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Stats Corner: Hall of Fame Bill Walsh and Advanced Statistics

Inventor of West Coast Offense Identifies Statistics to Help Improve Football Teams

Las Vegas Bowl - Boise State v Oregon Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

Weekly questions:

1) What record did Purdue set in 1943 which will probably never be broken?

2) What was unique about the Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts game in 2009?

3) What record did Davidson set in 2018?


1) Most turnovers in a game by a winning team at 11, but on a positive note no interceptions. Purdue beat Illinois 40-21 despite losing 11 fumbles during the game.

2) Miami had the largest time of possession by a losing team at 45 minutes and 7 seconds, compared to 14 minutes and 53 seconds. Also, they converted 15 of 21 3rd down chances, ran 84 plays to the Colt’s 35, and their only turnover was the final play of the game.

3) Davidson rushed for 789 against San Diego, the setting a record for a FCS team (also would be a FBS record), but lost 56-52. Davidson also outgained San Diego in total offense 852-625. Additional fact, this was the second time Davidson has rushed for more than 500 yards and lost the football game.

Conventional wisdom states that the team who wins the turnover battle, the time of possession, and out gains the other team in offensive yards wins the football game. And the overwhelming majority of the time the wisdom holds true. Enough that you could go to Vegas and have a difficult time finding a bookie to take that bet. “I would like to bet the team which forces the most turnovers, has the longest possession time, and outgains the other team wins. Any takers?” Actually, with the new gambling rules, you would be hard pressed to find anyone anywhere to take that bet. But do those stats tell the whole story? And are these stats the underlying reason for winning or merely a byproduct?

According to Hall of Fame Coach Bill Walsh, nope and byproduct. Walsh was the inventor of the West Coast Offense, head coach of the Stanford Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers, and winner of 3 Super Bowls. In 1998, he published a book called “Finding the Winning Edge” in which he shares with the world everyone he feels a head coach needs to be successful, including what to do in various situations and applying advanced stats to find out a team’s strengths and weaknesses. This begs the questions “What are advanced stats?”

Mark Twain famously wrote “Figures often beguile me… There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” What would he classify advanced statistics as? As evidenced in the three original questions, statistics do not tell the whole story nor are they particularly interesting in and off themselves. Yet we hear them mentioned consistently on sports shows and during a game. The objective of statistics should not be to shower people with numbers or to make a commentator sound intelligent, but rather to get people to ask the right questions. Advance statistics should force people to answer the question “why does that happen” or “what is the cause?” For example, you probably heard the greatness of Tom Brady being summed up as in every Super Bowl victory he has lead a 4th quarter or overtime game winning drive. Or Super Bowl LIII was the first time the Patriots had a final score in the Super Bowl which differed by more than a touchdown. Those are statistics which can a spouted on cue. Advanced statistic try to answer the questions “Why has Tom Brady always had to come from behind in the Super Bowl?” and “Why can’t the Patriots score a touchdown in the first quarter of the Super Bowl?”

Some of the topics Walsh covers in his book are Combine (limited), 40 yard dash (overrated), vertical (is affected by training), evaluating positions, acquiring players, and draft (he took Joe Montana in the 3rd round, when Montana was projected 5th round at most). He also covers no huddle, determine the types of runs, man-in-motion, communication, and establishing the team’s priorities among others. When making a decision Walsh lists a series of questions to answer

  1. What difference does it make what course of action you decide to adopt?
  2. Do you have sufficient information to fully analyze the issue under consideration?
  3. If you are lacking essential information, do you know how to get it?
  4. To what degree does the commitment of others to your decision depend on their active participations in the decision making process?
  5. If everyone affected by your decision in general agreement with its basic objective, no secret agenda?
  6. Do the individuals involved in your decision have the capability to implement the decision as planned?

All extreme thought provoking questions, but in trying to answer the second and third question Walsh used important advanced statistics. There are several, but the 5 most important are open field normal down and distance, backed-up near the goal line, third downs, different levels of the red zone, and blitz situations. Let’s take a look at each one.

Down and Distance

“Success rate is a key metric for almost everything I do. I define every play as a success based on down and distance — if you get 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third or fourth down, it’s a successful play” That seems simple, 5 yards on first down, 2-3 yards on second, and remaining on third. The open field, as Walsh defines it, is between your 10 and your opponent’s 30. Any time you get a first down, it is a successful play. He also wanted to get multiple first downs, before every reaching a third down. “Statistics demonstrate that only 25-35 percent of a team’s first downs are generated on third down conversions,” There are those statistics again.

Backed up

If the open field starts at your 10 yard line, then behind the 10 yard line is considered backed up. This is the area where an offense can be hazardous. A loss of yards can result in points for the opposing team and a turnover is almost a guarantee of points for the opposition. Couple that with the punter needing some room to move, and offenses become conservative, simply trying not to make a mistake.

Third Downs

Third downs are your do or die downs, since most teams will kick if they are not converted. “A statistical analysis of the more successful teams in the NFL reveals the necessity of focusing on getting the offense into a favorable third-down situation (e.g., either third-and-medium or third-and-short),” Walsh and his use of statistics.

Red Zone

Inside the 30 yard line, can you score? Also consider, the closer you get to the end zone, the less yards you have, and that limits your play calling and helps the defense (Seahawks passing on 1 yard line in Super Bowl 49 anyone? In Seattle defense, Marshawn Lynch had ran the previous play from the 1 yard line and not gotten anywhere and instead of calling timeout the Patriots lined up same personal waiting for Lynch to get the ball, so Seattle tried something different.)


If the defense knows the quarterback is throwing the ball, they are more likely to blitz (first and second and long, 3rd and more than 5). The question becomes, can the offense beat the blitz? From Walsh “All factors considered, the best way to discourage a team from blitzing is to ‘hurt it’ and to ‘hurt it big.’” So the best way to stop a team from blitzing is to let them blitz and make a big play.

These are 5 advanced statistics that Walsh thought were important enough to determine the outcome of the season. If you can improve the success rate of each statistic, both on offense and defense, your football season will be better. The questions for each team should be “Why do our advanced statistic score this way?” and “What can we do to improve them?” For the next two editions of Stats Corner we will look at the advanced statistics for the offense and the defense of the 2018 Mountain West football teams. It’s up to the coaches to determine the what and whys.