December 3, 2016

Outside Foxborough – Scoring and Possession Trends

fo.jpgBy Bill Barnwell
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42 points in a half is a lot, even for these Patriots. It’s not an unbeatable total if you’re Bill Belichick, apparently, but it’s enough to inspire thoughts of record totals. It leads announcers to point out that the Patriots, against the Dolphins, were on pace to score 84 points.

The thing is, of course, teams who are “on pace” to score 42 points don’t score at the same pace in the second half. Both teams see their game plan change: The leading team runs the ball more to kill clock, while the trailing team throws the ball almost exclusively to make some attempt to catch up, as unrealistic as it might be. The leading team generally has fewer possessions because, inherently, teams that score 42 points in a half need some luck to get there — namely, an extra possession or two from turnovers. If we look at all drives from 1998-2006, we can see that teams would find it extremely hard to get to 42:

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With six possessions on average in each half, teams would need to score a touchdown on every drive. The Patriots are good, but not that good — they benefited from a Cleo Lemon fumble that gave them a short field, and picked up seven points on a Willie Andrews kickoff return.

What we also see in that breakdown is that both scoring and possessions are seemingly consistent — an average performance from a team sees them score about five points a quarter on three possessions.

Of course, describing the Patriots offense as “average” is nonsensical at this point. Let’s split the data by points per quarter and see how many points, for example, a team that goes scoreless in the first quarter scores on average in that game:

So, then, a team that goes scoreless in the first quarter averages 14 points per game — slightly less than the 5-point-per-quarter pace that we’d expect.

The issue with looking at data towards the realm of scoring the Patriots approached is sample size; while 15 teams have scored 38 points in a half, only one has scored 41, 44, or 47 points. That being said, none of them have significantly increased their total, so it’s a pretty safe bet to say that we shouldn’t really expect the Patriots to double their point total in the second half.

If we break point totals down by possessions per quarter and half, there are some interesting trends:

The Patriots, for reference, had two possessions in the first quarter (for 14 points), five in the second (28 points, with the Andrews kickoff return counting as a possession), but only one in the third and three in the fourth — that’s eleven possessions, actually one below average.

It’s interesting that there’s only really a slight upwards trend in the first half for points compared to possessions — you would assume that more possessions would yield more points and a shootout, but it’s also the case when teams just can’t move the ball and are punting at each other all game. In the third quarter, actually, there’s no relationship whatsoever between possessions and points, as it begins to blur together.

Do teams that have a lot of possessions in the first half continue to have them in the second half, though?

Not really. The small increases at the margins aren’t enough to say that possessions in the first half have any predicative value for possessions in the second half.

Next time an announcer says that a team is on pace for a certain amount of points, you can safely ignore him or her. Whether it be due to luck running out, changes in the game plan, a lack of possessions, or combination of the three, most teams’ scoring totals regress to the average over the course of a full game.

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