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Putting a Point Value on Special Teams

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NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

There are 3 phases to the game of football (ok, maybe 4), and one of them is consistently overlooked - special teams. At a high level, or to a new football spectator, special teams plays are inherently strange and certainly unlike all other plays from scrimmage. Their units are often viewed as wholly separate from the team; often nameless and unlikely to receive any glory. We only notice them when they really bone a play, tear a knee up while celebrating, or if they produce a truly cherished football GIF - like this one, a personal favorite:

Haha! Look at that guy. That's certainly the face of someone who is thinking, "Oh crap, I just cost my team 5.84 points," right? No? Let me explain.

Offensive and Defensive proficiency are relatively easy to analyze and capture value. Advancing the ball and scoring points, or the prevention of such, are easy to record and understand. Special teams plays usually aren't about scoring, they’re about field position. Field position is more difficult to quantify - exactly what is the difference between pinning a punt on the 1 yard line and having the ball trickle into the end zone for a touch back. Well the difference is 24 yards, but what are those yards worth? Similarly what's the value of stopping a kick returner at the 10? As fans, we're excited when this happens, stopping them short of where they're expected to be. We know that it was a good play, and we're excited. How GOOD of a play was it actually though? In what ways can we assign value to these good field position plays?

Other people have already tackled this question and I will approach it in a similar fashion, with some minor changes to the calculations. Also, I'll be focusing on the value of special teams within a game, and the cumulative value over a season, as opposed to an average per play.

Here’s where the mathy explanation begins… if you’re just interested in seeing where your team ranks, scroll down to the tables.

Let's break an example down of how we'll value punts and kickoffs. The average starting drive position after a kickoff is the 27 yardline. So, if a team kicks it through the endzone for a touchback, they've done 2 yards better than average. This is a zero sum exercise: conversely, the return team has done 2 yards worse than average by starting their drive at the 25 (whether the return team should be penalized, as they have little control over the touchback in this example, is a question for another time). Now what are those 2 yards worth? We can calculate this by assigning a point value to every yardline based on the expected number of points a team will score when starting a drive from that yardline. If you've read this site, you should be familiar with this yardline point value system. A team starting a drive at their own 27 yardline is expected to score 1.798 points. A team starting a drive at their own 25 yardline is expected to score 1.758 points. So we can say the value of that particular kickoff coverage was worth 1.798 - 1.758 = 0.04 points.

For normal kicks and punts, this is essentially the same as Brian Fremeau’s approach to valuing special teams (I’m including garbage time and looking at things cumulatively or game to game). This is all just to say this method works pretty well in other areas and special teams – I’m just tweaking things. An important point to understand is that using this system, kickoff return TDs are not worth 7 points, they're worth about 5.2 points. This is because the return team scored 7 points but was expected to leave their offense in a position (at the 27 yardline) in which they're expected to score 1.758 points - the relative number of points gained by the return team over average is 7 - 1.758 = 5.242 points.

Now the method above of calculating value is pretty simple and straightforward for regular kickoffs and punts, but it doesn't address turnovers on special teams plays very well. Let's say the returning team fumbles the kickoff and the kicking team recovers at the 10 yard line. This is a huge play! You've taken an entire drive away from the other team, and you get the ball 10 yards away from the end zone. Using that logic, the value of this play for the kicking team is the value of taking away the opportunity of the return team to start a drive at the average starting kick return position (own 27 yardline, 1.758 points) PLUS the value of starting their own new drive at the opponents 10 yardline (4.750 points). So the kickoff coverage team has generated 1.758 + 4.750 = 6.508 points of value. I recognize that this means a coverage team recovering a fumble near the goal line is worth more points than the return team getting a return TD - I think its ok, you might not… argue with me here or below.

Ok, we can assign a value to any kickoff or punt. Let's move on to field goals. For a made field goal, the value is 3 minus the expected points for a field goal from that same yardline. Say a FG at the 30 yardline is made 66% of the time, then the expected points on a FG from the 30 yardline is 2 points (3 * 66%). If a team makes a FG from the 30, then the value of that play above average is 3 - 2 = 1 point. The difficult part here is how to value a missed or blocked field goal. Not only is the kicking team not converting points, but they are often leaving the opponent with good field position. I'll treat this similar to a turnover on a kickoff or punt - the value of a missed field goal for the defense is the expected value of the FG PLUS the expected number of points for the offense on the resulting drive.

There are one or two issues with valuing things this way. We'll sometimes be penalizing teams for things over which they have no control. To this author, there is no obvious and simple way to separate a coverage's team skill from the return team's lack of skill or vice versa. Also, we may be giving too much credit for turnovers.

If you've decided to skip all the mathy explainers, you can begin reading again. Here are the total points gained or lost due to special teams so far in 2016:

A couple of notes:

- Oklahoma has yielded 10 points on special teams this year, ranking 123rd. It will be interesting to watch and see if it bites them against Ohio State this week

- Many of the top units from 2015 pepper the leader board so far this year as well.

I also looked at the special teams value added within each game with 3 questions in mind.

1. How often does the team that wins the special teams battle win the game?

2. What games' final scores were within enough points that you could say "Special Teams won this game"?

3. Is special teams acumen a repeatable skill week to week for each team?

Question 1: Teams that win the special teams battle since the start of 2015 season have won 62% of the time.

Question 2: This happens often, but some notable ST performances from Week 2 were:

· Navy special teams were worth 6 points in a 4 point win over Connecticut. This was mainly due to a couple 20 yard punt returns (one to the Uconn 17) by Navy and recovering a fumbled kickoff (which led to a missed FG)

· As a K-State grad, I'm always happy to point out the Jayhawks shortcomings. Kansas special teams were worth -11 points in 16 point loss to Ohio. The Kansas punter had 6 punts averaging only 31 yards. This is how Ohio's punt team fared throughout the game: downed at the 1 (ensuing safety), fumble recovery, downed at the 8, fumble recovery, out at the 12. That's a heck of a day for a punt team.

· San Diego State's special teams were worth 5.3 points in a game they won by 5 over Cal.

Click here to see a table of all games so far this year.

Question 3: TBD. Still researching, hoping to share conclusive results soon! The hope is that if Special Teams proficiency is a repeatable skill that we could predict it and leverage the results of Question 1 for picking winners. Maybe we’ll be able to prove that Jim Tressel’s comment, “The punt is the most important play,” is in fact True!

Have thoughts, comments, ideas for additions or new stats, qualms, or just wanna write to say I suck? Yell at me @RadDad_17 or here in the comments.