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Jay Paterno: In Football, Only One Stat Matters

by on September 27, 2012 6:14 AM

“Statistics always remind me of the fellow who drowned in a river where the average depth was only three feet.” –Woody Hayes

For the first time after 26 years watching game films/videos, I have time to watch a lot of football on television. While watching I’ve noticed a continual stream of statistical references made by the announcers.

There was a time when no one cared, but the fascination with statistics expanded as they became readily accessible on the internet. Stats have become the final word on how well a unit played or how well coached it is. When a team loses, it has become easy to point to a kickoff return unit ranked in the bottom of the conference or a pass defense ranked 75th nationally.

Where did Penn State’s defense rank in the NCAA in 1982 or 1994? Who cares? Both of those teams were great offensively with defenses solid enough to win national titles (The 1994 team was named national champion by the New York Times poll).

Where did Penn State’s offense rank in 1947, 1968, 1969 or 1986? Those teams ran up a record of 43-0-1 with great defense, kicking and an offense that won games in the fourth quarter. Following a similar template through the end of last October, Penn State was 8-1 with a lone loss to eventual national champion Alabama.

But the emphasis of stats as a barometer in the coaching profession has begun to work against the team concept. Coaches fill resumes with statistical rankings. Like teachers evaluated solely on tests, coaches coach “to the test.” Why? Because most athletic directors, search committees and public relations people use stats to select and sell the people they hire.

Michigan’s legendary Athletic Director Don Canham hired Bo Schembechler in 1968 on the advice of Ohio State coach Woody Hayes. Woody told Canham that Schembechler was the best assistant coach he’d ever had. There was no discussion of statistical rankings and no concern for how it would play out in the newspapers.

NFL owners are not immune to the problem either. When Wade Phillips was hired to coach the Dallas Cowboys in 2007, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had already hired an offensive coordinator. Other owners have done the same.

When an NFL owner has selected coordinators for the head coach, it begs the question; who do these coordinators work for?

Football is a game where wins and losses must be a team concept. A reliance on statistics alone can build a compartmentalization of coaching where one side is disconnected from the other side and team wins and losses suffer. Great teams have head coaches that oversee it all.

Teams with ball control offenses tend to rank lower on offense but higher in defensive categories. The more plays the team’s offense runs, the less plays its opponents run. In 2011 Alabama ranked No. 1 nationally in defense. They ranked lower offensively with a time-consuming ball control offense. As a result, no defense played less plays than the Crimson Tide (less than 60 plays a game).

To illustrate a point, if an opponent averages 5 yards per play on 60 snaps it’ll tally 300 yards of offense. An offense averaging the same yards per play running 75 plays gains 375 yards. In 2011 a defense allowing 300 yards per game would’ve ranked ninth nationally, while a team giving up 375 yards would’ve ranked 55th. Both defenses gave up the same yardage per play but achieved very different rankings.

NCAA stats also vary more than NFL stats. With just 32 teams the NFL is more competitive each week than the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision with 128 teams. Who you play impacts your results. In 2008 USC had the nation’s top-ranked defense. Looking closer you see eight of the 12 teams it played ranked in the bottom half of all offenses in the country—including five ranked 100th or lower. (Make no mistake, it was very good no matter who it played).

Certain factors do reside under the sole control of a team’s offense or defense. Those are generally the numbers that coaches focus on when they talk in meetings. Third downs, turnovers and red zone efficiency are probably the three biggest areas.

Those situations determine ball possession and if you get points when you should. One football constant; wherever that ball goes there are 11 guys on defense trying to get it and 11 guys on offense trying to keep and advance it. The ability to control the tempo of the game and focus solely on winning is the difference between success and failure.

In my career I was in locker rooms after 10-7 wins and 42-37 wins. I’ve also been in locker rooms after 14-7 losses and 35-28 losses. If you have the right team, the feeling is consistent for every win and consistent after every loss.

In today’s compartmentalized world of hyper-statistical analysis it is easy to get lost in things that don’t matter. Keep in mind the average depth of the river isn’t what matters, it just matters if you survive the current and get to the other side.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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