S Jermaine Phillips' fumble return against Green Bay got the Bucs off to a fast start
Jon Gruden is not a huge fan of statistics; this we know.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach has said as much on more than a few occasions…say, when confronted with his team's offensive or defensive ranking during a press conference following a Buccaneer victory.
Of course, Gruden isn't really at odds with statistics, which are nothing more than numerical representations of what has physically happened on the playing field. What he objects to – along with most of his peers in the coaching business – is undue emphasis placed on the wrong numbers. In other words, what difference does it make where a team is ranked in terms of offensive and defensive yards if it is winning most of its ballgames? Five-and-two is a statistic, too.
Statistics can be applied usefully, though, even in the eyes of a football coach. Find a coach who doesn't believe that turnover margin is the single most determinant factor in victory. Most coaches preach the value of short, manageable third downs, so a team's average yards gained on first downs is obviously meaningful. Show an NFL coach the average starting point for each team's offensive possessions in any given game and he'll probably be able to predict the winner.
So it is in this politically-charged atmosphere that we pick up the statistical gauntlet. Here's our self-imposed challenge: After seven games of the 2008 season – through which the Buccaneers are 5-2 and tied for first in the NFC South – can we throw out some statistics that are more elucidating than obfuscating? Can we help explain the Bucs' strong start with a few interesting numbers? Can we pass the NFL coach test when it comes to statistics?
We're going to take three tries.
1. Fast Start, Good Finish
If you think the Bucs have come out strong in most of their games this season, you're not imagining things. Tampa Bay has been a very good first-half team this year, and that's good news for a group that has generally proved good at protecting leads.
The Bucs' overall scoring margin in the first halves of their seven games so far is actually quite impressive: 94 points to their opponents' 35. That's an average lead of more than eight points a game. That's a testament not only to a fast-starting offense but also to a defense that has quickly created turnovers and field position for their offensive mates.
"Our guys have done a nice job of preparing," said Gruden, addressing the team's first-half point dominance. "Coaches and players have done a pretty good job of preparing. I think they all realize that the way you start has a lot to do with the outcome of the game."
Tampa Bay has actually been outscored in the second halves of their games this season, 72-64 (72-67 if you include the Bucs' game-winning overtime field goal in Chicago), but that works out to about a point a game.
Of course, second-half points count just as much as first-half tallies, so we're edging into the sort of wrongful-emphasis territory that can give statistics a bad name. Maybe not in this case, though. Gaining an early lead – especially one of more than a touchdown – can change how the rest of the game is played out. For instance, the opposing team may have to put much more emphasis on the passing game if it is down a substantial amount, which opens the door for more turnovers.
That thought might gain some credence if the team in question has done a good job of protecting its first-half leads. Does that apply to the Buccaneers?
To quote Sarah Palin, you betcha.
So far this year, the Buccaneers are 5-1 in games in which they took a lead into halftime. That's not a fluke. Since Gruden took over as head coach in 2002, Tampa Bay has been able to protect a first-half lead 42 of 49 times. In the Bucs' three playoff seasons under Gruden (2002, '05, '07), the Bucs were 25-3 in that situation.
"If we can take a lead into the locker room at half time, we all know what our won-loss record has been here, so starting fast is something we really emphasize here," said Gruden. "When we've started fast and had a lead going into the locker room at half time, we've done pretty good. I think it's a credit to the coaches and the players."
2. Keeping the QBs Clean
The Buccaneers have one of the league's youngest offensive lines, and they believe it has the potential to develop into one of the NFL's best. In fact, that front five may already be muscling its way into the league's elite.
That much is reflected in the Buccaneers' top-10 ranking in the NFL in rushing yards. In this case, however, we're focusing on pass protection. Specifically, we're impressed that Tampa Bay has allowed only eight sacks through seven games despite throwing a healthy 37.3 passes per game.
Could it be that keeping your quarterback off the ground is a key to victory? The numbers would seem to bear that out, at least in the Buccaneers' case.
So far this season, the Bucs have allowed at least three sacks only once, and they lost that game. The team is 5-1 in its other six contests, and 3-0 in the trio of games in which it did not allow a single sack.
Said Gruden: "Our offensive line, we said before, is the strength of our team."
That's good news for the Buccaneers, because they've generally played well when their offensive line has led the way. Overall, Tampa Bay is 43-22 in games in which they've allowed 0-2 sacks under Gruden, as opposed to 10-27 when they've allowed three or more.
The split is even more noticeable in seasons in which the Bucs have had good fortunes overall. In their three playoff seasons under Gruden plus this year's 5-2 start, the Bucs are an incredible 30-3 in the 33 games in which they've allowed two or fewer sacks. That's not statistical cherry-picking; the Bucs have had rough pass-protection games in that span and they've paid for it. In the 17 games in which they've allowed three or more sacks in those seasons, the Bucs are 7-15.
3. Red Means Stop
There are stats we stay away from in these types of discussions simply because the relationship between cause and effect isn't clear. For instance, the Bucs' record under Gruden with a time-of-possession advantage (37-15) is almost the exact opposite of its mark with a time-of-possession disadvantage (15-36), but how useful is that information? Obviously, the Bucs would like to control the clock in every game. The fact is, if you're winning a game, you're probably going to have control of the ball more often than your opponent.
Similarly, the Bucs are 27-3 over the last seven years in games in which they've run the ball more than 30 times. That would seem to suggest that the team should head into every Sunday with the explicit game plan of handing off over and over again. Of course, the reality of the situation is that an early lead, no matter how it is established, usually leads to more running plays for the leading team as the game progresses.
But here's a statistic that may be more cause than effect: red zone defense.
So far this season, the Buccaneers have been remarkably stingy when their opponents have breached the 20-yard line. Red zone defense is usually measured by percentage of drives that end in touchdowns – at this point, a field goal seems almost unavoidable – and the Bucs have been strong in that regard. Only four of the 13 drives that have reached into Tampa Bay's red zone this season have ended in touchdowns, a 30.8% success rate.
That's an enormous improvement over a year ago. In 2007, the Bucs' defense allowed a touchdown to be scored on 62.9% of the incursions into its red zone, and that was during playoff season. In 2006, the mark for opponents was 56.3%, and in 2005 it was 48.9%.
The '08 Buccaneers are faring quite a bit better with their backs against the wall.
"We've played much better red zone defense, that was a goal of ours coming into the season," said Gruden. "We struggled there in '07 and at this point in '08 we've played really good red-zone defense. That's a credit to our coaches and our players. We made some subtle changes in our scheme and we're pretty good."