Time of Possession: A Battle Worth Winning?

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Time.

We’d all like more of it. I often find myself thinking ‘there aren’t enough hours in the day,’ and for most of us, this is true. We all want to do so much more with the time we have each day, week or month. When you have children, as I do, you want even more time in the day. More time with them and more time doing the things you love. This recently got me thinking about time of possession in today’s NFL and just how much it does or doesn’t contribute to a team’s success.

This in turn brings up some interesting questions to answer. With the NFL being more of a passing league in recent years, does this mean that time of possession really isn’t that important of a statistic, as long as a team’s offense is putting points on the board? Does an offense spending more time on the field allow the defense to perform better?

A lot of NFL coaches will tell you that ball control and winning the time of possession battle are key ingredients to winning football games. Common sense would suggest this is true. When digging into the statistics what does it tell us and is it really that simple?

Let’s start with the 2017 season. The table below shows the top 10 teams in average time of possession in the NFL in 2017 per teamrankings.com. As you can see, of the top 10 teams: 7 made the playoffs in Philadelphia, Carolina, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, New Orleans and Kansas City. The Philadelphia Eagles, who had the most average time of possession, actually won the Super Bowl. When we take a look at what teams did with that time of possession – as in plays-per-game – 7 of the teams ranked in the top 10 of time of possession also ranked in the top 10 in plays-per-game. Their rankings are in brackets in the plays-per-game column.

It should come as no surprise that 7 of the top 10 teams in time of possession also ranked in the top 10 in plays-per-game average. After all, the more time you’re on the field the more plays you’re likely to run. However, situational football and game planning comes into play here, as we have to think that some teams will have played a no-huddle style of offense, meaning more plays run in less time. Now let’s look back to 2016. Do we see a similar pattern?

To a degree, yes. While in 2016, 5 of the top 10 teams in average time of possession made the playoffs, (Houston, Dallas, New England, Green Bay and Oakland) 7 of these teams ranked in the top 10 in plays-per-game average. In today’s NFL, an offense’s time of possession and plays-per-game average are only a small part of how a teams offensive success should be measured, but I found this interesting to look at nonetheless and is a nice segway into what I looked into next.

Does a team’s offense being on the field longer increase the performance of a defense? The common anecdote supporting this would be that the defense can come onto the field well rested.

Well, to a degree yes, at least for 2017. When comparing the 2017 time of possession chart with the 2017 total defense chart below, we see 7 of the teams featured in the 2017 time of possession chart featured on the total defense chart in Minnesota, Jacksonville, Denver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Arizona and Carolina. These teams’ defenses also had some of the least total scrimmage plays in the NFL. So while their offenses were on the field longer, it suggests that a well rested defense does in fact help them contribute to their own success.

There are a few interesting findings here. The Chicago Bears ranked 28th in time of possession with an average of 28.27 minutes in 2017. However, their defense ranked 10th in total defense and they had the 14th least scrimmage plays. This tells us that in simple terms their defense was good despite their offense not being able to stay on the field.

You may have also noticed that both Denver and Arizona ranked in the top 10 in average time of possession, plays-per-game, total defense and fewest scrimmage plays, especially in Denver’s case. Yet Denver finished at the bottom of the AFC West at 5-11 and Arizona finished 3rd in the NFC West at 8-8 in 2017. These two teams were clearly the exception here rather than the rule and it suggests their offenses were not able to make the most of the time they had with the ball.

Over the last two seasons we’ve seen 5 and 7 of the top 10 in time of possession reach the playoffs. So over this time that’s a total of 24 teams making the playoffs but only 12 of them ranking in the top 10 of time of possession average. The results also show that the defensive side of the ball benefits from a team’s high time of possession average but ultimately it’s the offense’s responsibility to score points. As long as they can do this and move the ball efficiently, then winning the time of possession battle isn’t as important as some may think in today’s NFL.

Follow Justin on Twitter @JustinTwell78. Check out his work here, including his look at New York Jets’ WR Robby Anderson, the elite Minnesota Vikings’ linebacker corps, and the Mitchell Trubisky pick.

Want more Inside the Pylon? Subscribe to our podcasts, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook or catch us at our YouTube channel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *