Drew Magary had an interesting idea on Deadspin yesterday about how to curtail record-setting NFL offenses: Make 1st downs 11 yards rather than 10.
This got me thinking about our society’s enslavement to base-10 principles (and how if we really wanted to keep with that enslavement, we should just go full metric and switch to 1st-and-10 meters, since 11 yards is roughly 10 meters.)
But is an increased frequency of first downs really the reason offenses are becoming so unstoppable? The data suggests otherwise. Via SportingCharts.com, here’s the data since 1992 on the percentage of drives that go three-and-out plotted against the average drives per season per team. (Admittedly, the three-and-out rate probably isn’t the best statistic to measure this, but it’s the best I could dig up and should pretty well mirror 1st down conversion rates.)
As you can see, the three-and-out percentage has remained pretty steady the past few years but has dropped about half a percentage point from the early 2000s.
What has steadily risen over the last five years, though, is the total number of drives per team. This leads me to believe that offenses aren’t improving because teams continually pick up first downs but rather because they are scoring more quickly. This increased pace could be due to a few things: more yards per play, more passing plays (so the clock stops), or simply wasting less of the play clock.
I doubt the third reason (clock wasting) has much weight, but it certainly seems the first two (increased pace, more passing plays) play a big role in the increased number of drives.
So with this knowledge, how would I propose fixing this issue?
Probably just lengthen the field to 110 yards rather than change the distance necessary for a first down. Or conversely, I might suggest narrowing the field from 53 yards wide to 50 to combat the effects of spread offenses. (I remember seeing an argument somewhere recently that the spread offense has led to fewer injuries. I’d probably disagree… Sure, more players can find space and avoid contact, but the spread also allows both offensive and defensive players to use that space to gain more momentum and allow for bigger hits.)
So… Is this even an issue that needs fixing? Probably not. As long as there’s a solid balance between scoring drives and non-scoring drives, and it’s not skewed too far in either direction (i.e. making punting irrelevant), then the (slight) rise of offenses is fine by me. Sure, it might skew the data and make simple aggregate yard historical comparisons difficult, but that’s what z-scores are for.