Is Time of Possession Horseplay? Part I

Posted on May 13 2014 - 11:54pm by Luke Schultheis
(Image Courtesy of Zimbio)- More handoffs! The Colts have tried to build a "smash mouth" identity so far with mixed results. Is winning the time of possession battle horseplay?

(Image Courtesy of Zimbio)- More handoffs? The Colts have tried to build a “smash mouth” identity so far with mixed results. Is winning the time of possession battle key or simply horseplay?

With our NFL Draft coverage now largely concluded, we at LuckAtLuke would like to switch our focus back to what we do best, crunching numbers. Today, we would like to take a look at the stat of time of possession, and whether it is of particular significance or a widespread football myth. As you probably have noted in recent seasons, the Colts have tried to convert from a prolific passing offense under former QB Peyton Manning to an allegedly “smash mouth” offense headed by QB Andrew Luck under the leadership of Colts’ head coach Chuck Pagano and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.

In theory, proponents of time of possession (T.O.P) will tell you that the stat is highly relevant because it is more advantageous to have your offense on the field than your defense. By controlling the football, a team keeps the opposition’s offense right where it wants it, on the bench. It maximizes the “striking” potential of its own offense, while minimizing that of the opposition. Conversely, it also enables the controlling T.O.P. team’s defense to rest and conserve energy for later in the game, where key stops and defensive plays may be needed to secure a victory. Simple in theory, right?

(Image Courtesy of MassLive)- Powerless Peyton! Countless times a helpless Peyton Manning was forced to stand idly on the sidelines, as his defense struggled to get off the field and negatively affecting the T.O.P war.

(Image Courtesy of MassLive)- Powerless Peyton! Countless times a helpless Peyton Manning was forced to stand idly on the sidelines, as his defense struggled to get off the field, negatively affecting the T.O.P war.

As a personal anecdote, I can’t tell you the countless number of times, particularly in the “Peyton Manning Era” of Colts’ football that I spent…wishing…praying…pleading…that our defense would get off the field. It was almost like the football gods’ version of Chinese water torture, watching the opposition dink-and-dunk it’s way to first down after first down…tick…tick…tick. Third and short? They’ll convert it…tick…tick…tick. The remaining clock would seemingly disappear in large chunks before #18 would ever see the ball again.

Adding further insult to injury, the television broadcast (mostly CBS cameras if my memory serves correctly) would be sure to pan to Peyton Manning waiting anxiously on the sideline, visibly agitated, almost like a vicious game of “Where’s Waldo?”. It was a tough life being a Colts’ fan sometimes in those days despite the utter offensive brilliance of Peyton Manning.

The Colts’ announced their change of philosophy, most notably when owner Jim Irsay in an October 2013, USA Today interview, made the following comments regarding Peyton Manning’s previous departure:

“We’ve changed our model a little bit, because we wanted more than one of these (referring to his Super Bowl ring). You make the playoffs 11 times, and you’re out in the first round seven out of 11 times. You love to have the Star Wars numbers from Peyton and Marvin (Harrison) and Reggie (Wayne). Mostly, you love this (referring to the ring again). In the playoffs, we ran the ball, we stopped the run. That’s what won us the Super Bowl. But we were Jekyll-and-Hyde schizophrenic. In looking at, again, how to build this thing, you really focus in.” -Jim Irsay, Colts’ owner

As a direct result, the team implemented head coach Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 defensive system (using his old Ravens’ blueprint) and boasted of having a new power running game under new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. While the 3-4 defensive implementation has been a clear improvement over the group that was left over from the preceding “Cover 2” defensive era, the supposed “power running game” has produced middling results. In 2013, the highlight of the power running game was seen in Week 3, when the Colts out-smash mouthed the  San Francisco 49ers, the “gold standard” team of modern smash mouth football, en route to a 27-7 demolition of a win. The lowlights were in Weeks 6 (@ San Diego), 10 (vs. Rams), and 12 (@Arizona), when the Colts scored 14 or less points in each loss.

As a football purist, I simply love the idea of a smash mouth running game and a corresponding strong defense. It takes me back to the gridiron days of old. That’s the way football should seemingly be played and truly embodies the spirit of the game. Tough, rugged, and physical, where do I sign up to play and watch? However, in today’s modern NFL, with all of the defensive penalties that now increasingly benefit passing offenses and receivers, is a “ground-and-pound” running game that controls T.O.P still the way to go? The dinosaurs were great in their day, but ultimately became extinct at some point, no?

Is it time to put the football in our best player, Andrew Luck’s hands, and let him make plays as part of a more prolific passing attack? As part of this analytical analysis, we’ve elected to look at whether “milking the clock” or rather controlling T.O.P directly correlates to winning football games. Winning the time of possession battle is a direct result of a running game and winning in the trenches, both offensively and defensively. Consequently, we’ve calculated each team’s average T.O.P. during the 2013 NFL season and ranked them accordingly. Additionally, for each team, we’ve added both their total offensive and defensive ranking in the 2013 season by points scored and allowed respectively. Lastly, to determine whether controlling T.O.P directly correlates to winning, we have added each team’s regular season winning percentage (2013). Please see our corresponding chart below: colts top2

My initial impressions are that last season’s best football teams: the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, and New England Patriots (i.e. the NFL playoffs’ version of the “Final 4”), didn’t particularly control time of possession all that well during the regular season. The Denver Broncos, featuring the NFL’s best offense (specifically a prolific passing attack), were pedestrian at controlling T.O.P, finishing 15th out of the 32 NFL teams.

(Image Courtesy of CBSSports)- RB Marshawn Lynch and the Super Bowl Champion are the modern day definition of "smash mouth" with a strong defense and running game.

(Image Courtesy of CBSSports)- RB Marshawn Lynch and the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks are the modern day definition of “smash mouth”, with a strong defense and running game.

Meanwhile, two of the other NFL’s elite, the Super Bowl Champion, Seattle Seahawks (14th), and NFC Runner-up, San Francisco 49ers (13th), were largely middle-of-the-pack as well. This is surprising because these two aforementioned teams are seemingly the epitome of smash mouth football in today’s game. When you look up the definition of “smash mouth” in the NFL’s football dictionary, you see a picture of “Beastmode” RB Marshawn Lynch waving, surrounded by the remaining likes of the “Legion of Boom”: DB Richard Sherman, FS Earl Thomas, and SS Kam Chancellor.

This is immediately followed by an alternative definition of the word, detailing the San Francisco 49ers, and their golden rushing attack of RB Frank Gorge and all-around superb defense anchored by LB Patrick Willis. These teams had the second portion of being smash mouth spot-on, having great defenses (1st and 3rd respectively), but their strong running attacks, aka the first portion, didn’t necessarily control the T.O.P clock as originally anticipated.

The New England Patriots are the last of the 4, but were the worst among them at T.O.P., finishing at 17th. Showing that the legendary QB Tom Brady couldn’t control the T.O.P battle either. Did he need, or even want to?

Top Pt2

Furthermore, if you had asked me just looking at this chart’s rankings and placing a high significance on T.O.P, while being blind on winning percentages, who I thought the best teams in the NFL were in 2013, I would’ve told you the Cincinnati Bengals were #1, followed closely by the Kansas City Chiefs at #2. The Bengals were 2nd in T.O.P, 6th offensively in points scored, and 5th defensively in points allowed; must be a great team, right? Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs were 7th in T.O.P, 7th offensively in points scored, and 5th defensively; another great team, right? Both are Super Bowl contenders? TOP3 Wrong. While the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs were very good playoff teams in 2013, you would’ve had a tough time convincing anyone other than their diehard fans that either was a Super Bowl contender. Both teams were very good overall featuring strong defenses, but ultimately had offenses that leaned heavily on their power running attacks and little else. (We saw firsthand against the Colts in the playoffs what happened to Kansas City once Pro-Bowler Jamaal Charles was TKO’d from the Wildcard game.) I’m not saying that either team’s philosophy is bad, in fact, I think it suits each’s roster and will ultimately win a lot of football games for both teams. However, a team should play to both its personnel and strengths. There’s no sense in pounding a square through a round hole just because you like the idea of a smash mouth identity in theory.

(Image Courtesy of IndyStar)- Prolific passer? At a certain point, the Colts will have to place the football more in QB Andrew Luck's hands for both to become truly elite.

(Image Courtesy of IndyStar)- Prolific protégé? At a certain point, much like his predecessor, the Colts will have to place the football more in QB Andrew Luck’s hands to become among the NFL’s truly elite.

What I’m saying is that while QB’s Alex Smith (Kansas City) and Andy Dalton (Cincinnati) are good starting NFL quarterbacks, they are widely viewed throughout NFL circles as “game managers”, rather than QB’s who are going to go out and almost single handedly win you a football game. There’s nothing wrong with that, they’ll do just fine with a strong defense and running attack.

However, I also think keeping the Colts’ QB Andrew Luck in a similar role, long-term, is limiting both his ability and enormous NFL potential. Early on, it’s been largely beneficial for his QB development. It has taken some of the pressure off Luck and has tempered expectations, while also kept him from getting banged up behind a generally poor pass blocking offensive line. Better to hand-off off than get hit for our franchise quarterback, no?

Yet, at some point, as QB Andrew Luck and the offensive line continue to improve and get better, the Colts will have to “take the training wheels off” and put the football in their best player’s hands when it matters. No offense to either, but that isn’t RB Trent Richardson or Ahmad Bradshaw, it’s Andrew Luck. For the Colts to make that next jump to contender, QB Andrew Luck, in turn, will have to make that next jump. For me, it’s not an issue of if, but when…and when he does, the Colts will have to implement an offensive system that fully maximizes his true ability. I’m not sure that’s “pounding the rock” through a power rushing attack and controlling T.O.P., thereby limiting QB Andrew Luck to a game manager. He’s a future QB star after all.

If you had looked at controlling T.O.P as the “all-be” for determining winning, you’d come to the conclusion that San Diego (1st), New Orleans (3rd), and Detroit (4th) joined Cincinnati (2nd), as the winningest teams in 2013. While aside from the Lions, those were all quality, even playoff teams in 2013, none were among the NFL’s truly elite.

Colts TOP3

I’m by no means saying that time of possession is an irrelevant NFL statistic, what I am saying is that much like other statistics, it should be taken with a grain of salt and mixed by both what you see with the naked eye and in combination with other relevant statistics. Many of the leaders in T.O.P. were also playoff teams: Carolina (5th), Cincinnati (2nd), Kansas City (7th), New Orleans (3rd), San Diego (1st), demonstrating that this statistic can indeed be useful. Much like anything else though, there were anomalies like the Detroit Lions (4th) and Houston Texans (6th), who finished with a winning percentage of .438 and 0.125 respectively. The NFL’s truly elite weren’t among the T.O.P leaders as previously covered. This leads me to believe that while time of possession can be an important statistic if used appropriately, it is far from the “all-be” determining factor, when it comes to winning football games.

colts top6

Lastly, while I do appreciate that the Colts are emphasizing a power running game and making a more conscientious effort to control the clock, I would hate to see them take the ball out of their best player’s hands for the long-term in QB Andrew Luck. I think there is something to be said for an offensive attack that is balanced and can either run or pass on a whim’s notice. It keeps opposing defense’s honest and off-balance. However, if the Colts’ start over-emphasizing a power running game, and run the ball just to say they run the ball as a forced  “smash mouth” offensive identity, then I think we’ll start to see problems. This leads to predictability, and with all of the advanced statistics and film study that are now available, I think we’d run the risk of being a “dinosaur” offense. Slow, predictable, and refusing to change…until it’s unfortunately, too late.

So the next time that broadcaster babbles on about how the Colts are losing the time of possession battle (sounding like your mother’s broken record), remember that you’re educated now, you’re informed, and calmly, chuckle to yourself. You realize the importance of time of possession if used correctly in moderation, but you also understand its inherent limitations if used strictly by itself. It can be a telling sign of how a game is being played, but it doesn’t directly correlate to winning alone.

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