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Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: Is This Offense? No, It's Iowa.

April 24, 2019
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On Thursday night, a pair of Iowa Hawkeye tight ends, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, are likely to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. That's a nice thing for Iowa, though it has also prompted a simple question among some: With that kind of talent at a position that can offer matchup nightmares, why wasn't the Hawkeyes' offense better?

Iowa ranked 92nd in yards per play, 94th in rush yards per play and 79th in pass yards per play, but a comparatively decent 40th in points per play.

"It was rare to see the Hawkeyes leverage the hybrid abilities of their tight ends," Ian Boyd wrote of 2018 Iowa this month for Football Study Hall. "They didn’t build around these players by going big and then flexing them out against linebackers, or running over defensive backs if opponents tried to take away the passing game."

I don't expect this question to go away any time soon because, like George Kittle before them, Hockenson and Fant will probably put up even bigger numbers in the NFL where hybrid tight ends are one of the most dangerous weapons of the moment. And that will sting a little bit with every great play they make. Or at least it should. As Boyd effectively put it, it's great that Iowa's producing NFL tight ends but why isn't Iowa's offense benefitting more from the ability that is clearly there?

Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz offered what could be considered at least a partial answer to that question. In a story by Chad Leistikow of Hawk Central, Ferentz laid out three classic and time-tested keys to winning football games: stop the run, run the ball and "play great special teams."

If football coaches don't chose their own epitaphs when they kick off the great game in the sky, I assume this is what the engraver gives them by default.

Ferentz had more to say about the offense's contribution to that equation, however.

“But the interesting thing about offense,” Ferentz said, “is what you do offensively directly affects the other two phases; more so than the other two phases can affect what we do.”

In other words …

“We need to protect our defense and keep them out of bad positions. That means we need to protect the football. We need to change field position,” Ferentz said. “And we need to score as many points as we can with the opportunities we have.”

There's nothing wrong with that approach, of course. It is interesting, however, that in today's game protecting the defense is mentioned ahead of scoring points. You wouldn't read much into the word order there if this wasn't Iowa, where you get weekly examples of protecting the defense taking priority. This is essentially an argument for field position, which matters, but how much?

As just a simple test, I pulled up the net field position (average defensive starting field position minus offensive) rankings at BCftoys.com and compared them to the site's FEI rankings, an overall power ranking. How much does a field-position advantage explain an overall advantage based on power ranking?

Here's what that looks like when you plot all 130 teams based on their rankings in both categories (Iowa and Nebraska are in black and red respectively).

 

Out of additional curiosity, I also grabbed the rankings for a few other categories at BCFtoys.com:

NPD: Net Points Per Drive (OPD minus DPD)
OPD: Offensive Points Per Drive
DPD: Defensive Points Per Drive
PSR: Possession Success Rate (TDs and FGs are wins for the offense, everything else a loss)
APM: Average Possession Margin (was a team ahead or behind and by how much?)

You can see how those categories change the scatter plot and trend line by clicking the arrows in the chart above.

Now, it would be very strange if net points per drive (scoring differential, effectively) didn't strongly correlate with the overall power ranking and it does. Net Points Per Drive explains 81.5% of the variance in FEI. The data points are tightly clustered around the trend line.

Focusing just on offense explains 44.5% and just defense 56.1%. Possession Success Rate, a different way to look at scoring, produced an r-squared of 77.2% and Average Possession Margin (having a lead, the bigger the better) was at 72.4%. Iowa, perhaps owing to its field-position edge in 2018, scoredd pretty highly in the last two categories, which is why this strategy is viable.

Winning the field-position battle itself? That explained just 30.9% of the variance in FEI. There's a general positive trend there––it's better to have a field-position edge than not––but it wasn't very strong. Based on this admittedly limited sample, if a team wanted to increase its power ranking (and likely win more games) it would've been better served in 2018 by putting an emphasis on scoring (of course), improving its offensive ability, improving its defensive ability or getting a lead than it would've been by maximizing its field-position edge.

You can see some of that randomness of field position in Iowa's own rankings over the years. Last season, the Hawkeyes were a strong field-position team and a top-15 team in FEI. The season before, the Hawkeyes were a below-average field-position team and a top-15 team in FEI.

YEAR NFP RK FEI RK
2018 17 12
2017 78 14
2016 5 38
2015 18 34
2014 80 63
2013 35 31
2012 53 70
2011 69 35
2010 24 18
2009 23 8
2008 20 13
2007 31 65

And I'm definitely not saying field position is all Iowa cares about (though that seems to be the stereotype that persists). Of course the Hawkeyes want to score and prevent points. It's the only way to win games.

But I do wonder if this approach, while perhaps producing more consistent results, doesn't consistently produce results with a slightly lower ceiling. It's a good way to have a good shot at winning any game, but is it the best way to win the most games?

That question was foremost on my mind after Nebraska lost to Iowa last season, a game that really underscored the differing approaches.

"Nebraska, finally under Frost, believes in what it does, and Iowa believes in what football is," I wrote after that game. "Both can work, but which do you chose over the next 10 years if you want to maximize your potential gains? Are you risk-averse or risk-tolerant?"

Ferentz is pretty clear on which category he prefers. There's certainly value in "protecting the defense," but there are a lot of ways to do that.

Scoring a bunch is a great way. Avoiding turnovers is good, though that's almost entirely random. Consistently giving the defense long fields to work with is solid, too, though it might be offering some of the least value of all.

A team can make a comfortable living that way, but it won’t be very exciting. Or go much beyond “comfortable.”

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