Tim Casey/UAA Communications
Antonio Callaway gets behind the Kentucky defense for a 78 yard touchdown.

Florida’s decision to focus on red-zone offense is off the mark

Based on the quotes all offseason coming from Florida Gators offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, the red zone is a major area of focus for the offense in 2017.

“The one area that we have to address is the red area. The red zone. We haven’t been good in both seasons. Need to improve on that. We spent a lot of time working on that and the players are cognizant of it and we’ll continue to improve that.” (Doug Nussmeier as quoted by Gatorbait.net)

Florida was terrible in the red zone last season (ranked 123 of 128 FBS teams in red zone scoring percentage against FBS opponents). The Gators just couldn’t take advantage of its scoring opportunities.

On its surface, this argument makes sense. Not a game goes by each fall where CBS’ color announcer Gary Danielson doesn’t admonish a team for not converting on its chances in enemy territory. We’re told – every game – that converting these opportunities is the key to scoring.

Except this line of thinking is completely wrong.

Red Zone scoring efficiency effect on overall scoring

I charted each team’s scoring (points per game) ranking versus red zone scoring percentage ranking for 2016. These statistics are only against FBS opponents, so cupcake games are eliminated from the numbers (h/t www.teamrankings.com as the source of the statistics).

Red zone scoring percentage rank vs. points per game rank for 2016 FBS teams. (Will Miles/SEC Country)

There is a lot of scatter in that data. And while there is a positive correlation between red zone scoring percentage ranking and points per game ranking, the correlation is fairly weak (R2 = 0.30). This doesn’t mean red zone scoring isn’t important. It just means that the red zone should likely not be the emphasis of any team that wishes maximize scoring.

In the NCAA, the players have limited practice time. This means that there is an opportunity cost inherent in every decision made regarding where to spend that practice time. Every moment spent on red zone drills is a moment not spent on emphasizing areas that correlate better with scoring. And since the ultimate goal is to maximize points scored, and if red zone scoring percentage doesn’t correlate, then that time should be spent elsewhere.

So where should that time be spent?

What statistic correlates with scoring?

The answer is not pace of play. While fans think of Chip Kelly and his up-tempo pace driving the Ducks’ scoring, that doesn’t appear to be the case. It turns out, Oregon was just really good offensively. Charting plays per game ranking vs. points per game ranking yields a R2 of 0.06. This means there is no correlation between number of plays and points scored.

Instead, the largest correlation is between points per play ranking and points per game ranking (R2 = 0.91). This seems pretty obvious, but the implications are important.

When Urban Meyer was at Florida, he and his staff tracked what they called “explosive plays”. They defined those as plays over 20 yards. He may not have had statistical evidence for tracking those (he likely did), but Meyer was right that those are the plays to emphasize.

This clearly shows up in the data. The number of plays a team runs doesn’t matter at all. Effectiveness in the red zone matters very little. The thing that matters is the efficiency of turning individual plays into points, and the only thing that does that is explosive plays.

While tracking explosive plays is an arduous task, explosive plays lead to yardage. Charting yards per game ranking versus points per game ranking shows that there is a strong correlation between those two statistics (R2 = 0.74).

Yards per game rank vs. points per game rank for 2016 FBS teams. (Will Miles/SEC Country)

While the correlation between yards per game is not as strong as points per play, the correlation is still there and is still strong. The inference is clear. It is more important to put up lots of yardage – and likely have many red zone opportunities – than it is to convert each and every red zone opportunity.

Implication for Florida offense in 2017

All of which brings us back to Nussmeier. While it is true that Florida was terrible in the red zone, that wasn’t the only place the Gators struggled. Florida also ranked 109 in yards per game. The fact that the offense ranked 97 in points per game actually means that – as much as it makes me want to throw something – the offense actually overachieved based on the statistics it put up.

That probably isn’t true though. The Gators defense was so good that it picked up the scoring slack in various games (Missouri comes to mind) and  those scores are included in the numbers. But the fact remains that the offense was even worse than the scoreboard showed, and the scoreboard screamed that it was really, really bad.

Nussmeier – just like anybody else – must understand that explosive plays are preferable to dinking and dunking the ball down the field. And there are legitimate excuses for the offense struggling under his command. There is no doubt that the offensive cupboard was pretty dry from the Muschamp era. He has certainly had bad luck with QB availability, from the PED suspension of Will Grier in 2015 to multiple injuries to Luke Del Rio in 2016.

But the quote above indicates that the offensive struggles cannot all be attributed to bad luck. It indicates that Nussmeier is focusing on an area that will have limited return.

And in an environment where every minute of practice matters and every incremental improvement is critical, that is a scary proposition heading into the 2017 season.