For some teams, a possession ages like fine wine; for others, not so much
There are many ways to look at a team’s offensive performance. The simplest are usually the most insightful. Offensive efficiency tells us how many goals a team scores per possession, and it’s the best way to compare offenses, especially when they play at different paces.
Another way to look at offensive performance is to break it down into smaller subsets. Could be by game, so you can see the effect of the opposing defense. I like to look at how a team does based on the way that a possession starts (face-off win vs ground ball for example). Another way that I haven’t explored until now is breaking down an offense by possession length.
Aging like wine or rotting like cheese?
Over the course of the year, a team has hundreds of offensive possessions, and they are each of different lengths. There tend to be more possessions that are shorter than longer. Most are between 20 and 60 seconds long. But there is enough variation in this that bucketing possessions based on how long they are can be useful.
For one thing, as possessions get longer, an offense has more chances to probe a defense, find a weakness, and a scoring chance. Looking at that another way, they also have more chances to turn the ball over. So the profile of an offense that is better as the clock ticks deeper into a possession could be different than an offense whose performance drops as they hold the ball longer. But they may have the same overarching offensive statistics.
It’s even possible that breaking down offensive performance by possession length can tell us something about how an offense is likely to fare against a specific defense. That’ll be for another day though. For now, I just wanted to share the initial cut of the data that I put together.
The full table for all D1 men’s teams can be found here. Below, you’ll find the top 10 offenses (measured by overall offensive efficiency) as well as their respective rankings on possessions of varying lengths.
|Team||Overall||<30s Eff Rank||30-60s Eff Rank||> 60s Eff Rank|
In terms of sample size, we are looking at significant chunks here. At this point in the season, most teams have more than 400 possessions in total, and they are generally split fairly evenly in each of these buckets. Teams play different styles, so there is a lot of variation in the distribution of course. We can be fairly comfortable that at this point, these are fundamental characteristics of these offenses, not just statistical noise.
Don’t let the Bison roam
As a first example, from the data, we can see that Bucknell stands out. The Bison boast the #4 offense in the country as of this writing. Our database contains 440 total possessions for them on the year. When we break that down by possession length, it looks like this:
- Less than 30 seconds: 116 possessions & 19% efficiency (rank=48th nationally)
- Between 30 and 60 seconds: 124 possessions & 44% efficiency (rank=4th)
- Greater than 60 seconds: 200 possessions & 44% efficiency (rank=2nd)
I’m not sure what you make of that if you are a defense, but Bucknell is clearly a team that gets better as the possession ages. Maybe this is the effect of having an otherworldy set-up man in Will Sands. But if I’m an opposing defense, perhaps I consider a more aggressive attacking mentality to either force a quick shot or cause a turnover. This suggests that playing it safe and hunkering down on D is not going to work against this team.
Blue Devil Quick Strike
Duke is the opposite example. It appears that the 3rd ranked Blue Devils offense is more effective in quick possessions than in longer possessions. Their breakdown looks like this:
- Less than 30 seconds: 177 possessions & 32% efficiency (rank=5th)
- Between 30 and 60 seconds: 138 possessions & 44% efficiency (rank=5th)
- Greater than 60 seconds: 187 possessions & 33% efficiency (rank=25th)
If I’m a defense against Duke, I am taking the opposite tact. Hunker down, try to avoid giving up any quick chances, and wait for the Duke offense to falter. If you are able to hang tough for 60 seconds, the Duke offense becomes much more pedestrian.
An interesting side note: the offenses clearly play to these strengths. 177 of the 502 Duke possessions (35%) ended within 30 seconds. For Bucknell, 116 of the 400 possessions (26%) ended within 30 seconds. There is some intention at play here.
This is across-the-board
Looking at these numbers in aggregate, it’s clear that no team is exceptional in every situation. Pat Spencer’s Loyola squad is the closest to the exception. But if you look at these top 10 offenses, every one of them is outside the top 10 in at least one length bucket.
Sure, Loyola at #11 is not that bad, but if you take the worst performing bucket for each team, and average them, you get 29.9. That is, in the wrong situation, these top offenses become effectively average. If I’m a defensive coordinator, my focus is always how to make a good offense look like a middling one. This gives one clue about how they might go about doing that.
So what do we take away from this? As I mentioned, there is much more work that can be done here, especially to see whether these profiles make a difference in terms of outcomes. It’s possible that this sort of stuff is helpful in assessing matchups. Or not.
But as you watch the rest of the season and the playoffs, these profiles can be a helpful benchmark.
If you are watching Duke and they are being forced to pull up on offense and grind out possessions, that bodes well for the defense. If Bucknell is lazily probing the defense without getting out of whack, that definitely does not bode well for the defense.
Lacrosse’s biggest fan in the NFL coaching ranks is notorious for taking away an opponent’s strength. A good defense should be trying to nudge the opponent into a certain attacking style. That is the essence of defense: the offense wants to do one thing, you have to make them do something else.
Now you have a sense for what each offense wants to do and what they don’t.