Red zone worth checking, but long term is Oakland

Jan 20, 2003 10:20 PM

One area of football statistics generating increasing interest among NFL handicappers is how teams have performed in the red zone.

You’ll hear stats bandied about on the broadcasts covering "inside the 20" results and coaches will lament their squad’s inability to punch it into the end zone from close range in the post-game show.

Once in a while you’ll even come across the notorious "14-point swing play" where a pass is intercepted in the end zone and returned all the way back for a touchdown in the other direction.

For those of us looking to make a wager on a game, it’s necessary to note whether red zone stats carry some predictive value beyond the conventional numbers. Check out the pros and cons.

PRO RED ZONE HANDICAPPING

”¡ Measures crunch time performance

”¡ Measures tight quarters execution

”¡ Reflects meaningful scoring opportunities

”¡ Rewards "bend don’t break" defenses

”¡ Is based on the likely key plays of a game

COUNTER ARGUMENTS

”¡ Discounts teams with good long distance offense (Oakland) and defense ( Tennessee). Doesn’t penalize teams that don’t score from long-range or give up the big play (Philadelphia).

”¡ Uses a smaller amount of data than overall stats, leading to less reliable conclusions

”¡ Can reflect too much on garbage time, particularly with teams that only get into the red zone when an opponent is in a prevent defense

It is important to focus on how often a team scores, or gives up, a touchdown when a drive enters the red zone. Kicking a field goal once inside the 20 is no great shakes. Frequently it can even be demoralizing for an offense to "settle" for the three points. On the other hand, a team with bad luck in red zone turnovers can often be a better bet than one which has had the breaks.

The NFL average in the red zone is 53% touchdowns, so most of the top five did it with defense. Of course, only one of the teams made the playoffs! Of the four conference finalists, Tampa Bay had the highest TD percentage difference at +10% (46% offense, 36% defense).

Philadelphia was next at +6% (48% to 43%), followed by Oakland at +0% (58% to 58%) and Tennessee -2% (60% to 62%). Score one for the red zone detractors.

Another way to judge the red zone performance is by how often they get there on offense, and how rarely on defense they allow their opponents to find the high-scoring opportunities.

Here, each of the top five squads boasted winning records. All but Miami qualified for the postseason. The two other conference finalists not in the top five were Tennessee at +10 (55 on offense, 45 on defense) and Oakland at +2 (58 to 56).

The top five in net red zone points were: Miami (+120), Philadelphia (+113), Tampa Bay (+92), Pittsburgh (+65), and Tennessee (+62). While this produces three of the four finalists, it still makes us wonder if red zone stats stack up well in predictive value.

The success of a team’s offense when starting at their own 20 yard line or worse has often been the most powerful predictor of which squads will be matching up in the Super Bowl. It harks back to the days of Elway and Montana, leading their troops down the field.

Last year the long drive stats correctly tabbed St. Louis and New England as the finalists. This year the long drive leaders on offense in touchdown percentage are Oakland (30% of drives starting at their own 20 or worse went for touchdowns), and Philadelphia (24%).

If the Raiders win the Super Bowl, then their ability to sustain a long drive may well be the deciding factor.

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