If first down means everything, what does third down mean?

I linked to a Chris Brown post yesterday about the importance in the NFL of gaining at least four yards on a first down play.

… According to Dr. Massey, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Management, the ability of an NFL team to meet certain benchmarks on each down is one of the best predictors of whether a drive will be successful. When it comes to first down, he says, the magic number is four. That’s the number of yards Mr. Massey says teams need to gain on first and 10. Those that do, he says, are more likely to be successful in making a first down and keeping the drive alive.

I was curious to see how applicable this was to Georgia’s offense (billed as pro-style, right?) last season, so I thought I’d wander over to cfbstats.com and see what the statistical story told.

On one level, what it told was favorable.  Georgia averaged almost five yards per rushing attempt on first down and right at ten yards with each first down passing attempt.  Yet that translated into a fairly pedestrian set of results.  The Dawgs were eighth in the conference in total offense, eighth in first downs and fifth in time of possession.

Compare those results with Alabama, which ran an offense that was more similar to Georgia’s than any other SEC team’s.  The Tide ran and passed successfully on first down (in both cases, at a better rate than the Dawgs did) and wound up higher ranked in the SEC in total offense, first downs and time of possession.

But it’s third down that’s the real eye opener.  Alabama’s passer rating on third down was a respectable 158.47; Georgia’s was a sub-par 127.63.  The third down rushing figures have a similar gap in that ‘Bama was able to run the ball on average more than a half-yard per attempt than Georgia did.

Chris’ conclusion is worth considering here.

… I think the upshot of Dr. Massey’s analysis is that most first down playcalling is not good, and too often puts the offense in a bad spot. If you show me a team that is good on first down, I’ll show you a good offense. Indeed, the best offenses look at it like they are playing under Canadian rules: if you only have two downs to get a first down, you approach the problem quite a bit differently. Third down shifts the burden away from the defense to the offense; better to avoid as many third downs as possible.

As a percentage of total plays run, Alabama was in third down 18.21% of the time.  Georgia’s third-down percentage was 20.02%.  That may seem like a subtle difference, but the upshot is that the team which ran more total plays also ran fewer of them on third down.  Of such subtleties are more mediocre offenses born.


Filed under Georgia Football, Stats Geek!

7 responses to “If first down means everything, what does third down mean?

  1. Orson where art thou?

    My, my. Eight in total offense. Senator, it seems you missed the presser where we were reminded that our offense set records — records — by scoring 30+ in 7 straight games. So when you get that urge to argue that we regressed offensively against the rest of the conference, just remember … records.

    Regarding Bama’s 3rd down passer rating, I personally see Bama having two things we didn’t: (a) a credible running threat, and (b) more short-yardage 3d-down situations (often due to (a)). If you have Ingram in the backfield on 3rd and 4, a 5-yard play-action pass to Peek or Dial (or a swing to Ingram) is pitch-and-catch. If you have Ealey behind our O-line on 3rd and 10, play-action only gives their blitzing corner more time to attack Murray’s blind side.

    In the end, though, I’d take Murray over McElroy any day of the week, and twice on Saturdays.


  2. jferg

    Did Bama run fewer 3rd down plays AND have a higher 3rd down conversion percentage than UGA?


  3. Hobnail_Boot

    Of course 3rd down is a better indicator of offensive success; it is on 3rd down when the onus shifts from the defense to the offense.


  4. Bulldog Joe

    First downs are important, but how many 2nd and longs did we waste by running that delayed handoff up the middle?

    I hope when he studies football, he will learn that being a slave to “balance” also puts him into a very predictable play-calling pattern.


  5. shane#1

    There are at least two schools of thought on being play calling. One is to simplify the offense and concentrating the on execution of those few plays. I call this the “everybody knows what we do, now you try to stop us” school. I am thinking of the Steelers as this type of team. Other coaches may run multiple formations and variations of formations, like the Patriots. I would like to see UGA run more spread formations, because if you want the old school “just try to stop me” offense, you had better be damn good at running it, and the Dawgs aint there yet.


  6. Ali MacGraw

    Third down means never having to say you’re sorry.