Innovation, rule changes, and new financial agreements in athletics generally revolutionize the sport. The changes that occur as a result of simple differences are often unanticipated, and frequently lead to many transformations of the sport: both subtle and overt.
One of the oldest Olympic sports, fencing, had an innovation completely change the strategy of the sport. Prior to the Berlin Olympics (1936), epee fencing was judged by 5 people that would determine whether the tip of the epee (sword) hit the opponent. The tip of the epee is the second fastest object in the Olympics, only behind the bullet shot out of a gun.
With the advent of electronic scoring, it was no longer necessary for epeeists to make their touches obvious. Since a light and buzzer would signal a touch and was over 99% accurate, touches to the hand and foot could now be effectively executed on a consistent basis. The French epeeists were the first to adapt, and many medals ensued.
Now the Italians and Germans (there you go O.C.C.) have won their share utilizing the Hungarian school of epee. This was in response to the dominance of the French style. In other words it was a natural evolution of the sport following an innovation.
Although studies have shown fencers have lower extremity strength comparable to football players, I am afraid that there are not too many more comparisons between the two sports. Football, however, is very good at adding innovations and rule changes to improve the sport. The most recent is the new kickoff rule that I believe will be around for a very long time due to how it spares players from additional risk of injury.
In 2010, there were about 3,083 kickoffs (23 were returned for touchdowns). The average starting position following kickoffs was around the 24-yard line. If offenses start closer to the 20-yard line this season, the average team will have lost 24 yards per game in field position.
By making offenses start about 80 yards away from their opponent’s end zone, I believe an emphasis will be placed on other ways to gain field position. I have thought of the following and invite further suggestions:
1. Big plays
3. Punt returns and coverage
5. Sacks and tackles for loss
It is difficult for teams to string together 10+ play drives spanning 80 yards to score. For that reason, explosive offenses capable of gobbling up yardage in fewer plays will have a better chance to score, or pin their opponents back in their own end. In 2010, the future “Dream Team”, the Eagles and the Giants had the most plays over 20 yards (80 each). San Diego (79) and Pittsburgh (78) followed, with Dallas finishing 8th (68).
Turnovers and takeaways will instantly change field position. In 2010, New England (28), Pittsburgh (17), Atlanta (14), Green Bay (10), Philadelphia (9), Kansas City (9), Tampa Bay (9), and the New York Jets (9) led the league in turnover differential. With the exception of Tampa Bay, all of those teams made the playoffs. Since the average punt nets approximately 39 yards, any takeaway less than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage would at least benefit the team with 20 yards of field position.
There were approximately 1.68 takeaways per team per game in 2010 (860 total). Comparatively, there were about 3.7 plays of over 20 yards per team in each game played last season (1892 total). Most of the changes in field position, however, came from the punting game. There were about 4.8 punts per game per team in 2010 (2454 total). The average return was around 9.6 yards, leaving the afore mentioned 39 yard net per punt.
Better punt coverage would benefit any team in 2011 tremendously. Notice that despite having the most and third most big plays (of over 20 yards) the Giants and the Chargers missed the playoffs last season. Correspondingly, the Chargers had the worst punt coverage, yielding an average return of 18.9 yards per return. The Giants were second worst in the league, giving up 14.9 yards per punt return in 2010.
The average team had almost exactly 6 penalties per game played in 2010. The average yardage lost was a little less than 51 yards per team per game. With the most explosive plays of over 20 yards last season, it is surprising that the pre-“Dream Team” Eagles did not win more games. Only Oakland (Surprise! 148) and Detroit (136) had more penalties than Philadelphia (129) in 2010. Dallas (109) was 6th worst in 2010, but as noted in other posts, that number would have been much worse had the early trend of penalties continued from the first half of the season.
Sacks obviously have a negative impact on field position and the ability to score (see another fine O.C.C. article written several months ago). The average team suffers around 2.2 sacks per game leading to an average loss of almost 15 yards. Chicago, a team known for its great special teams, suffered the most sacks in 2010 (56). Protecting Cutler better would have led to better field position.
As I tried to demonstrate, many teams do well in one of the five major influences to gain field position, but give some of those gains back in another area. Last season, Dallas was awful with penalties, return yardage, and turnovers at the beginning of the season. The Cowboys started 1-7, despite having a good amount of plays over 20 yards.
With the new rules affecting field position on over 3,000 plays, the five factors listed above will be magnified in importance. For this reason, I believe that Dallas tries to keep more special teams players to effectively contain punt returners, the single biggest change to field position in the game.
Teams that have bolstered their offensive lines, such as Dallas, will have more opportunities for big plays downfield while minimizing negative plays, such as sacks. Teams that operate with more discipline will also avoid penalties that adversely change field position.
Every team tries to avoid turnovers and maximize takeaways, but those teams that emphasize it will be better off than in the past. Oddly enough, this is the style of defense that Garrett has asked for from Rob Ryan.
In writing this, I found myself remembering many of the nuggets that Garrett drops in his press conference. Perhaps this edition of the Cowboys will pay attention to these small details, leading to another division title and sixth Super Bowl championship.