Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Third Down Bail Out

The Football Outsiders have predicted that the Packer offense will slide this year. This has got to seem counter-intuitive to most Packer fans as the offense is (except for Driver and Clifton) young and on the rise. FO's reasoning is mainly statistics based:

Their offense was flukily-effective on third down last year. We've found that teams that play much better on third down than they do on first or second down in a given season almost always see their third down play decline in the subsequent season. The Packers were 11th in the league in first down offensive DVOA last year, and 22nd on second down, but had the second-best offense in the league on third down. That's extremely unlikely to recur.

The thinking here is that over the long run you cannot count on an offense to "bail itself out" of a tough third down. In short, high productivity on third down is as much a function of luck as it is skill. And luck tends to even out over the long run. Or so goes the argument.

I have done my own---profoundly unscientific---study and I'm not sure that that FO's reasoning will hold true for the Packers this season. The thing that strikes me when looking at the Packers 2008 3rd down opportunities is the number of big plays on third and short. McCarthy is a very aggressive third down playcaller (in part because he is more willing to go for it on fourth down). While the conventional team will plunge forward for 1, 2, 3 or 4 yards to pick up third and short, McCarthy (again completely unscientific here) at least seems to be far more willing to attack through the air.

In fact, I often hate this quite a bit. I don't know how many times I have yelled at my television screen when McCarthy dials up a pass play on 3rd and 2.

Nevertheless, I suspect that this approach might skew the third down DVOA, which measures each play's outcome versus the typical outcome. When the typical outcome on third and short is a 2 or 3 yard gain, and the Packers connect on a 30 yard pass, I suspect it is going to skew the third down DVOA quite a bit. Just a hunch.

If the 3rd down DVOA is a function of tactical decisions rather than luck, one would not expect the Packers to slip that much (if at all).

That said, last night there was a lot third (and fourth) down bail outs. Both Packer touchdown drives included third and ten situations. Rodgers connected with Driver for the long TD on the first one. On the second, McCarthy called a running play and the Browns gave the Packers a freebie first down via fourth down penalty. In addition, Flynn connnected with Jones on two third an 9 situations. All in the first half.

Here, I agree with FO that these types of outcomes are unsustainable in the long run. The Packers have to "stay ahead of the sticks." That will be something to watch for this preseason.

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