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Some Clarification is in Order - 2012 Off-Season Stats: Challenges

Coach Fox has had trouble with challenges in the past, but how does he stack up against the rest of the coaches in the league? (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Coach Fox has had trouble with challenges in the past, but how does he stack up against the rest of the coaches in the league? (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Now that the season has ended many of you might be a bit down or bored, so it's our job as staffers to keep things rolling here. Now this might not be the sexiest topic, but don't worry, more is on the way. Last off-season I went over a lot of the major trends in the NFL as well as those specifically to the Broncos. Taking what I learned then I'm going to try and take out the topics that weren't as popular and try to spend more time covering the topics that got a lot of attention.

One part of the game that has always intrigued me was challenges and how coaches use them. Because of that I've kept track of the coaches challenges for 2009, 2010 and now 2011. With season now ended I can compare all the challenges from this past season. Over the past two years I've been able refine my method, and hopefully this article will be the most thorough look at the Broncos challenges as well as looking at the league as a whole.

Before we can delve into the meat of the topic I do want to go into the process of the review as well as the team and FO side of it.

Challenges, the Booth and Beyond:

A Brief History and the Basics

Since the return of the instant replay in 1993 the league has taken steps that result in it's use more and more. Even if you look at this past season the NFL installed a new rule where all scoring plays are reviewed automatically. NFL Network listed the instant replay in it's Top 10 Things That Changed the Game.The addition of the current challenge and review system has changed the game dramatically and there will likely continue to be additions and alterations to the rules in future seasons.

Within the current system a coach can challenge two plays a game and a third if the succeed in the first two. That means a coaches is given 32 challenges a season (unless they succeed regularly which would result in 48). Now the average team goes through about 1,020 plays a season, so a coach really has to know when to challenge.

The Coach, the FO, and Choices

Now there are a few reasons to challenge a play. The first is the most obvious, to try and overturn the play. Now looking at this years challenges, most challenges are used this way. Another key reason they are used (either as the primary reason or as a side thought) is to try and slow the game down, while most challenges come on offense, most defensive challenges also benefited the defense by slowing down an offense using the no huddle or a team in a rhythm. A former staffer Steve Nichols said this:

A coach may be considering a time out anyway, and even if the play might not get overturned, it may be a good play on the field to "burn" a time out that has s light chance of not being counted against the team.

For instance, let’s say the opposing team gets a first down. Let’s also say that I’m already contemplating using a time out, that the score is close, and the game is nearly over. (We could use several different examples). Why not use a replay and challenge the spot of the ball? Perhaps the other team wants to score quickly, and I’m limited on how much time my crew has to review the play on their monitors. Instead of using a time out on this play (or the next), I’ll just throw the red flag. I’ll probably lose a time out anyway, but I have the possibility of stopping the conversion and a possibility of keeping the timeout, whereas a time out later in the game doesn’t give me the same potential.

I keep this in mind when thinking about coaches using instant replay. Even a challenge that appears to be pointless may have other motivations from the coach.

The last reason may be that the play is of such critical importance it's worth the risk even if the coach knows it might not succeed. A 4th down conversion pass when down by two scores for example, if the pass was knocked loose when the player landed, it might be worth it to the coach because turning it over on downs when down by 10+ might cost them too much, while the reward of converting that 4th down would be great.

But rarely is a challenge flag thrown right away. Since their is quite some time between the two plays, more if there is argument between coaches and refs, that allows the players involved in the play and the coaches to talk. During this part the coach has to be willing to trust his players but the player has to be honest as well, a player who knows he didn't make the catch will cost his team if he lies and says he had control and the ball next touched the ground. The last thing going on during this time is that almost all teams have at least one specific person in the box looking over the play to see if it is worth challenging. The best example of this was the Colts hiring of Jim Tressel to be their replay review man. Now not all teams have a designated man doing this job, but at least 23 teams have a known person whose specific job is replay review. But in the end, it's the coaches to throw, or not throw, the red flag.

So a lot goes into a challenge, rarely is it a coach just throwing the flag out there, and rarely if it fails is it on the just coach. The player may have fudged his report, the team booth may have not looked at the play clearly, and sometimes the coach just recklessly throws the red flag.

Consistency and Challenges

One big part of this years study that I wanted to expand on was looking to see if each year coaches vary widely from the previous year. The common thought is that most coaches don't really have a pattern in terms of challenges just some work out and others don't. So for this study I included 2010's and 2011's challenges for each coach, that years success rate for challenges and then an average of the two years so that we are able to see how consistent each coach is.

Now this is only two years but it is the beginning of a larger study and does a good job, but with each passing season adding new data to the table it will hopefully show more and more.

Now in the past I've gone over each of the Broncos challenges one by one to analyze them, but having talked to a number of coaches about challenges I've decided we don't have enough info or context to adequately judge the decision so I'm passing on that part this year and focusing on the league as a whole.

The Table:

A few things to explain before we delve into the meat of the post. The first two columns are pretty obvious, they are the team and the coach. The second through sixth columns are for 2010 while the seventh through tenth are for 2011 while the last column is the combination of the two seasons for each coach. Now for each season we list the number successful, failed and total challenges as well as the success rate, which is found by dividing the successful attempts. This is done for both seasons. Now coaches who either didn't coach in 2010 will have a dash (-) in the boxes that apply. At the bottom is the league average. Before I list the table I will include the averages so you can just find the coach you want and know if he is above or below average.

- Average challenges: 5.6 in 2011
- Average successful challenges: 3 in 2011
- Average success rate: 51.0% in 2011
- Average success rate: 47.3% for both 2010 and 2011

So lets get to it:

2010 2010 2010
2011 2011 2011 2011 Combined
Team Coach Successful Failed Total Success Rate Successful Failed Total Success Rate Success Rate
Jax Tucker - - - - 0 0 0 - -
Miami Bowles - - - - 1 0 1 100.0% 100.0%
Phi Reid 3 3 6 50.0% 10 3 13 76.9% 68.4%
NE Belichick 3 4 7 42.9% 7 1 8 87.5% 66.7%
Oak Jackson - - - - 2 1 3 66.7% 66.7%
NYJ Ryan 3 6 9 33.3% 9 1 10 90.0% 63.2%
Dal Garrett 3 1 4 75.0% 2 2 4 50.0% 62.5%
Det Schwartz 2 3 5 40.0% 6 2 8 75.0% 61.5%
NO Payton 6 2 8 75.0% 2 3 5 40.0% 61.5%
Cle Shumar - - - - 3 2 5 60.0% 60.0%
Miami Sparano 2 2 4 50.0% 1 0 1 100.0% 60.0%
Indy Caldwell 4 3 7 57.1% 1 1 2 50.0% 55.6%
NYG Coughlin 7 5 12 58.3% 4 4 8 50.0% 55.0%
Cin Lewis 4 4 8 50.0% 2 1 3 66.7% 54.5%
Ari Whisenhunt 6 5 11 54.5% 4 4 8 50.0% 52.6%
Buf Gailey 4 3 7 57.1% 2 3 5 40.0% 50.0%
Pit Tomlin 3 3 6 50.0% 2 2 4 50.0% 50.0%
Sea Carroll 6 7 13 46.2% 4 3 7 57.1% 50.0%
GB McCarthy 3 3 6 50.0% 4 5 9 44.4% 46.7%
Chi L. Smith 1 5 6 16.7% 4 1 5 80.0% 45.5%
Min Frazier 1 3 4 25.0% 4 3 7 57.1% 45.5%
KC Hailey 5 3 8 62.5% 1 5 6 16.7% 42.9%
TB Morris 3 4 7 42.9% 3 4 7 42.9% 42.9%
Tenn Munchak - - - - 3 4 7 42.9% 42.9%
Atl M. Smith 3 5 8 37.5% 3 4 7 42.9% 40.0%
Bal Harbaugh 1 8 9 11.1% 7 4 11 63.6% 40.0%
SF Harbaugh - - - - 4 6 10 40.0% 40.0%
St. L Spagnuolo 4 4 8 50.0% 0 3 3 0.0% 36.4%
Den Fox 3 9 12 25.0% 3 3 6 50.0% 33.3%
Hou Kubiak 2 3 5 40.0% 2 5 7 28.6% 33.3%
Was Shanahan 2 5 7 28.6% 2 4 6 33.3% 30.8%
SD Turner 1 6 7 14.3% 2 2 4 50.0% 27.3%
Jax Del Rio 1 5 6 16.7% 1 2 3 33.3% 22.2%
Car Rivera - - - - 0 3 3 0.0% 0.0%
KC Crennel - - - - 0 1 1 0.0% 0.0%
Avg 3.2 4.2 7.4 43.0% 3.0 2.6 5.6 51.0% 47.3%


  • Some coaches really break the mold in terms of consistency. While most coaches saw an average change in their success rate between years of +/- 25.4%. But a few coach really stood out, either good or bad:

The Bad:

- Mike Shanahan (Average SR 30.8% with 4.8% change)
- John Fox (Average SR 33.3% with 25% change)
- Mike Smith (Average SR 40% with 5.4% change)

The Good:

- Andy Reid (Average SR 68.4% with 26.9% change)
- Tom Coughlin (Average SR 55% with 7.1% change)
- Marvin Lewis (Average SR 54.5% with 16.7% change)

  • Lets now take a look to see if we can find a trend in challenge success rate and wins:

- Teams that had a success rate below the league average had an average 7.3 wins while teams with an above average success rate averages 8.3 wins.
- Teams that have above 60% success rate average 8.6 wins while those below 40% success rate average 6 wins.
- The top 5 teams in success rate average 8.9 wins while the bottom 5 teams in success rate average 6.2 wins.
- So while there may not be a direct connection, but from what I'm seeing is good to great coaches USUALLY are more successful with their challenges while coaches who aren't as experienced or may have a weaker group of assistants USUALLY won't win as often and won't succeed in their challenges. Looking at this only 9 of the 24 times a team who went to the play offs had below average success rate and no Super Bowl teams have had a below average success rate.
- Fox was slightly below average this year but was horribly below in 2010 and over the two years is 14.0% below the league average.

Well I hope this was an educational piece, I'm excited for the off-season and all we get to discuss, hope that we can keep you guys learning and entertained as we write.