One of the things I've looked at here over the past couple years from time to time is what effect starting field position has had on how effective the Titans have been at scoring or conceding points. I think the first time I did it was when I tried to compare how the offense fared in 2009 under Kerry Collins to how it fared under Vince Young, and I've kept it up since. I actually planned this post as one of my bye week updates, but didn't get the chance to write it then. Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer's firing makes now a great time to look at it, though, because when I got the chance to run the numbers, the comparison to 2011 was striking.
The methodology is basically the same it's been in the past. Touchdowns are worth 7 points. Made field goals are worth 3 points. Missed field goals are worth 2 points. All other drives are worth 0 points. End of half/game drives ending in kneeldowns are excluded, as are desperation drives that don't end in points (e.g., the final drive against Jacksonville last week). I'm not trying to cheat the numbers in any way, and frankly the results surprised me.
So, let's see those results. Chart? Chart.
|# Drives||Pct||Pts Per Drive||Zone||# Drives||Pct||Pts Per Drive|
What do we see here?
First, it's worth keeping in mind we're dealing with relatively small sample sizes that can see moderately-sizable swings even from game to game. Kicking a field goal after the early interception of Chad Henne against the Jaguars lowered the points per drive starting at or beyond the 50 by 0.19 on the season. The sample sizes on the other side of the 50 are larger, thus less prone to skewing by a single drive, but I wouldn't be too surprised if I re-ran the numbers next week and found one of them had changed by that much. These are indicative, not gospel.
That said, look at just how many drives are starting inside the 20, and just how bad the Titans are there. When I ran the numbers for 2011, I found something weird last year-both the Titans and their opponents did better on on drives starting inside the 20 than they did on drives starting on the 20. I'll run with the defense numbers later, but that's not been the case for either the Titans or their opponents this year. It's also not the case that a particularly large number of backed-up drives are making the Titans look worse than they are. Even on drives starting between the 16 and the 19, the Titans are averaging only 0.69 points. The sample size for that subset is of course not large (13), but it does give an indication of the problem.
Why are the Titans starting so many drives inside their own 20, then? Well, there are two culprits. The first is kickoff returns. But, Tom, average starting field position for the offense after a kickoff is up this year, to 21.4 from 20.9. Correct, but averages are funky things. Let's take a look at the distribution of where the Titans have started after kickoffs this year compared to last year. Chart? Chart.
|# Returns||Pct||Zone||# Returns||Pct|
And there's the rub. Where Reynaud produces on average slightly better results (an extra half-yard average on 60-something kickoff returns is nothing to completely hate), he seems to actually return many more kicks. And while some of those returns to beyond the 20 and help the offense, too many of them end up short of the 20.
As for the second culprit, the other big way the Titans get the ball back is when the other team punts. Here's where the Titans have started after a punt this year compared to last year:
|# Post-Punt Drives||Pct||Zone||# Post-Punt Drives||Pct|
Ah, so it's still Darius Reynaud's fault then? Not so fast, midget! By Football Outsiders numbers, the Titans currently have 5.1 points of Punt Return value, up from 3.4 points last year. Granted, that includes things like fumbles and return scores that aren't included in this analysis. By conventional numbers, Reynaud is averaging 8.7 yards per punt return compared to Marc Mariani's 10.7 last year. But without Mariani's punt return score, which doesn't matter for field position, he averaged 9.1 yards per return. That's more or less a wash. No, the second culprit is not the punt return, but where the punts are kicked from. And that culprit is the defense. The Titans have started more drives backed up because the defense is giving up more yards, letting teams punt from closer to the Titans' goalline.
The Titans' offense has been sort of respectable, at least as good or better than they were last year, at converting drives into points, except when they start inside their own 20. They're starting inside their own 20 a lot more often this year than they were last year. Starting inside their own 20 is primarily caused by two things: more kickoff returns that don't make it out to the 20 and too many punts inside the 20 because opponents are punting from so close to the end zone. Unless those things change or the Titans become more efficient at converting particularly bad field position into points, the Titans' offense is likely to struggle just as much under Dowell Loggains as it did under Chris Palmer.
I'll cover field position and defense in another post.