"We know the outcome of games are defined by what happens on critical downs, in critical field position." -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, May 21, 2007, USA Today
There's no doubt coach Mike Tomlin and his Pittsburgh Steelers are very conscious of the red zone and its importance to their success. The value of a good offense or defense inside the 20 is one of those rare topics regarding the NFL that everyone agrees on; find someone who will tell you red zone performance doesn't matter. Even Football Outsiders won't go there.
While defenses that bend but don't break have been discussed and analyzed in the past, there hasn't been the same sort of look at offenses; namely, are there teams that consistently do better in the red zone than they do elsewhere on the field? And if so, does that make them more successful? Or, alternately, do teams that exceed their expectations in the red zone tend to fall back in subsequent years?
It's a relevant question now because of the performance of the Steelers' attack inside the 20 this season. The Steelers have scored touchdowns on 16 of their 22 possessions that reached the red zone, the fourth-best ratio in the league. Their DVOA (our proprietary metric that measures performance after adjusting for down, distance, situation and opponent and comparing to the league average) on offense inside the 20 is fifth-best.
DVOA and Football Outsiders' other advanced stats are explained here.
What makes this performance so interesting is that the Steelers haven't been very good on offense this season. Their 155 points are 18th in the league, and their offense overall is ranked 24th by DVOA, likely owing to the fact that 76 of those 155 points were scored against the pitiful defenses of the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans.
If we measure their total offensive DVOA versus their red zone offensive DVOA, the resulting difference pegs their offense in the red zone as opposed to elsewhere on the field as the fourth-best in the league. The other teams in the top five are the Detroit Lions (who have six touchdowns in eight attempts), Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs. As you can see, that's a mix of successful teams and terrible ones.
For more perspective, we need to look at a wider set of teams. We took every team from 1996 through 2006 and grabbed their total offensive DVOAs and red zone DVOAs. We measured the differences and found the 20 teams whose offenses most fervently exceeded expectations and the 20 teams whose offenses failed to meet them.
The 20 teams with the best performances in the red zone relative to their total offensive performances won an average of 8.7 games. The 20 teams whose red zone performances were the furthest below expectations won an average of 7.3 games.
Is red zone performance a consistent trait, though? We took those 20 overachievers and measured their performances the season after said overachievement; while their DVOA in the red zone that initial season exceeded their total offensive DVOA by an average of 33.3 percent, in the following season, their DVOA in the red zone exceeded their total DVOA by an average of 1.3 percent. In other words, the teams' performances in the red zone mirrored how they did outside it, implying the overachieving was a fluke.
We also can measure this by using correlation coefficients, a way of measuring the relationship between two variables that results in a number ranging from minus-1 (at which the two variables have an exact inverse relationship) to plus-1 (at which the variables have a perfectly positive relationship). The correlation between a team's performance in the red zone and its overall offensive performance, year to year, is 0.08 -- essentially nil. Teams simply do not exceed their performance in the first 80 yards once they get to the final 20 on a regular basis.
Here's the strangest thing, though. As we mentioned, those 20 overachievers won an average of 8.7 games the season their red zone performance was extraordinary. The year after, when their red zone performance dropped to around the league average? They won an average of 8.7 games. There was absolutely no change in their win total, on average, even with their red zone performance no longer being so fantastic.
If we look at the teams that underachieved, we see a slightly different story. The season after their red zone performance was subpar by an average of 37.6 percent, they still averaged 10.1 percent less than their expected performance in the red zone. Way better, certainly, but still not as precipitous of a regression to the mean as that of those overachievers. They did win an average of 8.0 games the season after, though, so they saw a rise in their performance of 0.7 wins.
Last season, the Steelers' red zone DVOA was 10.1 percent, good for 13th in the league; their total offensive DVOA was 6.8 percent, good for 12th. The Steelers were the same team inside the red zone that they were outside it. It's a significant advantage for the Steelers that they've been wizards inside the red zone so far this season. But expecting the success to continue or using it as an indicator that they're the offensive version of the bend-but-don't-break defense would be wrong.
That consistent overachieving in the red zone simply doesn't exist. Only one team in the past 10 seasons has had its red zone performance exceed its overall offensive DVOA by more than 10 percent in four consecutive years: the San Diego Chargers, who did it from 2004 through 2007.
This season, their red zone performance is worse than their overall performance. Like many other things when it comes to the NFL, maybe LaDainian Tomlinson is the exception to the rule.
Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com