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soulman

DATA ENTRY: Big Plays Win Games

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Big Plays Win Games

5fb7dabcc9ddb6eb415d87bdfbe6736d?s=16&d= Johnathan Wood | August 12th, 2019

https://dabearsblog.com/2019/big-plays-win-games

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What if I told you that less than 14% of plays determine the outcome of most NFL games?


Everybody loves watching big plays in football. Highlight reels are filled with bone-crushing sacks, long runs, deep bombs to a streaking WR, and big interceptions, because those are the exciting plays fans love to watch.

It turns out those are the plays that decide games too, and I have the stats to prove it.


Methods

Earlier this offseason, I wrote about the strong correlation between long runs and passes and overall offensive success, which got me thinking about what other plays might prove to be crucial to a team’s success. I ended up settling on four types of plays, which I will briefly describe below:

  • Explosive run: a carry that goes for 15+ yards
  • Explosive pass: a pass that goes for 20+ yards
  • Sacks
  • Turnovers

My hypothesis was that the team who produces more of these big plays than their opponent will usually win the game. To test this, I tracked all four categories for all 256 NFL games in 2018, along with the final score of each game.

 


Results

Teams that produced more big plays went 178-52 in 2018, good for a winning percentage of 77%.

That’s pretty remarkable when you consider that these plays accounted for less than 14% of all plays from scrimmage – not even considering special teams – and yet matched the winner 77% of the time. (Side note: if you’re doing the math and finding 178+52 is only 230, not 256, that’s because 26 games either ended in a tie or had both teams produce the same number of big plays).

I also looked at the season-long big play differential for teams compared to the number of games they won, which can be seen in the chart below.

big-play-wins.png?resize=450%2C270

As you can see, there’s a decent pattern there, which can be quantified with a correlation of 0.59. Generally, teams that won more games produced more big plays and/or gave up fewer big plays, which led to them winning. For the 2018 Bears, for instance, they led the NFL in both defensive big plays produced and limiting offensive big plays against them, and did a good job of avoiding sacks. That combination gave them a big play differential of +42, 2nd best in the NFL, even though they were below average in producing explosive plays on offense.

Now I realize this isn’t exactly a revolutionary conclusion – teams with more big plays win more games, duh! – but I think it’s useful to have numbers quantifying just how strong the relationship is. I know I was not expecting it to be this high.


Turnovers

There’s been a lot of work done over the years at the importance of winning the turnover battle, so I also checked this against just turnovers to see if it was any sort of improvement. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to be. In 2018, the team that won the turnover battle won 74% of the time, and historically that number has stayed fairly consistent in the 75-80% range, which is right around the 77% for big plays in 2018.

A closer look reveals that looking at total big plays, not just turnovers, can be helpful though. To understand why, let’s break up the turnover differential based on how close it was.

  • 2+ turnover margin: teams that won the turnover battle by 2 or more went 77-15 (84%) in 2018. There’s really not much improving on that, so let’s just say that winning the turnover battle by 2+ should win you the game. I will note, however, that 7 of the 15 losers in this category had a neutral or negative big play differential overall.
  • +1 turnover margin: Teams that won the turnover battle by exactly 1 went 64-34 (65%) in 2018. That’s pretty good, but here is where expanding to look at all big plays can be useful. In these 98 games, teams that won the big play differential won 76% of the time (66-21), a nice improvement from 65% when only looking at turnovers.
  • Even turnover margin: When the turnover margin is 0, teams win 50% of the time by definition, because every game has a winner and loser. This happened in 64 games in 2018, and in that group of games, the team that won the big play battle won 67% of the time (40-19).

This makes pretty good sense, at least to me. When a team wins the turnover margin convincingly, they should win the game. If the turnovers are close or even, other big plays have a larger role in determining the winner. Again, there’s nothing revolutionary in the conclusion, but I was a bit surprised by how convincing the relationship is.


Connections to 2019 Bears

Chicago won in 2018 despite a less-than-explosive offense because their defense was really good at generating turnovers and avoided giving up big plays. They’re very likely going to force fewer turnovers in 2019, and Chuck Pagano’s more aggressive style will likely leave them exposed to giving up more big plays as well. That means they’ll have to produce more explosive plays on offense if they want to remain among the best teams in the NFL.

The good news is that there are several reasons to think that will happen:

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I see a lot of the data guys saying this.  They also say running doesn't matter, only threat of run.  

It's true of course in a sense, but I liken it to a fight.  Of course the hook or whatever big punch to head actually wins the fight, but you usually never get that big punch without effective feints, body shots and jabs.

They always discount the feints and jabs as unimportant because they do little damage on paper.  They are vitally important.

It's the non box score stat like the DL that eats up two blockers, etc.   

That being said, big plays are difference between good teams and great teams.  'Momentum changers' is what Jimmy Johnson called players who make big plays.  He said you need momentum changers to win.  

 

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I also take it to mean an offensive big play or a defensive big play need not end in a score if it flips the field and then ends up in a score that does become a game changer.

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Posted (edited)

Really interesting article, @soulman, thanks for posting.

I imagine with guys like Mack and Jackson, turnovers will be prominent once again in 2019. Speaking of Mack, assuming no injuries there's no reason why he, Floyd and Hicks won't put on another sack display. 

I also think Trubisky can't be worse down the field, especially considering he turned it up at the end of the year (long completion to Robinson in SF, long completion to Gabriel in MIN, a few relatively long throws late vs PHI). Assuming Miller is healthy, he'll play a big role in that because he was a big play machine at Memphis.

Edited by beardown3231

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Posted (edited)
2 hours ago, beardown3231 said:

Really interesting article, @soulman, thanks for posting.

I imagine with guys like Mack and Jackson, turnovers will be prominent once again in 2019. Speaking of Mack, assuming no injuries there's no reason why he, Floyd and Hicks won't put on another sack display. 

I also think Trubisky can't be worse down the field, especially considering he turned it up at the end of the year (long completion to Robinson in SF, long completion to Gabriel in MIN, a few relatively long throws late vs PHI). Assuming Miller is healthy, he'll play a big role in that because he was a big play machine at Memphis.

Thanks BD.  happy0180.gif

Bears Wire posted another article from a guy (not one of theirs) who also insists the Bears defense will regress mightily in 2019.

One reason I like to post Jonathan Woods stuff is he's an analytical who examines facts and probabilities including historical data to provide us all with information from which we can draw our own conclusions as opposed to the media manipulators who like to draw conclusions for us for the sake of getting read and the "hits" they get.

I expect that under Pagano we may give up a few more big plays just as we did under Buddy Ryan.  More aggressive defenses do tend to do that but we'll also make more big plays that become game changers for us.  And how anyone can project our defense being much worse simply because we lost the 11th and 12th guys on it is beyond me.

Bush and HHC-D can easily replace Amos and I trust that Skrine and Shelley or McManis can take on Callahan's role adequately.  Mack and Smith both played at Pro Bowl levels without benefit of camp and preseason in the defense so how much better might they be this year having spent 6 weeks doing it?  There's where our sacks can come from.

Mitch is progressing and only needs to clean up some of his poor mechanics and trust his arm and his receivers more.  We have to remember that Nagy is still trying to coach his John Fox "check down mode" out of him.  ARob is now 100% so what we saw in that playoff game may become more the norm. 

Miller's shoulder has been repaired and he was actually Trubisky's top deep target not Gabriel.  And then we have Wims and Ridely both of whom would have started for us two years ago plus Cohen and Patterson and two RBs who can also catch and are more efficient runners than Howard. So what's not to like?

I've been one of this teams harshest critics for a very long time and even I can't find much to ***** about.  They've finally turned a corner from top to bottom and are an organization on their way back to the top again.  That's what I see now and I hope I'm right.

Edited by soulman

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