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Water Cooler Quarterbacks: The Importance of First Down

A group of football fans look at first down yardage

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

We were standing out on the blacktop outside our classrooms while we waited for our students to arrive. The conversation naturally turned to football. One of the group -- and I swear it wasn't me -- was marveling over the fact that the Broncos have scored 82 more points than the next highest scoring team. This led us into a discussion of NFL offenses in general and what we use to "evaluate" how good or bad they are.

The NFL insists on using the total yards amassed by an offense as the measuring stick. This can be deceptive since a team can amass a lot of yards without putting points on the board. Case in point, the 2008 Broncos were listed as the 2nd ranked offense in the NFL (based on yards) but were 16th in points. They went 8-8-0 and missed the playoffs.

One member of our group suggested that we should use points scored. The issue with that one, it was pointed out, is that "points scored" also includes defensive and special teams scores and so can skew the picture of the offense. Case in point, the 2013 Broncos have put 265 points on the board. However, 21 of those points have come from a kick return, a punt return and a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown. Thus, their offensive points are only 244.

Unable to reach a consensus, we turned to the high school football coach in the group and asked him what measure he uses. He replied that he looks at multiple measures when assessing the effectiveness of an offense, but the first one he checks is "The number of yards a team gains on first down."

We mulled that over and found ourselves liking the idea more and more. It makes sense. If a team gains six or seven yards on first down, they have more options available for their second down play. They can run. They can pass. They use play-action and pass for a first. They could take a shot down the field and still have a very manageable third down if they miss. By the same token, if a team is consistently only picking up a yard or two on first down, they are more likely to struggle in converting second and third downs into firsts to keep the ball moving.

With that thought in mind, we thought it might be fun to take a look at how well some teams are performing on first down. We decided that rather than bury everyone under the huge pile of statistics that would come from looking at all of the nine teams we follow, we would limit our exploration to the two 6-0-0 teams and the two 0-6-0 teams (at least these teams were 6-0 and 0-6 at the time that this article was being written). Take a look at the best and the worst of the NFL, if you will.

We started by looking at the baseline of the total number of plays, the total number of yards, the average gain per play, along with the total number of offensive points accrued by each team. Please note, the term "offensive points" is used intentionally. We are not including points that came from the defense (interception returns, fumble returns, safeties) nor from special teams (kick returns, punt returns, fumble returns). Thus, Denver has 265 total points scored, but only 244 of those have come from a play by the offensive unit. The data we found is shown below:

Den KC Jac NYG
Record 6-0 6-0 0-6 0-6
Tot Plays 428 404 382 362
Tot Yards 2858 1957 1621 2041
Yards/Play 6.7 4.8 4.2 5.6
Off Points 244 117 61 103

We were not surprised to see that Denver had run the most plays and accrued the most yards and points. We were rather surprised to see that the Giants had accrued the second-most number of yards given that they had also run the fewest number of plays. We were not surprised to see Kansas City standing in second place in most of those categories. Nor were we surprised to see that Jacksonville's offense had amassed the fewest number of points.

The next step was to look at the number of yards gained on first down. Our method was simple. We looked at the play-by-play records for each game for each team (yes, we can be a bit obsessive about football). We counted the number of plays on first down, the number of yards accrued and then calculated the average gain on first down. What we found was the following:

Den KC Jac NYG
1st Down Plays 211 174 157 168
1st Down Yards 1312 866 805 994
1st Dn Yds/Play 6.2 5.0 5.1 5.9

Again, it came as no great surprise that Denver led in all three categories, nor that the Chiefs had the second-highest number of plays on first down. The Broncos' 6.2 yards per play on first down plays a role in explaining the great success they have had offensively. There were two things that did surprise us: that the Giants had both the second-highest number of yards on first down and the second-highest average per first down play. New York was only three-tenths of a yard behind the Broncos in per play average.

We decided that the next thing we should look at was the percentage of the total offensive effort that was represented by those first down plays. What we found was this:

Den KC Jac NYG
1st Dn Plays as Pct of Total Plays 49.3 43.1 41.1 46.4
1st Dn Yds as Pct of Total Yds 45.9 44.3 49.7 48.7

It was intriguing to note that nearly half of Denver's plays have been a "1st&something-to-go." What was even more startling was to discover that nearly half of the yards accrued by both the Jaguars and the Giants had come on first down. We decided there must be something more going on here, so we decided to dig a little deeper.

One member suggested that we look at first down plays that resulted in either no gain, or a loss of yardage. So, we again looked at the play-by-play descriptions for no-gain plays and negative-yardage plays. We did not include kneel downs to run out the clock in the count of negative yardage plays. We found the following:

Den KC Jac NYG
No Gain 28 44 52 50
Negative Yds 12 9 12 18
Pct of 1st Downs = No Gain or Loss 19.0 30.5 40.8 40.5

There was a marked difference between Denver/Kansas City and Jacksonville/New York in this regard. This may be one contributing factor to the success of the Broncos and Chiefs, as well as the struggles of the Jaguars and Giants. Denver has had less than 20% of their first down plays result in no gain or a loss while the two 0-6 teams have had losses or no gain in two out of every five first down plays. This would put them in second and long on a consistent basis. The group decided to look at third down conversion rates to see if, perhaps, this was also an area of concern. We found the following on each team's third down conversion rate:

Den KC Jac NYG
3rd Down Conversions 42-73 29-89 26-87 22-76
3rd Down Conversion Pct 57.5 32.6 29.9 28.9

While Denver has converted over half of its third downs, the two 0-6 teams have a success rate of less than 30%. Not only that, but one member pointed out that following its 211 first down plays, the Broncos have only been stretched to third down 73 times -- or 34.6% of the time. This is compared with the Giants going to a third down 45.2% of the time and Jacksonville and Kansas City experiencing that situation over 50% of the time.

Consider the impact this would have on the Jacksonville offense, for example. The Jaguars have been gaining an average of 5.1 yards on first down. This would give them a 2nd-and-5, on average. Yet, they have been forced to go to a 3rd-and-something over half the time. Add in a third down conversion rate of just 29.9 percent and we find Jacksonville doing a lot of punting.

Denver, by way of comparison, has been averaging 6.2 yards on first down. This leaves them with a 2nd-and-4. Not terribly surprising then that they have been forced to a 3rd-and-something only about one-third of the time. Add in a 57.5% conversion rate on third down, and the Broncos' offense has able to keep rolling the majority of the time.

Just for fun, we decided to see how each of the teams has fared on first down in the Red Zone, and what their Red Zone Efficiency (number of touchdowns scored versus number of trips into the Red Zone) has been. The data looks like this:

Den KC Jac NYG
RZ 1st Down Plays 27 24 14 14
RZ 1st Down Yards 125 99 13 20
RZ Yds/1st Down Play 4.6 4.1 0.9 1.4
RZ Efficiency 23-28 11-21 5-15 7-12
RZ Efficiency Pct 82.1 52.4 33.3 58.3

A couple of very telling things here. Denver and Kansas City have both had over twenty 1st-and-something plays in the Red Zone, while the Jaguars and Giants have had only fourteen each. Not only that, but notice the difference in yards and yards per play on first down in the Red Zone. In all four cases, the yards per play is lower than the overall yards per play for the team, as well as the yards per play on first down. Yet, the Broncos and Chiefs are each averaging over four yards per first down in the Red Zone, while New York are struggling along at about a yard-and-a-half and Jacksonville is achieving a horrifying 0.9 yards per first down play in the Red Zone.

It's hard to not believe that this has impacted each team's Red Zone Efficiency. Though, surprisingly, the Giants are converting on 58.3% of their Red Zone trips -- though that number should be taken with a grain of salt since they have fewer Red Zone trips than any of the other three (in fact, their number is less than half as many as the Broncos).

We decided to look at one final area: turnovers. We looked at both the total number of turnovers committed by each team, as well as the number of turnovers committed on a first down play. We found the following:

Den KC Jac NYG
Fumbles Lost 8 3 2 7
Interceptions 2 3 11 16
Total Turnovers 10 6 13 23
Fumbles Lost on 1st Down 3 2 1 2
Interceptions on 1st Down 1 1 3 6
Total Turnovers on 1st Down 4 3 4 8
Pct of Tot Turnovers Occurring on First Down 40.0 50.0 30.8 34.8

A side note, before anyone complains about the interception count for New York: Eli Manning has fifteen interceptions, Curtis Painter has one.

When we look at turnovers, we believe it can be said that the Giants' turnovers have played a major role in offsetting their 5.6 yard per play on first down. They have turned the ball over on 6.3% of their plays and 47.6% of their first down plays. In fact, over a third of their turnovers have come on first down.

Denver, by way of comparison, has turned the ball over on 2.3% of their plays and only 1.9% of their first down plays. By the same token, 40% of the Broncos' turnovers have come on first down. That is an area in which they will need to improve if they hope to sustain a Super Bowl run.

Overall, there were no real surprises here. Denver's offense has been dominant on first down:

49.3% of their plays being 1st-and-something

45.9% of their total yardage coming on 1st-and-something

Only 19.0% of their first downs resulting in no gain or a loss

57.5% third down conversion rate

82.1% Red Zone efficiency rate

The area the Broncos need to work on is turnovers, especially on first down.

Kansas City's offense has been solid, if not particularly spectacular. They have had the added advantage of a solid, opportunistic defense that has provided them with powerful support. The offense also protects the ball well which enhances what they can do. From what we could discern, the Chiefs largest area of need lies in the area of third down conversions.

New York's offense has the odd problem of doing very well on first down, but seems to be oriented to a "big play or bust" type mentality as evidenced by 40% of their first down plays going for no gain or a loss. Add in having to go to a 3rd-and-something on 45% of their plays -- and only converting 28.9% of them -- and we see an offense that is struggling. The situation is further exacerbated by an excessive number of turnovers (almost 35% of which have come on first down) and this is an offense that has been hamstringing itself.

Jacksonville's offense is the enigma. Averaging 5.1 yards per play on first down and having accrued 49.7% of their total yardage on first down, we would have expected to see them performing at a much higher level. The place where it would appear to break down for the Jaguars on first down is the fact that 40.8% of their first down plays have resulted in no gain or a loss. This creates a second and/or third and long for Jacksonville. Their average gain per play when you remove the first down plays and the first down yards is only 3.6 yards, leading to a large number of punts.

In any event, the Water Cooler Quarterbacks believe that the Broncos are a good example of what can happen when you have large average gains on first down. The Chiefs show us what can happen when your gains are good, you take care of the ball and are supported by a powerhouse defense. The Jaguars and Giants show us what happens when your first down play is not consistent and/or you do not take care of the ball.

The Water Cooler Quarterbacks wish you an awesome weekend of football.

Go Broncos.