Is Producing Explosive Plays More Important Than Avoiding Negative Ones?

| May 18th, 2020

I did some work last off-season examining how important explosive plays are to an offense’s production, and found that there is a strong relationship between the number of explosive plays (runs of 15+ yards, passes of 20+ yards) and overall offensive performance (measured in either points/game or DVOA rank). I have updated that information to now include 2018 and 2019 data and still found a strong relationship, as you can see in the graphs below.

Correlation (R²) can be loosely interpreted as how much of the pattern is explained by that variable, which means explosive plays account for roughly 40-60% of overall offensive production, which is quite a high number, and consistent with values from the 2018 season alone. Seeing the same relationship across multiple seasons of data provides additional credibility to the relationship.

(Side note: just like in 2018, total explosive plays shows a stronger relationship with both points/game and DVOA than the % of offensive plays that are explosive, so I’ll probably just track total explosive plays from now on.)

Negative Plays

In discussions on the comments section at this site, somebody noted the Bears had a large number of negative plays on offense in 2019, and wondered whether there was any relationship between negative plays and offensive performance. This was an excellent question, and I didn’t know the answer, so I used the Pro Football Reference game play finder to figure it out.

I defined a negative play as follows:

  • A run that gains 0 yards or fewer.
  • A pass that ends in a sack or a completion which loses yards.

I then looked at both negative plays and negative play % compared to points/game and offensive DVOA, just like with explosive plays above. The graphs can be seen below.

A few observations:

  • The correlations are much weaker here, to the point that we can’t really say there’s much of a relationship between avoiding negative plays and having a good offense.
  • Notice teams have significantly more negative plays than explosive ones. Not a single team had more explosive plays than negative plays. Overall, 7.3% of offensive plays in the NFL in 2019 resulted in an explosive play, while 13.2% resulted in a negative play.
  • Also, the Bears actually weren’t that bad in negative plays in 2019. The average NFL team produced 134 negative plays, and the Bears had 131. Negative plays weren’t the reason for their struggles. Explosive plays – the Bears were dead last in the NFL with 48, well below the NFL average of 74 – were the primary reason Chicago’s offense struggled so badly.

Combining Both

Finally, I made a couple basic attempts to combine both explosive and negative plays to see if that could improve on just looking at explosive plays to explain overall offensive performance. I used two simple combination methods: net plays (explosive plays – negative plays) and a ratio of plays (explosive plays/negative plays). As you can see below, neither provided a correlation with points/game or DVOA that improved on explosive plays.

So there you have it: explosive plays are extremely important, but negative plays don’t matter much to overall offensive production over the course of a year. A few caveats to that:

  • Obviously a negative play at a bad moment can kill a drive, so I’m not trying to argue they don’t matter at all here. It’s just that, over the course of a season, they don’t seem very important.
  • I deliberately didn’t include turnovers in negative plays here, even though turnovers are definitely a negative offensive play. It is well established that there is a strong relationship between turnovers and winning games.

Accordingly, if you’re looking for simple numbers to track that should correspond pretty well to offensive performance, I’d look at avoiding turnovers and producing explosive plays. Any offense that can do those two things well will score a lot of points and win a lot of games.

Since producing explosive plays is so vital to offensive performance, an upcoming piece will look at how explosive individual Bears players are compared to their NFL peers, and how the Bears can attempt to improve their explosion in 2020.

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