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Statistical analysis: Playing with the lead

Statistical analysis

As time expired last Sunday, Philadelphia's Jason Avant couldn't hold onto what would have been an amazing, game-winning catch. In addition to the meltdown against the Texans, the Redskins are four ounces of pressure and one holding call away from squandering two other second-half leads. It's a razor-thin line between starting the Mike Shanahan era 2-2 and starting it 0-4.

It's easy to knock the defense for failing, or almost failing, to hold those leads, but the offense is as much to blame. The Redskins have managed to add only three second-half points in the three games in which they have had leads. And that was a 49-yard kick.

It's all too predictable: Once a team has a lead, its offense suddenly becomes overly conservative, running for two-yard gains and then throwing short dump-off passes on third down. Opponents who have their backs up against the wall increase their risk levels and are able to come back to win more often than most fans (and coaches) think. Offenses need to keep scoring to keep a lead safe. In today's pass-happy and offense-friendly NFL, it's unrealistic to expect a defense to shut down an opponent all game long.

Too many predictable runs and too many short passes: That's exactly what I expected to see when I looked at the Redskins' second-half stats in the games against Dallas, Houston and Philadelphia. I was prepared to write all about how Shanahan's conservative mindset put his team's leads at risk, so I was surprised to learn this isn't the case.

Shanahan's play calling has been slightly more aggressive than the league average for teams in similar situations. For teams with similar leads in the second half, their run/pass balance is typically 55/45. Shanahan has called for more passes than runs, for a run/pass balance of 47/53. Donovan McNabb's reads have been fairly aggressive as well. About 19 percent of his attempts have been "deep," defined by the NFL as greater than 15 yards through the air. That's right in line with the league average.

I think it comes down to simple execution, and there's really no systemic problem. The offense hasn't performed well in those six quarters, and it's as simple as that. Their success rate during those periods (percentage of plays that help move the chains and score) has well been below average at 40 percent. Just a slight increase, up to 45 percent, would mean several more first downs, more time of possession, and more points.

Performance varies from game to game and from quarter to quarter. There's no law that says teams will have all their success spread out evenly among all their games or within any single game. Players can't control when they perform well and when they don't. If they could, they'd save up all their successes for the moments when it matters most. Consistency isn't something that can be controlled directly. It's a product of overall ability and good fortune.

Brian Burke is a former Navy pilot who has given up his F/A-18 for the less dangerous hobby of football analysis. He is the creator of Advanced NFL Stats, a Web site about football, statistics and game theory.

By Brian Burke  | October 6, 2010; 2:59 PM ET
Categories:  Statistical analysis  
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Next: Clinton Portis out four to six weeks with groin injury


Wasn't execution the primary problem with Zorn's offense the last 2 years?

We can blame Cerrato for players who can't execute what's called in the huddle.

Posted by: rich20ssu | October 6, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

It was Jason Avant who dropped ball at the last-second.

Posted by: ThisGuy | October 6, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

I think it comes down to simple execution, and there's really no systemic problem.

By Brian Burke | October 6, 2010; 2:59 PM ET

Do you think? I mean if McNabb is 6 for 8 in the first half and then 2 of 11 (plus and interception) in the second half, do you really believe the problem is execution?

I was leaning that way, myself, but Beantowngreg keeps screaming about the play-calling, so I wasn't sure.

Posted by: beep-beep | October 6, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Not only was it not Celek who dropped the final pass (it was Avant), but the Redskins have held second half leads in all four of their games. They were obviously up in both games the won, they were up by 17 in the third quarter over Houston, and they held a 16-14 lead over the Rams in the third quarter.

Posted by: mattymatty2000 | October 6, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

nice analysis, but ZEKE'S UNIQUE PERSPECTIVES will provide you with a clearer view of what is REALLY happening and why the defense has struggled late in games.

And yeah, it wasn't celek who got his hands on the ball on that play. Never good to start an article with an obvious mistake in the 1st sentence.

Posted by: zcezcest1 | October 6, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Portis out 4-6 weeks from 106.7

Posted by: alex35332 | October 6, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

beep beep

Portis out 4-6 weeks.

Posted by: beep-beep | October 6, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

"Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. Fourteen percent of people know that."

- Homer Simpson

Posted by: Poopy_McPoop | October 6, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Skins are also about 6 inches of Doughty vertical away from being 3-1. Honestly, we can talk about stats all we want, but this team was in position to close out a team in 3 of 4 games. At that pace, they easily win 8 or 9. That's a big improvement from last year. Do you remember how they lost all those close games last year? My friend likes to say that only Redskins fans feel like they're losing when they have an 11 point lead in the 4th. We sort of learned that the past few years. I still feel that way, but McNabb, Shanny, and an improved O-line seem to be responsible for winning some of the close ones. Now if the defense was as good as last year, they'd be in much better shape. Hail.

Posted by: emc7x | October 6, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

McNabb could be a lot better.

Posted by: McLobo | October 6, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

This team is also preciously close to being 4-0 if the defensive players hold onto balls thrown at them.

It is understandable to a point that the offense go conservative trying to protect a lead and not giving away the game through mistakes. However, the defense just can't get anyone off the field even when given plenty of opportunities - the Philly game in the first half was dominated by the offense and special teams and even the defense did their job. However, the defense is not adjusting to the second half adjustments of the other team. Time after time in the Rams game they were running essentially the same play and the defense didn't stop it - didn't adjust on the series.

We all know that this team is one of transition on both sides of the ball; however, pathetic tackling in the Rams game gave that game away more than anything else. The Texans' game would have benefited from a running game by the offense, but the defense was obviously tired and gave up the second half.

Yet, this team has demonstrated a slow but sure level of improvement and that may well separate them from the last five years' teams.

Posted by: laserwizard | October 6, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

So... When we have the lead just hand the ball to the R-TRAIN. ALL ABOARD!!

Posted by: VegasJim | October 6, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

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