Thursday, July 31, 2008

College Football Book Archive: Volume Two, Second Installment

The concluding installment of Friday Afternoon Quarterback (2003)

Part Three:
The Tweener Zone, the Blue Zone, and the Value of “Hidden Points”

It’s a silent, subtle but oh-so-important dimension of football: no, not whether you score touchdowns in the red zone—that’s not very subtle. No, in addition to everything that’s been said and analyzed up to this point, there’s yet another separate dimension of football that creeps up on people—and on teams and coaches: it is not whether you get 7 or 3, but whether you get 3 or 0. Because college football is so wacky, so crazy, so unpredictable, so fragile, so volatile, any three-point difference you can get, any extra field goal you can manage, is a huge bonus. Yes, when offensive heavyweights play, the value of a field goal gets diminished, but when you consider how old-timey this past year was, with an old-fashioned Ohio State team succeeding with a 1960s football ethos, it makes you stop and reconsider the value of a field goal. Therefore, it’s not just what you do in the red zone as an offense (or defense), it’s what you manage to do in the area of the field in your opponent’s territory, but not yet in traditional scoring range: midfield to the 35-yard line.

Many times, football analysts will talk about how offenses move the ball well between the 20s, but then can’t function at the extreme ends of the field. That’s quite true, and quite appropriate as a point of analysis. But just as important is the need for an offense, after gradually moving the ball down the field, or perhaps after getting a turnover around midfield, to get that one… more… crucial… first… down… with extra effort… against… a tough defense that… digs in with… a new sense of urgency. When you’re between midfield and the opponent’s 35, you’re almost always in a situation where one first down will put you in field goal range. If you have the ball between midfield and your opponent’s 46, a first down at the 39-35 yard lines won’t automatically result in a field goal chance. But the point remains that, if you have a first down at the opponent’s 45 or closer, a first down—and the 10-plus yards that come with it—will put you in field goal range.

Therefore, there needs to be a newfound emphasis for this part of the field. It would be hokey (not“Hokie;” hokey!…) to apply another color to this name, so let’s just name it for what it really is: the“tweener zone.” It’s not an area inside a yard line, but an area between two yard lines, the 50 and the opponent’s 35. The “tweener” label isn’t some arbitrary label, and it might not sound cool or hip, but it directly describes the area of the field in question. It is an in-between area where you have really good field position, but just barely out of scoring position. A readily available and entirely reasonable parallel can be made with hockey, where the neutral zone, particularly on your opponent’s side of the ice, is just out of what would be referred to as normal scoring range. The biggest blast from a defenseman that can have a reasonable chance of beating a quality goaltender comes from just inside the opponent’s own zone, and NOT from the neutral zone. In football, the 35-yard line is a reasonable line of demarcation between what is commonly accepted as scoring territory, and what is commonly considered to be punting territory. It truly is an ambiguous, in-between area on the football field that creates some agonizing dilemmas for coaches, especially when the ball is near the opponent’s edge of the tweener zone, around the 38- or 37-yard line. Those coaching decisions are tough. Creating this term—the tweener zone—and ultimately injecting it into the world of mainstream college football analysis would serve the sport well (and would also serve the world of pro football well, while we’re at it), because it would open up so many new avenues for both understanding the game (as a coach or player) and for keeping detailed statistics (for fans and journalists). The football industry as we know it would be greatly enhanced and informed by using tweener zone stat-keeping.

You want to know how important the tweener zone is, or at least how important it can be at a time when college football seems to be a defense-oriented sport? Look at the Michigan-Ohio State game from the 2002 season.

In the second half, Michigan had at least two drives end in the tweener zone, with a third drive ending just a yard past it at the Ohio State 34. In a five-point game (14-9), two field goals on the failed “tweener zone possessions” would have made the difference for Michigan. As for Ohio State, the Buckeyes and Jim Tressel faced a wrenching decision when, with stud placekicker Mike Nugent available in a game led 9-7 by Michigan, the Bucks had a fourth down situation(needing more than four yards) at the Michigan 36, right at the end of the tweener zone. When Tressel made the decision to punt—I’ll offer no comments on the decision, right or wrong—it simply illustrated how the edge of the tweener zone is the focal point for a lot of key strategic decisions that are so immensely important in a football game.

The other bowl games from 2002 (or New Year’s Day of 2003) continued to demonstrate the importance of the tweener zone. In the first half of the Holiday Bowl, Arizona State had the ball in Kansas State territory EIGHT TIMES, meaning that they had the ball in the tweener zone on at least six occasions (the Sun Devils got at least one turnover inside the KSU 35, so that accounted for one of their eight possessions in Wildcat territory). On at least two or maybe even three occasions, the Devils had a drive start around the Kansas State 47-yard line, between midfield and the KSU 45. Just one 15-yard pass from Andrew Walter would have gotten the Devils into field goal range; yet, the Kansas State defense was able to stand tall and force an ASU punt. Instead of racking up a big number in the 30s, the Sun Devils were only able to tally 20 points off those eight possessions in KSU territory, and that inability to get points off drives—and even to accumulate field goals—cost them in a game ultimately decided by seven points. If those three drive starts within the tweener zone had all been converted into field goals, the Devils would have won by two on the strength of nine added points.

The tweener zone. It’s not a sexy name, and it doesn’t refer to one of the sport’s flashier elements, but it’s damn important, and it should become a regular part of our national American football vocabulary… and oh-by-the-way, it should also provide new stat-keeping outlets for team managers and for websites like CFN. And if we want to break down statistics in the tweener zone, isolating the area from midfield to an opponent’s 35, we should also want to isolate the area between the tweener zone and the long-established red zone, this area being between an opponent’s 35- and 20-yard lines.

Since “tweener zone” is a somewhat quirky name, this other area between the 35 and 20 should be labeled with the primary color that is most commonly paired or associated with red: blue. Yes, let’s call the area between an opponent’s 35 and 20 the “blue zone.” It’s simple, recognizable and consistent with the red zone. In tandem with the tweener zone, the significance of the blue zone is that it opens up a discussion of what should and shouldn’t be expected when it comes to scoring in an opponent’s end of the field. By providing two extra categories for tracking scoring percentages or point totals in an opponent’s end of the field, the blue zone and tweener zone can enable both coaches and journalists to break down football in smaller, more specific ways, and to identify—for their own separate purposes (for the coaches, winning games; for all journalists, providing better, more nuanced analysis)—difference-making elements of football in the 21st Century. Here is a basic look at how each of the three zones in an opponent’s end of the field can guide the strategy and play-calling of coaches… and also, the extent to which they try to recruit top-flight placekickers:

In the red zone, our only currently-established “zone,” it’s obvious that you have to come away with touchdowns a majority of the time. When you get close to the end zone, you have to punch it in. Driving the ball down to the five-yard line is a sign of excellence, but without those final five yards, excellence becomes relative and ultimately insufficient to win big ballgames against elite teams. Not scoring touchdowns in the red zone gives opposing defenses the confidence to force you to dink and dunk the ball down the field, only to bog down inside the 20. When you’re playing high-powered offenses, your failure to make a time-consuming drive end in a red zone touchdown is devastating. While you take seven minutes off the clock for a 24-yard field goal, your opponent drives 80 yards in four plays and one minute, and your momentum is gone. The other reason why red zone touchdowns are so important—and so telling—in the course of a game is that the great teams, even with the limited space (and thereby, play-calling options) offered by the red zone, can still manage to either overpower, outrun or out-think opponents to get seven points instead of three. Being able to have the dominant running game, or the superior play-action passing game involving a stud tight end (Miami with Kellen Winslow, Jr. comes to mind here), takes a team to a higher level. In the red zone, it’s all about touchdowns. In the blue zone, the key (at least in the first 40 minutes of a game, or before the time left in a game forces you to go for touchdowns or first downs, no matter what) is that you come away with three points, at least from the 20- to 27-yard lines.

Whereas the red zone puts a premium on getting touchdowns that are anything but guaranteed(while field goals are taken for granted), the blue zone puts a premium on making sure you get three points.It goes without saying that you should get at least three points in the red zone. The importance of the blue zone, then, is that it puts a considerable amount of focus and importance on being able to walk away with a field goal from this area of the field, which involves moderate-to-long field goal distances. When the line of scrimmage is from the opponent’s 20 to 27, a resulting field goal will be from 37-44 yards in length. At the college level, any field goal below a distance in the mid-to-upper 40s is a field goal that simply has to be made a very high percentage of the time. When you get stopped from the 20 to the 27, you have to come away with three. The blue zone ultimately elevates standards for placekickers by including a portion of the field outside of the red zone as “automatic field goal territory.”

Then, when the issue is the 28- to 35-yard lines, the blue zone maintains a focus on placekicking and the value of field goals. The use of the category of the blue zone places a point of emphasis on the need for high-level kickers to make a fair share of field goals from the mid/upper 40s (a kick with the line of scrimmage being the 28 will be a 45-yard field goal) to the low 50s (a kick with the line of scrimmage at the edge of the blue zone, the 35, will result in a 52-yard attempt). The other particularly important element of the blue zone, however, once you get past talking about the level of certainty pertaining to field goals of certain distances, is that the blue zone offers more room and space in which to operate, compared to the red zone. The significance of this reality, relative to both the play-calling and strategy of coaches along with the stat-keeping and analysis of the college football media industry, is that all members of the larger football community can begin to chart not just touchdown and field goal percentages, but trends in terms of where and how touchdowns are scored.

An explanation is needed. Because of the difficulty of scoring touchdowns in the red zone, given the lack of space in which to operate, coaches and journalists might both be quite interested in finding out whether it’s better to try and score touchdowns directly from the blue zone, or to simply get one or two more first downs and try to pound out a touchdown the old-fashioned way, from the red zone. The specific statistical charting and record-keeping that can emerge from the use of a blue zone (and a tweener zone, for that matter) is this: did a touchdown from the blue zone involve penetration into the red zone, or did the scoring play take place directly from the blue (or tweener) zone?

Do you see where this discussion is going? Let’s provide a concrete example. A team reaches the blue zone five times in the course of a football game. On three occasions, these drives into the blue zone produced touchdowns, and on two other occasions, the blue zone drives produced field goals. More specifically, two of the three blue zone drives scored touchdowns without having a scrimmage play inside the red zone. In other words, two blue zone drives had touchdown-scoring plays ranging from 20 to 35 yards, the area of the blue zone. Only on one of the three blue zone drives did the offense penetrate the red zone, have a scrimmage play originate within the red zone, and ultimately score a touchdown. Then, of the two field goal drives that entered the blue zone, one of the drives went on to penetrate the red zone before stalling, while the other drive stalled in the blue zone but still produced a field goal. For that game, then, this team’s scoring percentage in terms of blue zone production would be prettygood—five scores out of five trips, with a majority of the scores being touchdowns. However, the same team’s red zone record—two trips, with just one touchdown—would not be as good.

Finally and perhaps most importantly from a coaching standpoint, the fact that the team got two of its three touchdowns on scoring plays ranging from 20 to 35 yards would indicate that, for one thing, it is strategically smart for that team’s offense to try to score with big-hitting plays, and for coordinators to be accordingly aggressive in the blue and tweener zones. Secondly, such trends would reinforce the need for that offense to improve its red zone offense, and to specifically toughen up in the trenches and get better tight-end production. See what a use of zones opens up for both coaching and journalism? Oh by gosh by golly, the flood of strategic and analytical considerations that will emerge from a three-zone system—red zone, blue zone, tweener zone—will swamp the college football industry (and even the pros, if they’re inclined to think such categorization will improve results).

To add one additional word about the tweener zone, one must realize the value of “hidden points” as opposed to “locked-in” or “must-have” points. The discussion of the blue zone emphasized the need for kickers to hit field goals from 37 to 44 yards on virtually every occasion, and to hit a majority of kicks from 45 to 52 yards. That kind of a focus on placekicking makes the blue zone an area that expects “locked-in” or “must-have” points from placekickers. It expects field goal kickers to have consistently high rates of productivity and effectiveness on field goals in the upper 30s to the mid and upper 40s, not just on chip shots of 35 yards and under that originate from the red zone. The blue zone ultimately ups the ante for kickers. The importance of the tweener zone, then, is that it places an emphasis on being able to steal points, or get hidden points, just the same way as special teams return yardage, on punts or kickoffs, represents “hidden yardage.”

If you have a really great kicker, you can gain a huge edge in college football. Just look at Iowa and Ohio State, who had two phenomenal placekickers in Nate Kaeding and Mike Nugent. Since those teams played a number of close games, the need for their kickers to ring up three points at every step along the way was absolutely essential. A national title wouldn’t have come to Columbus, and a BCS bid wouldn’t have come to Iowa City, without the exploits of the two star kickers on those teams. Whereas Nugent was letter perfect and had a slightly higher percentage compared to Kaeding, it is Kaeding who, for the purposes of a discussion on the tweener zone, represents the importance of hidden points.

Last year, you might recall that in Iowa’s overtime win at Penn State, the first half ended with Kaeding booming through a field goal of 55 yards—with the line of scrimmage being the Penn State 38, otherwise known as the tweener zone (see, we’re getting this discussion off the ground and pushing the use of these new terms right into the mainstream—just you watch!). Since Iowa was crushing Penn State at the time, this addition of three “little” points might not have seemed like much. But when Penn State roared back in the fourth quarter to tie the game, those three points—three hidden points—Kaeding secured for Iowa turned out to be huge. The tweener zone obviously shares with the blue zone the presence of additional room in which offenses can operate before getting to (or perhaps“instead of getting to”) the red zone. That is one source of the value of the tweener zone as a stat-keeping and trend-monitoring category. But the other main source of value for the tweener zone is that it can also monitor the amount of hidden-point field goals produced by teams, leading to not just improved play-calling for offenses in enemy territory, but to an increased emphasis from coaches on their recruiting of placekickers.

* * *
Hidden points, locked-in points, and the value of field goals all prominently enter into a larger discussion opened up and created by the use of the blue and tweener zones. Along with other strategic considerations—specifically on conversion attempts, or on 4th and 1 situations deep in the red zone that challenge coaches to decide between sure field goals and risky touchdown/first down attempts—these two new zones are part of my new approach to football as a strategist, an admittedly (gasp!) more conservative strategy that emphasizes securing and accumulating points whenever and wherever you can… with the lone exception being if you’re a pronounced underdog, a situation that demands touchdowns and rewards aggressiveness at all stages of a game.

Well, it’s taken a long time to write this. I guess Friday afternoon is over, and it’s Saturday morning… gee, time to watch the games and see these principles in action once again! Monday Morning Quarterbacks will never be the same!

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