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The Trick of Red Zone Efficiency

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Teams have less control over it than you think, but it makes a huge difference to the bottom line

This guy helps
This guy helps
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest factors in determining the winner or loser of a football game is also one of its least reliable and variable parts of the game. Red zone efficiency plays an inordinately large role in a team’s chances of winning a game, but it is also a tremendously volatile statistic. This points to it not being a replicable skill, and more a function of luck.

This is a hard thing for fans to believe, as we tend to view performance in the red zone as a skill. It reflects the quality of a team and the preparation of its coaches, which is also why teams spend so much time on it. After all, maximizing your scoring opportunities is an obvious key to victory. But even in the NFL with its more stable rosters, performance in the red zone is nearly random.

Look at the SEC if you don’t believe me. Mississippi State led the conference in red zone offense, and the previous season ranked tenth. Auburn, no one’s idea of an optimal offense, ranked second in scoring percentage, so it doesn’t really reflect offensive quality that season either. Vanderbilt finished last, and 13th last season. In 2013, Vandy ranked first.

It’s the same tale on defense. Arkansas went from the second ranked red zone defense to the worst in the span of a season. Georgia sat atop the red zone defense rankings, but finished 5th last year, and 12th the year prior. Alabama ranked ELEVENTH last season, despite its amazing defense, and just two years removed from leading the SEC. And so on.

What this indicates is that there is the potential for massive improvement in a team’s scoring offense or defense by simple regression to the mean. However, it’s not all blind luck, as the true mark of an exceptional red zone unit is its sheer number of chances. A great defense keeps the other team out of the red zone, and a great offense has tons of scoring chances. Scoring chances are fairly consistent from year to year, or at least more reflective of a unit’s quality.

We also look at red zone success in a rather bizarre fashion. We officially rank teams by their scoring percentage, as if touchdowns and field goals were worth the same. This is clearly untrue. What matters is how many points a team scores, on average, in each of its red zone chances. Subtract that number from the SEC average of 4.74/opportunity, and we can then see how many points a team is leaving on the field each game, through red zone inefficiency.

Offense

G

Att

Score %

TD %

FG %

Pts

P/RZ Att

Off RZ Luck

Mississippi St

13

53

90.57

71.7

18.87

296

5.58

3.44

Arkansas

13

59

83.05

69.49

13.56

311

5.27

2.41

Auburn

13

51

90.2

62.75

27.45

266

5.22

1.87

LSU

12

46

84.78

65.22

19.57

237

5.15

1.58

Mississippi

13

62

83.87

59.68

24.19

304

4.90

0.78

Tennessee

13

66

83.33

59.09

24.24

321

4.86

0.63

Kentucky

12

43

83.72

55.81

27.91

204

4.74

0.02

Alabama

15

62

82.26

56.45

25.81

293

4.73

-0.06

Texas A&M

13

54

77.78

55.56

22.22

246

4.56

-0.77

South Carolina

12

36

86.11

47.22

38.89

161

4.47

-0.80

Florida

14

51

66.67

56.86

9.8

218

4.27

-1.70

Georgia

13

42

78.57

42.86

35.71

171

4.07

-2.16

Vanderbilt

12

33

63.64

45.45

18.18

123

3.73

-2.79

Missouri

12

31

77.42

32.26

45.16

112

3.61

-2.91

The Bulldogs are off the charts here. They scored nearly one point more than average on every red zone trip, which added 3.44 points to their overall PPG. They are at real risk of having their scoring offense collapse without any decline in quality, which is just what you want to hear when your start quarterback has left for the NFL.

We also see how misleading scoring percentage can be. Auburn falls down the rankings a little bit because their 90.5% scoring rate includes a 27.45% field goal rate. Missouri plunged from slightly below average to the bottom of the conference because even though they scored 77.42% of the time, they usually settled for a field goal.  Georgia and South Carolina experienced similar tumbles.

LSU, as you can see, was fairly fortunate in the red zone, averaging 0.40 points better than average on each trip. Red zone efficiency added 1.58 points to the scoring offense per game. Take that away and put LSU at the league average, LSU still averages 31.2 PPG overall. Not earth shattering, but also putting yourself in a position to win. The defense, however, tells a different story.

Defense

G

Att

Score %

TD %

FG %

Pts

P/RZ Att

Def RZ Luck

Vanderbilt

12

49

71.43

38.78

32.65

181

3.69

3.05

Mississippi St

13

45

73.33

42.22

31.11

175

3.89

1.91

Georgia

13

34

67.65

50

17.65

137

4.03

1.07

Texas A&M

13

47

82.98

44.68

38.3

201

4.28

0.59

Auburn

13

53

75.47

50.94

24.53

228

4.30

0.56

Florida

14

39

79.49

48.72

30.77

169

4.33

0.30

Missouri

12

38

81.58

47.37

34.21

165

4.34

0.31

Alabama

15

30

83.33

46.67

36.67

131

4.37

0.15

Kentucky

12

52

75

53.85

21.15

229

4.40

0.16

Tennessee

13

41

75.61

56.1

19.51

185

4.51

-0.23

Mississippi

13

50

84

50

34

226

4.52

-0.31

South Carolina

12

46

82.61

65.22

17.39

234

5.09

-2.48

Arkansas

13

53

86.79

62.26

24.53

270

5.09

-2.67

LSU

12

36

86.11

69.44

16.67

193

5.36

-2.76

There’s State again. Red zone efficiency picks them up another 1.91 point per game on defense, to add to the 3.44 PPG on offense. Talk about a prime contender to fade this season.

Vanderbilt, shocking everyone, had the best red zone defense in the SEC last season by a huge margin. They added 3.05 PPG to the bottom line, which was probably the difference in winning two conference games and going winless. The defense even stiffened up at the right times. Teams entering the red zone only reached the end zone 38.78% of the time, a staggering rate of success for the defense.

Again, Alabama is middle of the pack, so they experienced no real fortune in either direction on either side of the ball. That means their scoring figures were "honest", and not due to regress. Which is bad news in and of itself for everybody. Can you imagine if you added good red zone luck to the machine already built in Tuscaloosa? Yikes.

South Carolina finally has something they can hang their hat on if they hope to improve this season. They did have the worst scoring defense in the SEC but the narrowest of margins, but it was the red zone inefficiency which toppled them over the edge. Arkansas also was in contention for worst scoring defense, and can reasonable expect improvement with simple better red zone luck.

But look who is lurking there in last place. LSU allowed 24.3 PPG, 10th in the SEC, which is far below the defense’s usual standards. Now, a lot of that is due to the fact that Steele was exactly the defensive coordinator we’d thought he’d be, but he also can point to some smiting from the football gods. If LSU had an average red zone defense, it would have allowed 21.5 PPG and ranked 6th in the SEC. Still not great, but far better than the disaster we had on our hands.

This also has LSU fall far more into line with its other stats. LSU ranked 5th in total defense and 6th in yards/play, yet 10th in scoring defense. That points to extreme misfortune in the red zone. While Aranda has his work cut out for him (6th in yards/play won’t cut it), the task in front of him is not quite as daunting as it seemed at first glance.