Many Football Truisms are False

ESPN’s Jeff Garber observes that many of the things football fans (and maybe even coaches) “know” about the game don’t hold up to empirical study.

Over the years, those of us who follow the NFL have come to hold certain truths as self-evident: Win the battle of turnovers and time of possession and you’ll win the game. Penalties, the ugly result of a lack of discipline, will kill you. So will allowing big plays on special teams. Being the top conference seed is a good thing.

Well, football fans, some of these truisms are true — and some of them aren’t. For here are some statistical indicators of success and failure that will astonish and amaze you. Shock and awe would not be an exaggeration, well, not a big one.

We know this because Insider Jeremy Green, the Cleveland Browns’ director of pro personnel during 2000-2004, tracked some of the time-honored statistical categories. They were sorted into two categories: sins that more than likely will cost you the game; and myths that, surprisingly, quite often won’t.

He lists 5 Unforgivable Sins that, based on the NFL’s 2003 and 2004 regular-season statistics, that hold up to scrutiny.

    Sin No. 1: Trailing after the first quarter (75 percent)

    Sin No. 2: Losing the turnover battle (81 percent)

    Sin No. 3: Allowing a 100-yard runner (75 percent)

    Sin No. 4: Allowing more sacks (70 percent)

    Sin No. 5: Losing time of possession (67 percent)

The percentage in parenthesis refers to the probability of losing when committing that particular sin. Click the link for his detailed analysis. He that “like the myriad creatures of the universe, interconnected.” Indeed, most of the stats are bogus in the sense that causality is somewhat reversed: teams that have an early lead tend to try to run out the clock, which leads to more running, which leads to more time of possession. Teams that are behind tend to pass more, which means they take less time off the clock and risk more sacks and interceptions.

Perhaps more interestingly, there are 5 Overrated Myths: things people believe are true but aren’t.

    Myth No. 1: Fewest penalties wins (54 percent)

    Myth No. 2: Highest average per carry wins (55 percent)

    Myth No. 3: No. 1 conference seed advances to Super Bowl (50 percent)

    Myth No. 4: A 300-yard passer usually wins (46 percent)

    Myth No. 5: A kick or punt return for a TD means a win (42 percent)

Again, click the link for Garber’s analysis. There’s less explanation for these than for the ones that hold up.

My guess is that “fewest penalties” is not a particularly accurate stat because the differential tends to be slight andnumber of penalties isn’t the same as penalty yards. Moreover, penalties are sometimes “good.” For example, a hold or interference call that prevents a quarterback sack or touchdown catch are actually helpful. Other penalties, like offsides, are indicators of aggressiveness which may offset the occasional 5-yard loss.

The team with most regular season wins in a conference may only have a slight advantage over the challengers. They may play in a weaker division, have suffered a key injury late (or an opponent gotten a key player back after losing early), or lose a fluke game in the playoffs. And, with 16 teams in a conference and only one going to the Super Bowl, 50 percent is pretty astounding.

The 300-yard passer is likely playing from behind and inflating his stats. See the “true” truisms. Ditto the yards per carry thing.

Frankly, I’ve never heard Myth #5 before and it seems absurd on its face. True, in a league where games are increasingly close, a fluke touchdown is a big bonus. And, again, 42 percent based on one rather odd stat is pretty good.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Sam says:

    If the No.1 conference seed going into the playoffs advances to the superbowl with 0.5 probability, that’s pretty good–there are 5 other teams in the playoffs for each conference.

  2. Sam says:

    Oops, just noticed you made the same comment in your post.