, we’ve played more snaps than our other team. So all I gathered was that they stand around a lot more (on the field) than we do. So I think when people look at the time of possession, and that’s what people look at automatically … it’s not time of possession. It’s plays run is what I look at because you’re not exerting any energy if you’re just standing in the huddle.” -Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles’ Head Coach

This then begs the question, is a high plays from scrimmage count a key determinant in winning games? For this analysis, we calculated the average plays per game ran by each team in the 2013 regular season. We then ranked these from highest to lowest per team. Each team’s offensive and defensive ranks by points scored and points allowed respectively were included, as well as each’s overall winning percentage . Please see our corresponding chart below:

scrimmage plays 1a*

My initial impression was, “This looks pretty good…oh wait”. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s start with the “This looks pretty good”. The 2013 Denver Broncos were indisputably the best offense in football. Peyton Manning and his boys simply buzz-sawed through opposing defenses this past season. The plays from scrimmage (pfs) support this notion as the Denver Broncos averaged the most plays in all of football at 72.1. I then proceeded to the #2 team in most plays from scrimmage, the New England Patriots at 70.4 pfs, a seemingly high octane offense under QB Tom Brady who ranked #3 in the NFL in points scored. So far, so good, right?

scrimmage per plays2


One of these Quarterbacks and their Offenses wasn't like the other

One of these Quarterbacks and their Offenses wasn’t like the other

It’s then where this statistic turns into a complete and utter train wreck, and the subsequent “oh wait”. The #3 and #4 leaders in plays from scrimmage were drum roll please…the Buffalo Bills (#3) and the Washington Redskins (#4). Their offenses ranked #22 and #23 in points scored respectively.

Not only were these offenses largely impotent, but both teams simply lost a lot of football games in 2013. The Buffalo Bills finished the season at 0.375, whereas the Redskins were at an even more disappointing 0.188. It’s no aberration either, as both of these teams struggled through injury and ineffectiveness, specifically attributed to their starting QB play, whether it was the Bills’ E.J. Manuel or the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III.

scrimmage plays 1a*

Furthermore, even the aforementioned Chip Kelly, a modern day “plays from scrimmage pioneer”, had his 4th best offensively ranked Philadelphia Eagles, only rank 12th in pfs at 65.4. Just how important is it again, Chip?

This leads me to believe while there is definitely some correlation between the plays from scrimmage statistic and offensive potency, as well as winning (see: 2013 Denver Broncos and New England Patriots), there is also some major hitches with its usefulness (see: 2013 Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins). Like time of possession, it could provide to be a useful statistic if used in combination with other relevant statistics, but by itself, it paints no more accurate of a picture than time of possession did. It’s simply inconsistent.

(Image Courtesy of Indystar)- Nonstop No Huddle? Not quite, but speeding up the game can have its benefits if used appropriately.

(Image Courtesy of Indystar)- Nonstop No-Huddle? Not quite, but speeding up the game can have its benefits if used appropriately and in bursts for the Colts in 2014.

So how does this relate to the Colts? Well in 2013, the Colts ranked 17th in plays from scrimmage at 64.1, but were 14th in points scored. Both of which are seemingly fairly middle of the pack. The Colts were a team that in 2013 started initially featuring a power running game, but as injuries mounted and the offensive line struggled to open running lanes, started to put the ball more in Andrew Luck’s hands to make plays. You could make the case based on purely film last season, that the offense was most effective running a no-huddle. This prevented opposing defenses from continually substituting and mixing their packages, leaving their players fatigued.

Still, the most plays from scrimmage notion isn’t directly supported by the numbers, so getting as many plays in while you can doesn’t ultimately lead to winning football games anymore than holding the ball does. The numbers point that while the Colts don’t need to be a dinosaur offense in 2014 featuring the “ground and pound”, they don’t need to be a “cardio clock” lightning-offense either, running as many plays in a no-huddle style as they can. Like anything else, a healthy balance of the two appears to be most appropriate. It’s not so much how many plays you have, as much as it is, what you do with them.

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