I’m back. Finally. Between closing a deal at work to writing/editing my chapter in the Eyes of Texas 2008 to looking for and moving into a new apartment (who was it that said that real estate in New York City is less a business than a blood sport?), I’ve been too busy to do much of anything around here other than post snarky comments. I’m never so busy as to keep me from doing that. But you don’t care about this, so let’s get on with it, shall we?
Think back with me to a simpler time. September of 2007. Halcyon days, those were. The leaves were changing, the air was cooling and the Texas football team was 3-0 and ranked 6th in the country. Except that the leaves don’t change in Texas, they just die and fall off the trees, it was still 100 degrees in September, and the Longhorns were perhaps the worst 3-0 team in college football. The culprit? Other than the usual suspects singled out for blame, the inability to score in the red zone was the primary focus of many fans. The rampant fumbling and a certain first and goal at the 3 yard line that ended up as a turnover on downs against Arkansas-freaking-State stood out.
After those three games, I wrote a column about how we could better look at red zone offensive stats to figure out where the problem lay. Feel free to go back and take a look at that column that analyzes the first three games of the season, but it’s not necessary. After the jump, I will reproduce the introductory section of that column to refresh your memories about how I believe we should be thinking about "red zone" offensive possessions and then will go on to look at the data from the entire 2007 season and compare it to the 2005 season to get a look at what a very good offense does in what I call the "Scoring Zone." Feel free to skip the quoted text if you remember the model I created. There's nothing new there.
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.
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.
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 [...]. 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."
Looking at just the far right column for now, we see that on the season, Texas made 71 trips to the Scoring Zone and came away with points (touchdown or field goal) 60 times, or 85% of the time, which seems pretty good even though our expectation level is scoring points 100% of the time in the Scoring Zone. This is the statistic the box score would give you (albeit for the smaller, traditional red zone). But this doesn’t tell the whole story – not by a long shot.
On those 71 possessions, Texas scored touchdowns only 44 times, or 62% of the time, which I think is a more meaningful statistic for evaluating Scoring Zone offenses. While you can obviously blame the failure to score a touchdown on the weakness of a team's Scoring Zone offense, 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." So the 2007 team had 62% Touchdowns and 38% Not Touchdowns. That doesn’t seem to be very good.
But where is the Scoring Zone offense failing? That’s where the grades given to the 4 sub-Zones come into play. Texas actually performed best in the Orange Zone (from the 20 to the 11), putting up a .755 success score (note: this is not a success rate; it does not mean that Texas succeeded 75.5% of the time) and next best in the Yellow Zone (from the 30 to the 21). The TD Zone (the 5 to the goal) followed that trailed only by the Red Zone (the 10 to the 6), in which the offense performed significantly worse than in the rest of the Zones.
It makes sense to me that the Red Zone and TD Zone success scores were lower than the Yellow and Orange Zones because it seems obvious that the closer an offense gets to the goal, the stouter the opposing defense becomes because it has less ground to cover. It also somewhat makes sense that the team’s TD Zone performance was better than its Red Zone performance because the opposing defense isn’t that much stouter from the goal line to the 5 than it is from the 6 to the 10 and because the 6 to the 10 is sort of a no-man’s land in terms of calling plays. You’re not close enough to the goal to call goal-line plays and you’re not far enough away to have enough space to call regular plays (because of the aforementioned defensive packing-in). Of course you have plays for these situations, but it seems to me that this is often the weakest area of many OCs' playbooks.
What doesn’t make sense to me at all is why the offense had so much more success in the Orange Zone than in the Yellow Zone. Is it an anomaly or is there something to this? Either way, these are the types of things that this sort of analysis allows us to think about.
But the problem with these numbers is that while we can look at them relative to each other, we can’t put each success score in context by itself. We don’t know what a good Yellow Zone success score looks like. Going back to the reason I wrote the original column in the first place – Texas’ horrible performance in the first three games of the season – we can surmise what an awful success score looks like. Through the first 3 games, Texas posted success scores of .309 in the Yellow Zone, .291 in the Orange, -0.1 in the Red, and 0.0 in the TD Zone. In fact, through the first three games, Texas only scored 4 touchdowns from the Scoring Zone as opposed to 13 non-touchdowns (7 field goals and 6 empty possessions). The rest of the year improved dramatically on this, but was it actually, you know, good?
There’s one way to find out: compare it to a team you know to be a good Scoring Zone team. And I can think of none better than our very own 2005 National Champion Longhorns.
Scoring Zone Performance During the 2005 Season
Looking again at the box score stat you get for the traditional, 20-yard red zone, the 2005 team scored points 90% of the time they reached the Scoring Zone. This is better than the 2007 team’s 85%, but not by much. In fact, by looking at this stat alone, you might conclude that the two teams performed roughly equally in the Scoring Zone. But of course you would be wrong. While the 2007 team scored touchdowns on 62% of the drives in which they took a snap in the Scoring Zone, the 2005 team scored touchdowns on 75% of such drives, which is a better indicator of the strength of a Scoring Zone offense.
As for the success scores within each sub-Zone, I hypothesized in the original column that a good success score would be around 0.8 and I think the 2005 results show that guess to be roughly correct. In looking at these stats, the performance in the Yellow and Orange Zones is the inverse of the 2007 team. In fact, the 2007 team actually outperformed the 2005 team in the Orange Zone. I’m not sure what it is about the Orange Zone that is causing these numbers to be so out of whack with the rest of the performances of each of these teams. Perhaps it is an anomaly, but I’m willing to listen to theories as to why it’s not.
What’s really remarkable here is the 2005 team’s performance in the Red Zone and the Touchdown Zone, which are virtually identical. Obviously, Vince Young had a lot to do with that, scoring touchdowns and converting short-yardage plays with speed and elusiveness that Colt McCoy does not possess, but looking at the individual plays that succeeded in those Zones, there are a lot of rushes and passes as well. It wasn’t just VY running. Perhaps the threat of VY running did it, but that’s pretty hard to quantify.
Regardless, this leads me to believe that the Orange Zone success score for this 2005 team is an anomaly. The Yellow Zone score is fairly close to 0.8, not that far off from the Red Zone and TD Zone scores. So it seems that this team performed similarly from the 30 to the 21 yard lines as it did from inside the 10. That strikes me as the mark of an excellent offense: performing well up and down the field, regardless of yard line.
So in light of these 2005 stats, how do we view the Scoring Zone offense of the 2007 team? Well, obviously it wasn’t as good as the 2005 team. But that much can be expected. What’s telling is how much worse it is than the 2005 stats (Orange Zone success score excepted). The 2007 team performed relatively well in the Yellow and Orange Zones compared to the 2005 team, but tanked inside the 10 yard line.
I’ll leave it up to you all to divine meaning and causation from this. But the numbers are there. They’re not perfect, but they’re a whole hell of a lot better than looking at the box score and seeing 85% red zone scoring percentage in 2007 and 90% in 2005. Have at it.