It doesn’t take a degree in Advanced Footballology to know that marching down the field and then scoring in the red zone leads to wins. Conversely, a team that can’t score touchdowns in that part of the field is probably going to be in for a long season. But should teams that find themselves in either situation — on fire in the red area or ice-cold — expect things to continue as the season wears on? Or does luck and regression to the mean dominate results inside the 20? And if so, can we assess team performance in the red zone in a slightly different way?
Starting off the season hot is always better than the alternative, and no one has started the season hotter than the unbeaten Miami Dolphins. The Fins have been especially great in the red zone, averaging almost 0.5 expected points added per play across 20 snaps, best in the NFL through Week 3. Considering their newly minted reputation as an explosive passing team, Miami has scored in the red area just how you might expect: Five of the team’s seven red zone touchdowns have come on passes from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa,1 and running back Chase Edmonds has added a couple of scores on goal-line runs.
But while the Dolphins’ excellent red zone efficiency has certainly contributed to their perfect 3-0 start, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to rely on it to win over the rest of the season. Thirteen other teams have started the year with similar red zone efficiency numbers to Miami since 2016, and not one was able to maintain its efficiency going forward. Six of the 13 averaged negative EPA per play in the red zone over the rest of the year; taken together, the 13 teams regressed to nearly league-average efficiency inside the 20.
On the bright side, Miami looks like a team that won’t lose all of its early gains. The Dolphins appear to have too many offensive weapons to suffer the fate of Jared Goff and the 2021 Detroit Lions, for instance, who went from averaging 0.42 EPA per play in the first three weeks of 2021 to -0.26 EPA per play over the rest of the season. But history suggests maintaining such a torrid start is close to impossible. If we embiggen the sample and look at the 30 most efficient red zone offenses since 2016, those teams collectively also did only slightly better than average, averaging just 0.02 EPA per play over the rest of the season.
If hot starts in the red zone portend future decline, maybe there’s a silver lining for teams who started the season poorly inside the 20. It would be good news for the Denver Broncos, a team that has had twice as many fumbles (two) than touchdowns (one) in the red area.
Denver finally got off the red zone schneid against the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday, when running back Melvin Gordon ran through a Fred Warner tackle for a late fourth-quarter touchdown from 1 yard out. But for the season, the Broncos’ futility inside the 20 has been the worst in the league by far. Denver’s red zone offense has few recent historical comps, as its lowly -0.67 EPA per play is the third-worst by any team to start a season since 2016.
Still, there’s hope for Denver in the red area — at least if the 2020 New York Jets were any indication. Despite only winning two games, the Jets’ red zone offense wasn’t as bad as their awful -0.80 EPA per play start made them seem, and they improved by over 0.5 EPA per play as the season went along. That was indicative of the overall rule for teams with rough red zone starts: Just like with the teams who started off the season hot inside the 20, cold teams also tend to revert to league-average play over the course of the season.
And this general finding holds for all NFL teams, not just ones who were exceptionally great or horrible inside the 20. Once a team gets into the red zone, over a seasonlong time horizon, most revert to league average efficiency. Perhaps this has to do with the compressed field close to the end zone, which allows the defense to cover more grass. Perhaps defenses save their best effort for when their back is against the wall. Or perhaps red zone plays simply represent a small sample relative to a team’s overall snap count,2 creating the perfect conditions for fluky early results that get evened out later.
Whatever the reason, instead of expecting teams to make more out of their opportunities in the red zone, perhaps teams should look to a different goal: getting more red zone opportunities, period. Red zone snaps are a little like NFL draft picks, in that if you’re pretty sure you don’t have a major edge in player evaluation, it makes sense to just accumulate more of them. The same logic applies to the red zone, and the math backs it up. Early season red zone snaps are a much better predictor of future red zone snaps than early season EPA per play in the red area predicts future red zone EPA per play.3 In other words, if you want to know how productive a team will be in the red zone going forward, it’s probably better to know how many chances it has had, not how efficient it has been.
Through this opportunity-based view of red zone success, Miami’s 20 total snaps — good for 21st in the NFL — don’t look quite so great. And while Denver clearly should work on trying not to fumble the ball at the goal line, it should also boost its snap total to near those of the league leader through three weeks: The 2-1 Jacksonville Jaguars. Besides being yet another data point supporting the legitimacy of Jacksonville’s early season record, the Jags’ 45 red zone snaps make them one of the best bets for future red zone production.
Ultimately, when it comes to NFL teams in the red zone, just showing up is a big part of the battle. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, it’s often more important than what you do once you get there.
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