Why starting points often mean end results
By Dan Pompei - SportingNews
As Bill Belichick prepares the Patriots for their game each week, he stands before his players and goes over six to 10 key points that, in theory, will help them defeat that opponent. But one point is included in almost every speech.
Score first, and play with a lead.
The Patriots' game plans often will reflect the philosophy. Belichick surprised the Bills by starting a game with a no-huddle offense last December, and the result was a 14-0 lead and a 31-0 victory. The week before, the Patriots designed a pass they thought the Jets were vulnerable to and used it on their first play. Receiver David Givens caught a 35-yard touchdown throw from Tom Brady, and the Pats were on their way to a 21-16 victory.
Why does scoring first matter?
Well, last season in the NFL, the team that scored first won 70 percent of the time. When a team scored twice before the opponent scored its first points, even if it was two field goals, the team with the points won an incredible 84 percent of the time.
Those startling numbers come from the research of former Cardinals quarterbacks coach and former Chargers offensive coordinator Geep Chryst, who has been analyzing trends for nearly 20 years. This is the time of year when teams study such trends and respond accordingly.
Why should a 7-point lead be so difficult to overcome or a 10-point lead be nearly insurmountable? It has to do with how the dynamics of the game subtly shift when one team takes a lead. Even a small deficit tightens a team's turtleneck. And even when teams are capable of rallying, they might not have enough bullets left in their belts to win the game at the end.
"It changes strategy," Bucs coach Jon Gruden says of getting a lead. "It's a powerful thing. It gives you confidence.''
Bills coach Mike Mularkey says he won't change his approach to play-calling as a result of a deficit until the second half because to do so might lead his players to believe he is panicking.
Coaches shiver at the mention of the "p" word. They fear sending the wrong message -- to their players, to their superiors, to their critics. But adjusting a game plan shouldn't be looked at as panic. It should be looked at as necessary adaptation. And the truth is many teams don't adjust quickly enough. By the time coaches adjust, their opportunities have drifted away like helium balloons from the pregame introductions.
"I think people stick with their game plans too long," Belichick says. "They continue to do what they're going to do."
Belichick allows that the Patriots could start to deviate from their plan as early as the third possession of the game. And why not adjust to what is working, what is not working and how defenses have adjusted based on the score and other factors?
One reason teams hesitate to adjust is their scheme ties their hands. "A lot of power running teams with tighter formations aren't used to spreading the ball out," Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders said. "They rely on the run game predominantly, and spreading out the formation becomes a small percentage of what they do. So they get out of the character of what their team is, and they have to do things that they work on in a practice environment only a very small percentage of the time."
The Panthers, Dolphins, Cowboys and Ravens are examples of teams that put most of their eggs in the run basket. Their personnel is geared for protecting a lead more than overcoming one, and the emphasis of their preparation is on ball control. Teams with those kinds of offenses find it more difficult to play from behind than teams such as the Chiefs, Colts or Patriots, whose offenses are more geared to the pass.
When coaches finally decide to surrender to desperation mode, they become predictable. Defenses subsequently are willing to take more risks in terms of play design and individuals going for the ball. The game methodically unravels for the trailing team.
Which leads to another interesting nugget from Chryst: In 2003, 70 percent of interceptions were thrown by trailing teams.
"There's no question if you get in a situation like that, a young quarterback in particular is going to try to make a throw he probably shouldn't," Rams coach Mike Martz says. "We talk to our quarterbacks all the time, saying there is a time when you have to make a high-risk throw, maybe in the last couple of minutes, that in the normal course of a game you wouldn't make."
The high percentage of interceptions thrown when a team is trying to rally might reflect the play calls as much as the quarterback.
"Decision-making becomes a little more aggressive when you're behind, on the part of the play caller and the quarterback," Gruden says. "We have to push the ball, we have to score, get back in the game. Sometimes you get a little too aggressive with your decision-making and play selection, forcing the issue."
The perception is NFL games go down to the closing minutes, NBA style. But if you miss the first few possessions, you might miss the game.
Senior writer Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Sporting News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org