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Playing the Numbers Game: Red Zone Offense

Billyzane's look at the game through the prism of numbers returns with a look at the red zone.

The Red Zone is fake.  

Now that I’ve got your attention: it’s not really fake.  But what defines it is wholly arbitrary and makes it borderline useless.  Is what you do on offense inside the opponent’s 20-yard line more important than what you do on any other yard line?  That depends on what type of team you are.  If you’re a big play team that scores on lots of long touchdown plays and has a kicker with a very strong leg, you don’t have to be particularly good at doing anything in the red zone in order to win games.

But if you’re a team that’s racking up a lot of offensive yards but not scoring as many points as you would expect off of those yards, then what you do in the red zone surely is more important to winning games than what you do in the rest of the field.  An accumulation of yards generally leads to an accumulation of points, but not always.  When it doesn’t, the culprit is generally one or both of those problems: 1) an inability to score on long plays, and/or 2) an inability to operate effectively in the red zone.  The main complaint about Texas’ offense this year has been about the latter.  But in order to figure out whether it’s really a problem, we need to determine what constitutes a "success" in the red zone. And to do that, we need to figure out what exactly the point of the red zone is.

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What is the Red Zone?

If you guessed body wash,
allow me to redirect you here.

In the box score, red zone scoring percentage is the number of times you come away with any points on a drive in which at least one snap occurred in the red zone divided by the number of such drives.  But is "points" the definition of success?  It’s you’ve got 1st and goal on the 2, a field goal is more or less a failure.  It’s better than 0 points, but still less than any team should come away with in such a situation.  But what about 3rd and 9 at the 20-yard line?  A field goal in that situation might be considered a success.

Thus, we need to take a step back and define what the "Red Zone" really is.  I define it as the area of the field within which an offense should expect to score at least some points just by being there.  That is, by virtue of taking at least one snap in this "zone," you should score some points.  Thus, I think the traditional notion of the "Red Zone" should be extended to the 30-yard line from the 20 because a field goal attempt snapped at the 30 yard line is 47-yards, the upper limit for what I think is reasonable in the college game.  Perhaps the limit is more accurately somewhere in between 25 and 30 yards, but round numbers make things easier.  Either way, this is called the "Scoring Zone."  You expectation of scoring some points when you reach this zone should be around 100%.

But it also becomes clear that not every yard line in the "Scoring Zone" is created equal.  Your expectations of success from the 30-yard line and from the 5-yard line are quite different.  Thus, I propose breaking the Scoring Zone into four sub-zones.  From the 30 to the 21 is the Yellow Zone.  From the 20 to the 11 is the (Burnt) Orange Zone.  From the 10 to 6 is the Red Zone.  And inside the 5 is the Touchdown Zone.  Your definition of "success" varies depending on which zone you are in.  If you’re in the Yellow Zone, then a successful offense will either score a TD from the Yellow Zone or will advance beyond the Yellow Zone (to the Orange or beyond).  This demarcation allows us to more accurately pinpoint where the problems in the Scoring Zone offense arise.

But that’s not all that matters to determining what constitutes success, of course.  The goal of a Scoring Zone offense is almost always to score touchdowns.  But if your first snap inside the 5-yard line is on 4th down, you can’t have the same expectations of success on the drive as if your first snap inside the 5 is on 1st down.  Here is a chart giving what I believe to be relatively accurate expectation levels for a good Scoring Zone offense to "succeed" (advance to next zone or score a touchdown) based on downs (Yellow and Orange are different than Red and Touchdown because the former zones are 10-yards long and the latter are only 5):

Effectively, this means that if you have a first down in any of the zones, a good Scoring Zone offense should advance to the next zone (or score a touchdown) before fourth down 100% of the time, and so on.  For example, say you have second down and 10 at the 23 yard line (the Yellow Zone) and on the first play you gain 4 yards.  You have succeeded in the Yellow Zone (by advancing to the Orange Zone – the 19-yard line).  Now you have third down and 6 at the 19.  Your expectation of "success" in the Orange Zone (i.e. advancing to the Red Zone) is not particularly high, even for a good Scoring Zone offense.  Thus, not advancing to the Red Zone in this situation is not as poor a reflection on the offense as it would be if they had failed with a first down at the 19.

Additionally, facing third down and goal at the 6 yard line and only getting 4 yards, giving you fourth and goal at the 2 shouldn’t be considered a success either, even though the offense advanced from the Red Zone to the Touchdown Zone.  If the team advances to the next Zone but doesn’t get there until it’s fourth down, that’s not a success because there’s nowhere else for the offense to advance.  That’s a failure.

Grading Scoring Zone Success

This is based on the highest down you have within the zone.  So, if it’s 3rd and 2 at the 15 and the offense converts and it’s now 1st and 10 at the 13, your expectation of success in the Orange Zone is based on that first down, not the previous third down.

If you succeed with a first down in a given zone, you get 1 point.  If you succeed with, at best, a second down in a given zone, you get 1.2 points (based on the greater degree of difficulty).  For third down, it’s 1.5 and for fourth down, it’s 2 points.  If you fail to convert you get negative 1 point if you had a first down at some point in that zone, negative .8 points if the best down you had in that zone was second down, negative .5 points if it was third down and 0 points if it was fourth down and you went for it and didn’t get it (you get a "--" if the best down you had in a zone was 4th down and you tried for a field goal).

If the team turns the ball over (on downs, fumble, interception, or by punt) or misses a field goal, I will make a note of it in the success charts below.  However, while it is important to the overall success of a drive and to the game, I don’t think it has any bearing on the quality of a team’s Scoring Zone offense beyond the fact that it’s a "failure."

[note: in the charts below, there is only a success or failure score (or dashes) if the offense took a snap in that zone on that drive]

Performance against UCF

Performance against TCU

Performance against ASU

Performance Overall in First 3 Games by Zone


I’m going to keep amassing this data for the rest of the year and report back to you at some point with a far better sample size, but is there anything we can already see so far this year?  Well, obviously, when you reach the Scoring Zone, you always want to come away with some points because you’re already more or less in field goal range.  And yet, as you can see in the far right column of the last chart, in 6 of Texas’ 17 trips to the Scoring Zone, they came away with nothing.  However, while you can obviously blame the lack of a touchdown on the weakness of the Scoring Zone offense, but I don’t think you can blame the offense for missed field goals if they were within a reasonable range.  For that reason, when looking at this data to determine the strength of the offense, instead of looking at them as "scored points vs. didn’t score points," I think we should be categorizing these attempts as "Touchdowns" and "Not Touchdowns."  In 17 trips to the Scoring Zone, Texas scored just 4 touchdowns.  I have no idea what average or good might look like for this stat, but I think we can all agree that this is terrible.

But why is this the case?  Where is the Scoring Zone offense failing?  Let’s go zone-by-zone.  Texas has only reached the Touchdown Zone before fourth down twice all year, both times on first down.  Once, Texas scored a touchdown (by Vondrell McGee vs. TCU) and once they turned it over on downs (by Jamaal Charles vs. ASU).    

Look, they can't all be winners, okay?
I'm tired.

The Yellow Zone and the Orange Zone are about even in their success scores, at .31 and .29 respectively, meaning that, at least thus far, there’s nothing inherently different about what Texas is doing offensively from the 20-11 yard lines (one half of the "traditional red zone") than what it is doing from the 30-21 yard lines (an area outside the "traditional red zone"), and neither of them is very good.  In fact, they’re downright bad.  My guess would be that anything above .8 would be acceptable, and Texas isn’t anywhere close to that.

A look at the Red Zone (yards 10-6), though, reveals levels of atrocity not even anticipated by the merely "bad" scores in the Yellow and Orange Zones.  So much so, even, that I think we need to look at these drives.  Against ASU, the only drive to include a snap in the Red Zone saw Jamaal Charles take a handoff at the 10 all the way to the end zone.  Texas’ only drive against TCU that included a snap in the Red Zone occurred when the offense has a second and 8 at the 10, followed by an incomplete pass and a Colt McCoy rush for 7 yards.  Although that run got Texas to the Touchdown Zone, it wasn’t until fourth down, which as I said earlier, isn’t a success at all.

On the first drive against UCF, Texas had a first and goal on the 7 and couldn’t even get the ball inside the 5 until fourth down.  On the second drive, Texas had a first and goal on the 8 and scored a touchdown in 2 plays.  Then on the third drive, Texas had a third and 2 on the 6 and Jamaal fumbled after appearing to pick up the first down.  So that’s 5 trips to the Red Zone, amounting to 2 touchdowns, 2 field goals, and a fumble.  It’s not a huge sample size, but it doesn’t look very good, and it appears that this is where the problem lies.

Thus the scoring percentage in this version of the Red Zone is 80%, which is all the box score gives you (albeit for their "larger red zone"), and which looks not too bad.  But that’s the danger of just looking at the box score.  You just can’t get the whole picture.  It misleads you into thinking that Texas might actually be doing well in the Red Zone and, even if you know better, it tells you nothing about where or why.

As I said, I’ll keep track of these red zone stats for the rest of the season and report back when there’s a better sample size.  In the meantime, I know this model isn’t perfect so any helpful suggestions on how to make it better would be appreciated.