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Does Scoring First In The NFL Make You A Good Team? Or Do Good Teams Just Score First?

In the NFL, the team that scores more points wins. It’s a statement as true as it is prosaic. As the league has evolved, the volume of points scored has increased, and teams are getting more aggressive in their search for points. “Score early and often” seems the order of the day. But just how much does the early part matter? Put another way: How often does the team that scores first end up winning?

Intuitively, we would expect the win probability for the first team to score to be better than 50-50  – but maybe not by much. After all, there’s typically a lot of game left to play after the initial score. Of the 448 games played this season, just 19 remained scoreless into the second quarter, and none remained scoreless all the way to halftime. With well over three quarters left to play after the typical first score, it’s hard for the team that strikes first to be overly confident in victory. Plus, we haven’t defined the amount of this first score: Being ahead 3 points early on is obviously less advantageous than being up 7. Still, good teams typically have good offenses, so those teams are more likely to draw first blood. It’s also true that having a lead of any kind is preferable to playing from behind, no matter how much time is left. These are all reasons it’s not totally clear how much advantage there is to putting those initial points on the scoreboard.

But it turns out that getting the first score has been pretty important this season. In 2021, teams that scored first have won 63.2 percent of the time. When viewed on a week-to-week basis, the aggregate win percentage of teams that scored first has fluctuated throughout the season, dipping as low as 31 percent in Week 5. From Weeks 9 through 15, however, teams scoring first have won an impressive 75.5 percent of their games.

This season is no aberration, either. Since 2000, the first team to put points on the board went on to win 64.5 percent of the time. So scoring first seems to matter. But the question remains whether scoring early leads to winning, or if scoring first is merely a byproduct of being the better team in the first place.

It’s not a straightforward question to answer. In regular-season games played from 2000 through 2020, scoring first correlates more highly with winning percentage than other metrics,1 which can be viewed as evidence that scoring first could lead to wins. The share of games in which a team scores first explains roughly a quarter of end-of-season winning percentage. But the next strongest association I tested was with expected points added (EPA) per pass play and total EPA per play.2 Whether this means teams should pass more in an attempt to put the first points of the game on the board, or if the data is just telling us that good teams tend to pass more — and are more likely to score — is unclear. The most probable explanation is that it’s a mix of having a good offense along with a good game plan that help lead to an early score.

This season gives us some evidence in favor of this view, lending some support to the notion that scoring first isn’t just a byproduct of being a good team. 

Good offenses take more advantage of scoring first

Season wins, number of games a team scored first, a team’s win percentage in those games, and its passing, rushing and total expected points added per play through Week 15 this season

Scoring first EPA per play
team Wins Games Win % Total Rush Pass
Dallas Cowboys 10 8 100.0% +0.05 +0.02 +0.11
New Orleans Saints 7 4 100.0 -0.02 -0.07 +0.07
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10 9 88.9 +0.11 +0.06 +0.17
Denver Broncos 7 7 85.7 +0.04 -0.03 +0.12
Los Angeles Chargers 8 7 85.7 +0.10 +0.03 +0.17
Cincinnati Bengals 8 6 83.3 +0.02 -0.05 +0.10
New England Patriots 9 6 83.3 +0.05 -0.01 +0.14
Green Bay Packers 11 5 80.0 +0.12 +0.02 +0.23
Kansas City Chiefs 10 10 80.0 +0.11 +0.02 +0.18
Arizona Cardinals 10 9 77.8 +0.07 +0.01 +0.18
Buffalo Bills 8 9 77.8 +0.08 +0.00 +0.16
Los Angeles Rams 10 8 75.0 +0.11 -0.03 +0.21
Tennessee Titans 9 7 71.4 +0.02 +0.03 +0.03
Las Vegas Raiders 7 6 66.7 +0.02 -0.09 +0.12
San Francisco 49ers 8 6 66.7 +0.10 +0.04 +0.18
Indianapolis Colts 8 10 60.0 +0.10 +0.15 +0.12
Washington Football Team 6 5 60.0 -0.01 -0.05 +0.05
Pittsburgh Steelers 7 6 58.3 -0.02 -0.02 +0.01
Baltimore Ravens 8 9 55.6 +0.04 +0.03 +0.07
Cleveland Browns 7 9 55.6 +0.03 +0.06 +0.06
Houston Texans 3 6 50.0 -0.12 -0.18 -0.07
New York Jets 3 4 50.0 -0.06 -0.03 -0.06
Philadelphia Eagles 7 6 50.0 +0.07 +0.08 +0.10
Carolina Panthers 5 9 44.4 -0.08 +0.02 -0.10
Miami Dolphins 7 9 44.4 -0.02 -0.11 +0.07
Atlanta Falcons 6 7 42.9 -0.05 -0.11 +0.02
New York Giants 4 7 42.9 -0.05 -0.03 -0.04
Minnesota Vikings 7 10 40.0 +0.06 -0.04 +0.17
Chicago Bears 4 6 33.3 -0.06 -0.05 -0.04
Jacksonville Jaguars 2 3 33.3 -0.08 -0.06 -0.06
Seattle Seahawks 5 6 33.3 +0.03 -0.01 +0.06
Detroit Lions 2 5 20.0 -0.05 -0.03 -0.03

Rush EPA is per designed run. Pass EPA is per dropback.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The 7-7 New Orleans Saints are fresh off of a 9-0 shutout of the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and they have won all four games in which they scored first this season. The Saints are far from a great offensive team: they’re ranked 23rd in the league in EPA per play, 26th in play success rate, and 26th in third-down conversion rate. Perhaps relatedly, they’re only 3-7 in games where they fall behind early. Yet when they score first in a game and let their fifth-ranked defense3 play with a lead, they’re undefeated.

Another 7-7 team, the Denver Broncos, are also not scaring too many teams with their offensive prowess. They’re ranked 21st in red zone efficiency and 27th in goal-to-go efficiency, indicating that they have quite a bit of trouble finishing drives. When they do find a way to score first in a game, however, they’ve won an impressive 86 percent of the time.

Still, it’s not too difficult to find evidence that thwarts our claims to causality. In particular, it’s hard to overlook the fact that all but two of the top 12 teams in first-score win percentage have a passing EPA per dropback above the league average of 0.08. It’s also notable that just two teams in the bottom 12 have a passing EPA per dropback above league average. Of those teams in the bottom 12, the Carolina Panthers (5-9) and the Miami Dolphins (7-7) both have taken the early lead nine times so far this year only to end up losing five of those contests each. This probably shouldn’t be surprising: The Panthers have the worst passing offense in the NFL, making it hard to win a game even when they take the early lead. Meanwhile the Fins are below average in passing EPA per dropback, good for 19th in the league — coupled with the league's third worst rushing attack.

An illustration of a football.

Related: Our 2021 NFL Predictions Read more. »

And then there’s the curious case of the Minnesota Vikings. The 7-7 Vikings are tied for the league lead with 10 games in which they scored first. The other two teams – the Kansas City Chiefs and the Indianapolis Colts – each won more of those games than they lost, as we might expect from the leaguewide winning percentage for teams striking first. But Minnesota failed to turn their fast starts into a win 60 percent of the time, winning just four of 10. The Vikings didn’t fail because of a poor passing offense. Minnesota ranks seventh in the NFL in passing EPA per dropback, and third in the league in red zone efficiency. They’re not particularly horrible in any facet of the game, and their defense is middle-of-the-pack in efficiency. Perhaps they’ve just gotten a little unlucky, as their plus-19 score differential seems to suggest. But the first score hasn’t been as much of an advantage for Minnesota as it probably should be.

Whatever the ultimate cause, when a team draws first blood we can be fairly confident that they’ve become the favorite to win the game — especially if they have a decent defense. Unless, of course, they’re terrible at passing the ball. Or near the bottom of the league at running the ball. Or, perhaps worst of all, if they’re the Vikings.

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Footnotes

  1. Among a range of stats tested, including various flavors of expected points added per play.

  2. Scoring first and full-season winning percentage have a correlation of 0.49. The correlation between scoring first and passing EPA per play is 0.38, as is the correlation between scoring first and total EPA per play. Scoring first and rushing EPA per play have a correlation of 0.23.

  3. In defensive efficiency, a metric developed by ESPN.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

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