For NFL fans seeking strong statistical analysis, mainstream progress has been very slow. Sports networks still rank the best offenses and defenses by total yards. Even a casual fan knows yards are not more important than points.
But general scoring stats also do not paint a detailed picture of how a team’s game or season went. A lot of the numbers in a game summary suffer the same problems. We need deeper context.
Fortunately, there is a better alternative. One that hopefully will become a permanent fixture in even the most general NFL analysis, and that is to look at the drive stats.
Football is a series of drives
At its core, football is a game primarily about offense versus defense, sprinkled in with some special teams.
Every team may play four quarters and 60 minutes, but what matters are the possessions; the drives that decide the outcome. Those are not constant. How the game was played — different paces and tempos — dictates the number of drives, and all of this is very important when analyzing a team’s stats.
You may have seen some drive stats recently as the networks showed how quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow have equally led the New York Jets to zero touchdowns on 15 drives each this preseason.
Last season, the worst offense in the league at scoring touchdowns — the St. Louis Rams managed just 16 — scored a touchdown on 8.4 percent of their drives. The Green Bay Packers led the league at 37.5 percent (63 touchdowns on 163 drives).
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Fortunately, a website like FootballOutsiders compiles drive data regularly, and you can view it for the 1997-2011 seasons. You can look at offense or defense, and the bottom table includes net drive statistics that take both into account.
Why drive stats work better than traditional stats
Let’s apply drive stats to the pair of 2011 games between the New England Patriots and New York Giants. First it was a 24-20 Giants’ victory in New England in Week 9, and of course a 21-17 win in Super Bowl XLVI.
By traditional stats, one may say the Giants did better offensively the first time. Having 24 points is better than 21, and if you remember the Super Bowl starting with Tom Brady’s bizarre intentional grounding for a safety, then the disparity is actually 24 to 19.
But how many people remember that the Week 9 game was 0-0 at halftime? Drive stats tell a much different story of how well the Giants played offensively. In each game, the Giants had a kneel-down drive before halftime, which is excluded.
If you take both totals and drive stats, this is where the Giants would have ranked in the 2011 regular season:
*20th using the Giants’ full 21 points for an apples-to-apples comparison. The NFL scoring rankings do not separate for non-offensive scoring plays. Drive stats do.
The Giants had an elite performance on offense in the Super Bowl when you look at the drive stats. On eight possessions, they scored two touchdowns and two field goals, while also moving the ball well on four drives that ended in a punt.
Yet that would never be recognized if you only looked at their below-league-average 19 points on the scoreboard. But an offense can only score when they have the ball, and on eight possessions, they produced like an elite offense.
Manning’s highly efficient offense limited his opportunities, as did a Colts defense that gave up many completions and plentiful gains on the ground. It was the perfect storm for games with few possessions, and ultimately it means the Colts’ offensive stats are better than they look, while the defense was actually worse.
Drive stats properly credit offenses and defenses for scoring plays they were actually on the field for, while giving us a much better indicator of efficiency and performance than the totals ever will.
PFT: Tom Brady says the loss of Wes Welker didn’t come as a surprise because Brady has been around long enough to know that there are no safe jobs in the NFL.
2013 SNF Schedule
Check out the 2013 Sunday Night Football schedule.
Latest from ProFootballTalk
Video: Football from NBC Sports
Vick on drafting Barkley: 'Coach needed to do it'
DPS: Philadelphia Eagles QB Michael Vick joins Dan Patrick to talk about the fierce QB competition in camp, if he believes any other QB in the league can beat him at a 40-yard dash, and the specifics after receiving the key to Atlantic City, N.J.
Check out some of the NFL cheerleaders from across the league.