Ian Boyd asks one of those great skin the cat questions here. He starts with this:
As someone who watches a great deal of Big 12 football, I’ve slowly started to develop a certain degree of skepticism about what exactly teams gain from a “ball-control” approach to offense. At times it seems that these teams are playing with one hand behind their backs by refusing to attack the opposing defense with calls designed to produce explosive plays.
What’s more, if one team insists on operating at high tempo, how much control can you really exert over the game by trying to go slow when you’re at possession? I’d see box scores where Baylor would possess the ball for only 20 minutes or so and still drop 40+ points and over 500 yards of offense. Is there really any use to possessing the ball longer and being more plodding if the other team still has enough time to score lots of points and to do so quickly?
To find some answers, he looks at five successful up tempo teams from last season and five slow-paced ones. From the data, he draws three conclusions.
Running the ball to burn clock doesn’t give you an edge in the possession battle.
The way to run more plays than your opponent is by throwing the ball.
The effects of tempo on explosiveness for either offense or defense seem fairly negligible.
From those he gets to a conclusion that’s of interest to me.
There seems to be two ways to protect your defense that each work well.
One way is to protect them from having to defend a large number of plays from your opponent by taking your time, running the ball, and limiting the total number of plays run in the game by either team. This style requires a good defense to begin with though because you can’t maintain a slower pace if you give up quick scoring drives from your opponent early in the game.
The other way to protect a defense though is evidently to throw the ball around effectively, draw your opponent into a higher scoring shootout where they may not be able to maintain drives efficiently, and then run up a higher number of plays as a consequence. We could call this the New England method, given that this is partly how the Patriots have taken down their opponents in recent seasons. With a combination of ball-control, passing, and high numbers of plays run you can exhaust a defense more than a ground and pound team could.
It’s long been the perception that the way to wear a team down is to smash into them over and over again but the benefit of passing plays is that you force DL to try and race past OL in the pass rush, you force the entire defense to sprint more as they pursue the ball all over the field, and you prolong the length of time that a play takes up because passing plays are slower developing. If you run enough passing plays the opposing team’s legs will be mush.
Overall it seems that using slow-paced offense worked to the benefit of teams like K-State and Stanford in 2016 but it’s less obvious that this is the only way to approach ball-control or protecting a defense.
It’s obvious where his heart lies and it’s just as obvious to me as a Georgia fan that Smart wants to take the first route. It’s an option that works, and, again, as a Georgia fan, I don’t have to go back very far in time for evidence of that.
Georgia’s 2014 team finished seventh nationally in offensive yards per play, ran the ball more than 63% of the time and limited total plays in a game to less than 140. All of that helped a defense transitioning from Grantham to Pruitt and noticeably lacking personnel wise in the secondary still finish seventeenth nationally in total defense, which was a significant step up from 2013’s 45th in that category.
I would probably add that if you’re going to go the control the tempo/limit the plays approach, turnover margin and field position are also keys to success. 2014 was a banner year for Georgia in that regard: 4th nationally in turnover margin and first in Football Outsider’s field position ratings.
The implosion in Jacksonville did a lot to mask it, but in terms of maximizing results out of his team’s talent, Richt did a fine coaching job for the rest of that season. Smart could do a lot worse that trying to take a few lessons from what Georgia did right then.